Simplifying your classroom language

By Alex Case

1. Write it down
For example, write down an explanation or two for each piece of vocabulary you think they might ask about and check it for simplicity using criteria like those explained in the points below. You could ask a manager, more experienced teacher or teacher who has more experience with that specific level or nationality to check if your explanations are easy enough, or even ask the same question on a teaching forum. Other things you might want to write down include instructions for activities, grammar explanations and concept check questions.

2. Use an Elementary learners’ dictionary
Especially if you are going to write down what explanations you are going to use, an English English dictionary of the right level can be a great tool. To make sure that you don’t rely on it too much and make its use part of a training regime to simplify your own language, it is generally best to write your own explanation down first and then check in a dictionary or two if anything about how they explained it is better than your attempt.

3. Copy a grammar explanation from a low level book
As with using a learners’ dictionary, it is usually best to work on your own explanation first and then check against book versions. Check that any simpler explanations don’t miss out the meanings or exceptions that the rest of the lesson includes.

4. Copy the instructions from the book
Some books have instructions for you to tell the students or photocopy and give to them. If not, you can rewrite the instructions for the teacher to make them comprehensible to the students, and use that as the basis of what you say in class.

5. Take the books into the classroom
If you get stuck in an explanation and can’t move on until they get it, there is no shame in turning to a book such as a dictionary to find an explanation or translation they can understand, as the students will usually think it’s their own fault they don’t understand you rather than a lack of knowledge on your part!

6. Write about it
For example, writing an article about different games for the Present Perfect can be a great way of making sure your instruction language is perfectly clear and concise. Comparing grammar or vocabulary explanations from different books could also make a great article or blog post and be good practice for improving your own explanations, as can critiquing a single book.

7. Workshops
Leading or taking part in workshops on any of the topics mentioned in Write About It above is great practice for simplifying your classroom language. More interesting ways of approaching what can seem a dull topic include teams competing to write the best explanations, “battle of the dictionaries/ grammar books” to find which one is best for 3 topics you pick, the speaking game Taboo (define a word without saying any of the related words written on the card), ranking activities (see below) and roleplays where one teacher pretends to be a student with a particularly limited vocabulary. Another one is taking a simple sentence, adding complicating language to it and seeing if the other people in the group can guess the original version- maybe leading on to analysing what kind of language added complication.

8. Translate
Write out what you want to say in a language you don’t know very well, then translate it back into English without making the language more complicated.

9. Learn a language
Even if you don’t use the language directly as suggested in Translate above, learning to express yourself in a language that you only know a limited vocabulary in is good practice for doing the same in English in the classroom. Activities you can do in L2 that are particularly useful to develop the skill of expressing yourself in simple language include Taboo (see above) and other games where your partner has to guess which word you are defining.

10. Use a word list
Various word lists are available from textbooks, exam boards and researchers including words students should know at each level. When you’ve decided what your explanation will be, check it against such a list and eliminate or change any words that are not included at that level. This is also another way of using a dictionary, either by checking if the word is in a dictionary meant for students of that level at all or by checking it against the symbols many modern dictionaries use to show the core vocabulary. One thing to check for is that the meaning of the word on the word list is the same as the meaning you are using, e.g. avoiding idiomatic uses.

11. Mime
Deciding on how mime could be used to explain vocabulary gives you something you can use to back up your explanation (you might want to miss out the mime the first time you explain with occasional classes that get to rely too much on such clues and don’t listen), and also helps you simplify the language to the level of something that can be mimed.

12. Draw
This is similar to Mime above, in that it makes your explanation clearer by supporting it and also makes you think more deeply about how the explanation itself can be simplified to fit in with the drawing.

13. Rank
Write down all the grammar or vocabulary explanations you can come up with or find for the point you are going to teach and rank them from the simplest to understand to the most difficult. Eliminate the ones that don’t include the specific meaning(s) you want to introduce, and then select the one that is the right level for your students. If you are having problems making yourself understood in that class, maybe choose one that is a level or two lower than the level of their class. This ranking activity works particularly well if you do it with someone else, for example as part of a workshop. You can do the same thing for suitable classroom language for different level classes.

14. Write it up
Writing up a grammar explanation, vocabulary explanation etc. makes it easier for students who have problems with listening comprehension, and also gives them something they can easily look up in their dictionaries or grammar reference books (at the time or later at home).

15. Stop writing things up
For some other teachers, the fact that they can always resort to writing difficult words up on the board so students can use their dictionaries etc is a crutch that needs to be taken away before they can really train themselves to only say things the students already understand. Stopping use of the board might also make the students listen more carefully, and so make explaining to them easier.

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


  • Alex Case says:

    Thanks for your comments guys

    Part two of this article is here:

  • Didik says:

    What an extraordinary news for EFL teachers!
    Thanks a lot. Maturnuwun sanget! (Javanese language)

  • sumandeep says:

    Your sugessions r good but send some daily use sentance and some matter which help us to speak english

  • serap kakan says:

    sometimes to teach a quıte different language in a few words and give their meaning in english is useful

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