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Concourse 2

Learner talk


Teachers, of course, have to able to communicate lots of ideas and express functions in the classroom.  There is an associated guide to teacher talk on this site (new tab).
Learners, too, need to be able to function communicatively in the classroom and they need to have the resources to do that.


What do learners need to be able to do in the classroom?

If learners are to get the most from your classroom, they need to have some control.  Controlling what happens to you is mostly to do with using language appropriately.
In the classroom, this is called metalanguage because it only has a classroom function.  Most of the exponents can, however, be used in other settings.

think Task 1: What kinds of things do learners need to get done:
– with each other?
– with the teacher?
When you have thought of a short list, check here.

At more advanced levels, most learners are able to do all of this quite appropriately most of the time.  However, especially (but not only) at lower levels, these functions and their exponents need to be taught.

think Task 2: What exponents of these functions should you focus on with (especially) lower-level students?
Think about each function and then click on eye open for some ideas.  Your ideas may be different (of course).
There are many ways to do all these things.
Function Possible exponents (lower level) Possible exponents (higher level)
What learners need to use language for with classmates
telling and explaining
eye open
  • It means 'not easy'
  • It is the opposite of ...
  • The 'it' stands for ...
  • It's like ...
  • It's the same as ...
starting a task
eye open
  • Let's begin with ...
  • Who's first?
  • You go first
  • I'll start
  • OK.  Do you want to start?
asking about / giving opinions
eye open
  • What do you think?
  • Tell me what you think
  • I think it's ...
  • I don't think it's a good idea to ...
agreeing and disagreeing
eye open
  • I agree
  • Yes, that's right
  • Good idea!
  • I don't think it's ...
  • I'm not so sure
  • Are you sure?
eye open
  • Come on.  Let's start.
  • You do one.
  • It's your turn.
  • We can do this!
What learners need to use language for when interacting with the teacher
asking questions about: meaning, form, pronunciation
eye open
  • What does ........ mean?
  • What's' the opposite of ...
  • Can you give me another word for ... ?
  • Can I say ... ?
  • What's the past tense of ... ?
  • Is it irregular?
  • How do you spell it?
  • Where's the stress?
  • How do you pronounce it / this word?
asking for clarification
eye open
  • I didn't understand
  • Can you explain again, please?
  • What's the difference between ... and ...
  • Is it the same as ... ?
asking for repetition
eye open
  • Can you repeat, please?
  • Can you say that again?
eye open
  • I'm sorry I'm late / I didn't do the homework etc.
  • I'm afraid I didn't listen / don't remember etc.
  • I don't know, I'm afraid
eye open
  • I thought it was ...
  • I didn't have time to ...
  • I didn't understand enough to ...
  • I haven't finished
  • We haven't started yet


Teaching the exponents

This can't all be done at once.
Before you set a task in pairs or groups, check that the learners have the metalanguage to be able to negotiate with each other and ask questions.
Nearly all of these exponents can be taught as language chunks without spending time explaining the meanings of all the words or delving too far into the grammar.

One idea is to have a classroom poster which is permanently on display and which you can use to practise polite intonation and other pronunciation features.  Like this (the are called 'class callouts', by the way):


This can, of course, be extended almost indefinitely with many other exponents of all the functions listed above added as time goes by.


Matching the task and the language

It is worth considering, at the planning stage, what metalanguage your learners will need to complete the tasks you plan to set.
You need to assure yourself that the learners can focus on the task and its associated skills or language without the distraction of hunting for the language to do it.
Here are some examples:

Controlled language tasks
These sorts of tasks are generally set to check that learning of the targets is adequate before you go on to getting the learners to use the language or skill in a freer, more personalised way.  If tasks like these are done in pairs or small groups, the learners need to be able to:
  • Say what they think the right answer is:
        I thought it was ...
        I think it's ...
        The right answer is ... I think
  • Explain their reasoning:
        It must be ... because it's the only one that ...
        I know the plural is irregular so I think it's ...
        This is the only preposition we haven't used so far
  • Inform and explain:
        Only one answer is correct so it must be ...
        This picture goes with the sentence about ... because that's ...
        The past participle is "known" not "knew"
  • Accept other people's views:
        OK.  Let's choose ...
        If you say so
        Yes, I agree with that
  • Reject other people's views:
        I don't think that's right because ...
        No, that can't be right
        I'm not so sure
Role plays
Most role plays are semi-controlled practice so once started, the learners need only to use the target exponents (providing they know what they are) and less metalanguage will be needed.  However, they will have to:
  • Decide how to start:
        Who speaks first?
        Student A speaks first so you start
        I'll go first
  • Repair:
        Now you need to ask another question about Spain
        Don't stop there
        I think I have to say something now
  • Ask for clarification:
        What does ... mean?
        I don't understand what you mean
        Can you repeat that?
  • End the task:
        OK.  Let's stop now
        That was good
Freer practice
Free(r) oral practice often involves learners personalising the language and communicating something to others that they don't know using a language system or skill they have been learning.
Whatever the targets of the lesson, however, learners will almost certainly need to:
  • Introduce it:
        I once had a terrible holiday experience
        This is what I think
        If you ask me, ...
  • Back channel (usually to show interest):
        Uh Huh.
        Go on
  • Give up a turn:
        What's your story?
        Do you have an idea?
        It's your turn to tell us something now
  • Resist an interruption:
        OK.  Let me finish
        Just a moment
        Yes, I am coming to that
  • Clarify and exemplify:
        What I mean is ...
        For example, ...
        In other words, ...
  • Hold the floor:
        I have three ideas: a) ...
        Hear me out
        I can see two problems with this.  Firstly, ...

Learners can't, of course, be expected to do these things successfully unless the sorts of metalanguage they need to complete tasks have been taught and practised.  Even when it has, learners will often need reminding of the exponents before the activities begin.
By the way, there is a guide to teacher roles on this site that explains what you should be doing while these activities are happening.

self test

Self-test questions

Related guides
teacher roles for the guide to the many roles a teacher may need to adopt
teacher talk for a guide to the other side of the equation: the teacher's language
asking good questions questioning is a key teaching skill but there's a bit more to it than just asking for information
being clear for some advice about getting your message across clearly, simply and unambiguously