More ways of simplifying your classroom language

By Alex Case

1. Stress
One of the problems students often have trying to understand the teacher speaking is picking out the important information from all the things they say. One way of helping them with this is just stressing the words they really need to understand more than you would usually (making sure it still sounds like English rather than Italian of course!) You can prepare and train yourself for this by marking the stress on any explanations you have written down.

2. Repeat yourself
Using the same phrases every time you start the class, ask them to work in pairs, want them to open their books, want to ask them about their weekend etc. will help them understand by context and give them the confidence that they can actually understand or at least respond correctly to things they hear in English even without understanding every word. You can also use those phrases once they have heard them many times to introduce future grammar points, e.g. use “How was your weekend?” from the first lesson of the course and then use it for the Past Simple grammar presentation several weeks later.

3. Give them written instructions
This will allow each student to take their time, allow them to help each other understand, and allow them to use their dictionaries. It is also great reading practice, as unlike most reading tasks there are obvious negative consequences if they don’t understand properly and a clear motivation to understand.

4. Look up important words in a bilingual dictionary
Even if you have a policy of not using L1 in the English class, at least you will be able to confirm when they think they have understood, e.g. answering “Do you mean ‘madrugada’?” This could also help you spot potential similarities and differences and difficulties, such as false friends.

5. Use similar words and structures to L1
For example, if there are two English words like “hint” and “clue” and one is more similar to the one used in L1, stick to that one until the other word is a specific point you want to introduce, e.g. it comes up in the textbook.

6. Be explicit
For example, include relative pronouns that could be left out, use names rather than pronouns, use linking expressions like “on the other hand” even when you naturally wouldn’t, and include time clauses as well as the right tense.

7. Think about the grammar too
Teachers often concentrate too much on eliminating the difficult vocabulary in their explanations and end up leaving in grammar that students don’t know yet or that could have been simplified.

8. Avoid homophones and difficult minimal pairs
Another reason students don’t understand that isn’t often given the priority of vocabulary is words that are difficult to understand for pronunciation reasons.

9. Avoid short forms
Students are going to have to get used to the fact that native speakers use lots of short forms like “we’d’ve” and that “I’m” has a very different meaning to “I AM!” sooner or later (unless they are only interested in communicating with other non-native speakers), but during a grammar explanation is probably not the best time to have to take a diversion and explain that you meant “they’re” rather than “their” or “there”.

10. Avoid phrasal verbs
This is by far the most difficult part of the English language, and even students who are familiar with the phrasal verb you are using will probably need to use their brains more to interpret it than if you had used a more formal equivalent, taking their attention away from the content of what you are trying to explain. Writing explanations you are going to use, or used and were difficult to understand, and specifically checking for phrasal verbs is good for this, or you could introduce similar sentences in a workshop and work together to find the simplest way of replacing the phrasal verbs.

11. Reduce the mental load
Students are sometimes distracted and confused by non-language factors such as mention of unfamiliar people and places, other cultural factors, difficult logical connections etc, and this can make comprehension of the language more difficult. You can practice simplifying these factors by checking for each one in each explanation you have found or written down, or by analysing each lack of understanding or very extended explanation in the class for why it happened. You could also ask an observer to concentrate on looking for that point when they come into your lesson. This can also be brought into a workshop by analysing each sentence for why the misunderstanding happened, including examples of non-language complications, or (more fun) adding those complications to language that is otherwise nice and simple, e.g. changing a question about a textbook character into “Is Ricky Gervais fat?”

12. Teach classroom language
Many lower level textbooks have a specific focus on language like “How do you spell…?” or “Close your books”. There are also games for this point like Simon Says that can be used with some adult classes. Alternatively, you can give them a sheet with translated phrases like “See you next week” and “Work in pairs” translated into L1 before they start the course or have a similar poster on the wall. You can combine the two by getting students to make posters of useful classroom language. A third possibility is to bring classroom language into as many lessons on the syllabus as you can, e.g. when teaching imperatives, prepositions, modals of prohibition or transitive and intransitive verbs.

13. Be observed/ observe
Ask anyone who observes you to concentrate specifically on this, e.g. writing down each time there is a misunderstanding or explanations take two or three attempts and why it happened, or analysing the difference between the language suggested in the textbook or on your lesson plan and what you actually said. In either case, make sure the observer gives some positive feedback on when things went right as well. You can observe other classes for the same factors, giving them feedback or not as they wish. This is useful if you observe more experienced teachers (for what they do right) or less experienced teachers (to spot things you didn’t realise you were also doing). If you have any non-native speaker teachers you can watch, they can be particularly good illustrations either for their ability to see what problems students have understanding or for their tendency to use difficult words just because they’ve learnt them and they want to use them.

14. Imagine you are a student
Picture asking a specific (lowish level) student in your class to explain the thing you are going to in the next class, and imagine the language they would use to explain it  to the other students. That is the kind of language you will need to use (but without errors and pidgin English), especially with a class that are losing confidence in their ability to understand you (if that is not a problem, you can push the level up a little to use instructions language etc as another source of language learning)

15. Elicit
For example, asking students to explain the language first will allow you to respond to what they say with a simple sentence (maybe even as short as “Yes, that’s right!”) or give you some simple language from them that you can use in your own explanation. If you are really in trouble, it is also a good delaying tactic!

Written by Alex Case for September 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Ricardo Ayllon says:

    I need to introduce the simple present tense through lead-in question to low students, How can I make task question with out use this tense?

  • celeste de leon says:


    Can you help me, please?
    Do you have more explanation of the folowing intransitive, transitive, and linking verbs.

    Thank you so much.

  • John Brezinsky says:

    Hi Alex,

    As always, this is a great set of recommendations. Simplifying language can be a not-so-simple task, but you’ve laid out several suggestions that will help even veteran instructors.

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