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What to avoid in the classroom (especially on a Delta course)


Nobody (whatever their claims to pedagogic omniscience) has a monopoly on 'the right way' to teach English or any other language.
However, although there may be lots of the right ways to do things, there are almost infinitely more ways for things to go wrong.

This guide is not linked explicitly to the teaching criteria and how to meet them (for that, start at the index page for that set of guides).
This guide is concerned with some of the behaviours which underlie the ability to achieve the teaching criteria.

The following is drawn from comments made by tutors and assessors concerning the most irritating and dysfunctional classroom behaviours that it is well worth avoiding if only for the sake of the assessor's and the learners' sanity.


Relying on the strongest or most voluble learners

All groups of learners contain people with various degrees of willingness to contribute.  While the most voluble learners can be of benefit to a lesson because they mean that the lesson's pace and dynamic is maintained, avoiding silences which may embarrass, we need to make sure that everyone has an equal chance to speak, ask questions and make contributions.
It is also true that all groups of learners contain stronger students and weaker students.  No group can ever be entirely homogenous in terms of ability in any one skill or in terms of their strengths across various skills.
If you rely on the loudest, the most forthcoming or the strongest learners in much of the lesson, you will be criticised for one of the following:

  1. not teaching with sensitivity to the learners’ needs
  2. not providing equal opportunities for participation
  3. not engaging and involving all the learners

How to avoid the problem


Talking down to your learners

Nobody likes to be patronised.  Avoid foreigner-speak and pidgin English at all costs.
Some students are elementary learners, but that does not mean they are elementary thinkers.
It is, in fact, easier to understand properly formed language, albeit spoken more slowly and simplified in terms of structure and lexis, than it is to understand non-standard pidgin English.
The same is true of the temptation to use something akin to carer-speak with over-enthusiastic intonation patterns more suitable (possibly) to a primary school.

If you talk down or use pidgin English, will be criticised for one of the following:

  1. not teaching with sensitivity to the learners’ backgrounds
  2. not using language which is accurate and appropriate for the teaching and learning context
  3. not adapting your use of language to the level of the group and individuals in the group
  4. not giving accurate and appropriate models of language form, use and pronunciation

How to avoid the problem


Talking to yourself, mumbling, talking to the board and being unclear

When you are nervous and stressed (as most teachers are when they are being assessed), there is a natural tendency to talk to yourself and give some kind of commentary on what is going on.  For example, people have been observed saying things like:

and so on.
All of this is unnecessary teacher speak and may actually serve to raise the level of ambiguity in the room because learners will be tempted to try to understand everything the teacher says, whether it is relevant or not.  You may know that something you have said is not something the learners need to know but they may well be asking themselves:
    How do I know if I need to know this until I know what this is?

If you pepper your teacher talk with comments on what's happening and asides to yourself, you will be criticised for:

  1. not setting up activities appropriately
  2. not ensuring that the learners remain focused
  3. not using language which is accurate and appropriate for the teaching and learning context

How to avoid the problem

If you aren't sure whether to say something, don't say it.


Being hesitant, unorganised and generally faffing around

If you aren't a native British English speaker, you may want to know that the verb faff around means to engage in ineffectual and pointless activity before getting on with something.  If you do this in the classroom you will appear disorganised and unprepared.  You need to focus on what you are doing with the absolute minimum of fuss.
Faffing around wastes time, increases ambiguity and lowers the learners' confidence in you.
Being well organised, purposeful and deliberate has the opposite effect.

If you are hesitant and fussy in the classroom you will be criticised for:

  1. not setting up activities appropriately
  2. not using procedures to support learning
  3. not ensuring that the learners remain focused
  4. not delivering a coherent lesson

How to avoid the problem


Giving false information

You will, naturally, have checked all your handouts, tasks, projector slides and so on to make sure they are free from errors.  That's a given.

