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Concourse 2

Being clear


A key skill for an English language teacher, especially one whose setting requires only the use of English in class is to make instructions, explanation and corrections clear and unambiguous, whatever the learners' level.  Mostly, it comes with experience but this guide is designed to short-cut some of the more painful learning.


Getting the instruction across

think write Task 1: To start off, which of the following do you believe is the easiest alternative to understand for elementary students and why?
1 Please push the door to Please close the door
2 You need to listen carefully Please listen carefully
3 Please see me here later if you want to enter the examination Do you want to take the examination?  Yes?  See me later
4 Please be on time.  It’s very important It’s really important to be on time
5 Hand in your answers now Give me your answers now
6 What did you do? What have you been doing?
7 OK.  Groups of three.  You three, you three, you three and you three [gestures] Now I'd like you to get into teams of three people
8 Right.  Page 55 [shows book page] Please look at page 55 in your coursebook

Click here when you have made a note of some ideas.

General rules

  1. Avoid multi-word verbs, such as come along, hand in, speak up etc., at lower levels.  They are routinely misunderstood.
  2. Avoid politeness phrases such as I would like you to ... or What I would like you to do is ... .  They are redundant in instructions and muddy the message.  You can be friendly and polite by facial expression and tone of voice.
  3. Avoid complex tenses when simple ones will do.
  4. Demonstrate and show people what is required whenever you can.
  5. Break messages down and try to avoid coordinating or subordinating conjunctions (like but, and or if, when respectively).

This may all seem rather obvious but it is surprising how often simple rules are forgotten under stress.

Making instructions clear is a real skill that many almost never master.  The first step it to look at your lesson plan and script exactly what you are going to say for each stage for which you need to give an instruction.  After a while, it becomes automatic.



The general rule

There are those who will tell you that Teacher-Talking Time (TTT) is always A Bad Thing.  It is not necessarily true but the quality of teacher talk is important.
The general rule is to try to keep your talking to a minimum by explaining things graphically and by eliciting as much as you can from your learners.  You know the answer and your job is to get your learners to see it.
It is not your job to talk about language or give mini-lectures.

think write Task 2: There are four things that a good explanation has to be.  Can you think what they are?

Click here when you have made a note of some ideas.

Some exercises and examples

think Task 3: How would you explain the difference between I'll cook dinner and I'm cooking dinner at A2 level?
Click here when you have an answer.

Try another one

think Task 3: How would you draw a sketch to explain the difference between I saw him cross the road and I saw him crossing the road at B1 level?
Click here when you have an answer.


It's just as important to be clear and unambiguous when correcting learners.  There is a guide devoted to mistakes, slips and errors which you can go on to now, if you like.

Related guides
using time lines the guide concerning being clear about time and tense
error for a guide to how to recognise, classify and respond to error
context whatever the type of activity or task you use, context is something to strive for to promote clarity in presentations
teacher talk for a guide to what teacher need to be able to do with language to be simply, clear and unambiguous
asking good questions to see how questions should be posed to make the most of their use in the classroom
dealing with error for the guide to correction techniques and correction policies
learner talk for a guide to the other side: what do learners need to be able to do in the classroom?