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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 (A or B) 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.  See the guide to teacher talk, linked below, for more on this.
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
    I saw him crossing the road
at B1 level?
Click here when you have an answer.


Questions from learners

Try some more

Here's a set of common language questions.  Think about how you would explain the issue and then click on the eye open to reveal some ideas.

What's the difference between
    I am working in London
    I work in London?
eye open
Time lines will help a bit to show that the first one is a temporary state and the second is more permanent.  There is a guide to using time lines on this site.
It will also be helpful to elicit or supply the fact that the speaker knows when the work will stop in the first one but probably not in the second.
The first type of sentence will also often be used with a time adverbial such as this year, at the moment, for a few months etc.
Which do you say:
I am studying English this year or I study English this year?
    I'm drinking coffee with John tomorrow
eye open
Grammatically, yes, but most English people say "I'm having coffee".
We can do the same with meals, e.g., "I'm having lunch with a friend next Thursday".
Can you make some sentences with these words: dinner, a beer, a bath, a shower, a holiday, a bit of trouble etc.?
Can you think of any more examples when we use 'have'?
(This may also be an appropriate time to point out that we can't use the meaningless got with the verb in this sense.)
    He has gone to America
eye open
Tell me more.
Is he in America now? No? Then you say "He has been to America (in his life)".
Has he come home now?  Yes?  Then it's "He went to America".
You only want 'has gone' when someone has left and not come back.
Can you think of someone who has gone somewhere?  Where is she now?
What's the difference between high and tall?
eye open
They both mean 'long' but up and down not side to side.  Like this:
long is this way: and tall and high are this way: .
The noun is important.  'high' is used for big things like mountains or buildings but we use 'tall' for living things like people, trees and so on.
What would you use for these words: skyscraper, TV mast, John, glass, plant, church tower
Which is better: put off or postpone?
eye open
They both mean the same thing: change something so you do it later.  Which one do you think is formal and which one informal?
Which one do you write in a business letter?
In an email to a friend?
In a conversation with me?
What do you think is the difference between cancel and call off?

Notice that the explanation is clear but the teacher always checks that it has been understood.



There is a guide devoted to mistakes, slips and errors, linked below, which you can go on to now, if you like.

Related guides
error essentials it's just as important to be clear and unambiguous when correcting learners and this guide considers how that's done
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?