Advice on how to adapt your language for the learner.

When I did my CELTA certificate, my tutors commented that I don't adapt my language appropriately to the learners. I have now been working for a few years and still have problems with this. Are there grammar structures which would best be avoided with beginners - low intermediate learners? Any tips?

Gilda Gordon

Hi Gilda,

It's been traditional in teacher training in the past few decades to emphasise the importance of teachers 'grading' their language to the level of the class they're teaching – in other words, only using grammar and vocabulary that the class have 'learned', or 'met', or 'done'. This is obviously due to a concern that learners should be in a position to understand what their teacher says; it also fits with a more general recommendation that teachers should minimise the amount of talking they do, so as not to take up too much classroom time which could be used more valuably by the learners.

If you wanted to restrict your classroom talk to what the class have come across already, it would in theory be a fairly simple matter to refer to the coursebook or syllabus, or your accumulated recollection of lessons so far, and construct a mental corpus of the language you could allow yourself to use. In practice, it's not so easy to know exactly what learners know, or what they will recognise in spoken form. Nor is it easy to actually restrict what you say when you're in the middle of a lesson and you've got dozens of other things to think about. If you say something like "Pass your book to the person on your right" in an elementary class, for instance, it may be that:

  • Some members of the class understand perfectly.

  • One learner recognises the word 'pass' but gets stuck on trying to remember what it means, and loses track of the rest of the instruction.

  • Another one interprets the last word as 'write', and gets confused.

  • Another one is still struggling to segment the stream of speech they've heard into identifiable words.

And so on. Nevertheless, practising being absolutely clear and minimal is a useful discipline, for the times when you want to say something once, be understood instantly and move things along as efficiently as possible. Here are a couple of things that can help with this discipline:

  1. It would be absurd to try to script entire lessons – you can't predict what will happen even in the most controlled and tightly-planned lesson. But in some lessons there are things – instructions, explanations, announcements – which you know you'll need to deliver and which can be scripted. So write them down and ask yourself: Is this as short, simple and clear as it can be? If not, edit it until it is. And then practise saying it, in a voice that's loud and clear but not unnaturally over-articulated. 

  2. Record yourself teaching. Listen to bits of lessons where you're talking to the class, and if there are moments where they didn't understand – or didn't understand quickly and easily – ask yourself why not. Perhaps you inadvertently used a phrase they don't know? Perhaps you spoke too fast, or unclearly? Perhaps an instruction you gave was linguistically simple but just too long? Perhaps you didn't make sure you had everybody's attention before you started speaking? If you carry out this kind of investigation on a regular basis you're likely to become more aware of doing these things as they happen, and better able to reformulate immediately.

However, it probably isn't a good idea to try and restrict teacher talk to this extent all the time. After all, the teacher is the best speaker of English in the class (probably!) and can play a very important role in providing listening and conversation practice, and putting new language into circulation. Here are some examples of how these things can happen:

In a beginner's class, you might think "I can't ask them 'Have you finished?', because they haven't done the present perfect." But as long as they know the word 'finish' (maybe as a noun in a sports context) it'll probably be quite easy for them to interpret 'Have you finished?' at the end of a small-group activity, especially because the 'have you' is phonetically non-prominent, and a listener's attention is drawn to 'finished'. You might even choose to give them some more exposure by moving round the room to different groups saying something like: "Have you finished? Good. What about you? You've finished, they've finished ... What about you? Have you finished, too?" (Notice that you're also introducing – or maybe recycling - the question 'What about you?', which will be useful on innumerable other occasions.) Maybe some learners will want to repeat and learn 'Have you finished?' or 'What about you?', or to try to work out the form 'We've finished' or 'We haven't finished' – if so, help them and correct them if necessary, but don't insist on it; the main point is exposure and recognition. On a different occasion you might ask "Are you ready?", perhaps by equating 'ready' with 'finished' ("Are you ready? Have you finished? Are you ready?) or by providing an L1 translation of 'ready', if feasible.

Translation is one kind of support. Another one is demonstration. The first time you ask a class to 'stand up', stand up with them. The second time, remain sitting down and see whether they know what to do – whether you can withdraw the support, or whether they need it a bit longer.

The important thing is not so much "Do they know this already?" but rather "How can I make this accessible to them?" By making regular use of these procedures, you can help the class to develop their ability and confidence in understanding language which is 'above their level', and also to pay attention to this new language (and ask about it and try to reproduce it if they want to) so that it gradually becomes available for acquisition and active use.

At slightly higher levels, you can tell anecdotes that contain lots of unfamiliar language, if you provide support for understanding the key points: translations, explanations, drawings or real objects for key vocabulary, a street map on the board to illustrate an anecdote about how you got lost, and so on. Benefits of this kind of activity can include:

  1. Practice in extended, 'receptive' listening.

  2. Practice in interactive listening, for example using checking and clarifying devices like "So did you cross the bridge, or not?", "Can you go back to the bit where you said ......?", "What did you say about .....?", "I didn't catch what you said about ....."

  3. Concentrated exposure to language that you want the class to begin and learn to use themselves later on (e.g. " ... so I went straight on till I came to a bridge, because she'd said 'Just go straight on, straight on till you come to the bridge, cross over the bridge and turn left – it's the first turning on the left' so I crossed the bridge and turned left, but I missed the first turning 'cos it was just a footpath, and I took the second turning on the left, and .....")

  4. Practice in ignoring language that is unknown but non-essential – in a 'getting lost' story, you might deliberately include something like "I shouldn't have taken the first turning" or "past factories, warehouses, railway sidings and stuff" and indicate by not highlighting these elements – by saying them fast, low down in the voice range and perhaps a bit unclearly - that they are secondary, non-essential.

In other words, by NOT grading very strictly what we say to learners – right from the very first lesson - we can give them practice in dealing with some of the challenges they face in listening to English outside the classroom, and at the same time give them opportunities for exposure to, and familiarisation with, new language which is contained, perhaps in a particularly high concentration, in extended stretches of speech. Being able to 'grade' is an important teacher skill, but so is knowing when not to.