One of the reasons you are obliged to analyse the target(s) of the lesson in your plan is to prepare you to handle presenting, explaining and responding to questions in the classroom.
In your everyday teaching, you may find it enough to rely on your ability to think on your feet and come up with examples and explanations impromptu.  In an observed and assessed lesson, this may not be enough.

In an assessed lesson for Delta, you want at least to appear confident and well informed and the better informed you are, the more confident you will be.  If you aren't both confident and well informed, you will be criticised for:

  1. not giving accurate models
  2. not giving accurate information about language form or language skills
  3. not being able to notice and exploit learners' language output

How to avoid the problem


Steamrollering, chasing red herrings and the sunk-cost fallacy

(If you are unfamiliar with the phrase a red herring, you may like to know that it means a misleading or distracting piece of information.)
Life, as John Lennon pointed out (not very originally), is what happens while you are busy making other plans.
The best laid plans can go wrong and even when they don't go wrong, they usually need some sort of amendment to take into account what is happening in the classroom.
What happens in the classroom and what your learners need right now is infinitely more important than the smooth running of the plan.  Deviate from the plan when your learners need you to, not when you want to chase a red herring.


The sunk-cost fallacy

The sunk-cost fallacy is a term drawn from economics and refers to humans' reluctance to cut their losses.  Briefly put, it describes the error of valuing the investment already made over the benefits of abandoning something that is not working.
For example, organisations and governments around the world are reluctant to abandon vast infrastructure projects, the costs of which are ballooning out of control and whose utility is, in any case, doubtful, for two connected reasons:

  1. The amount already invested will be lost if the project is abandoned and that is seen as an unacceptable cost even if the cost of continuing will be greater than the loss.
  2. Cancelling a project implies that you have made a poor decision and going back on it will be seen as losing face.

Less grandly, the syndrome is observable in, for example, staying to the end of a film you hate because you have invested in a cinema ticket, going to an event you are not interested in because you have acquired a ticket, continuing to invest money in an old vehicle you know should be sold and replaced and so on.

In the classroom, the same fallacy is often observable and involves the teacher sticking with an activity, text or set of materials which is patently not working and not contributing to the learning that was intended.  It may even be operating counterproductively and producing error.  There are many reasons why things are not doing what they were planned to do, for example:

  1. The material is too easy or too difficult so the learners are operating outside the optimum learning zone.  They will either be over challenged by the material, become anxious and gain little or under challenged, gain nothing and be bored.
  2. The material is flawed in terms of the language or skill it should targeting and not actually evincing what it should.
  3. The learners are approaching the materials or tasks in a way you did not intend and not gaining what you thought they would gain.
  4. The material is actually producing errors in language or making the learners produce language which is inappropriate.
  5. The materials are not forcing the learners to use the subskills which were the intended targets of the lesson.

There is a great temptation to look on the bright side and think,
    Well, it's not working but I'll stick with it because it might get better
when you know it won't, or
    It took ages to prepare all this stuff and my time will have been wasted if I stop the activity now.
and so on.
And these are not very good reasons to spend time in a classroom doing something that isn't helping.

Bite the bullet, cut your losses and do something useful.

If you don't adapt your plan to take into account emerging needs or you deviate from the plan unnecessarily, you will be criticised for:

  1. not monitoring, checking learning and responding appropriately
  2. not noticing and exploiting learners’ output
  3. teaching the plan not the learners
  4. not maintaining focus

How to avoid the problem


Not checking

One of the skills that comes hard on an initial training course is formulating, using and following up on instruction-checking questions (ICQs) and concept-checking questions (CCQs).
By the time people get to a Delta-level qualification, the art has generally been mastered but the stress of being in an assessed observation can do funny things to people and the hard-won skill of making concepts and instructions transparently clear is often forgotten.
Assessors often note, critically, that concepts or instructions were inadequately or not checked.
To avoid this criticism, you should do two things:

  1. Follow the guide in the initial plus section of the site to how to construct and use both instruction- and concept-checking questions.  It shouldn't take you long and it may remind you of some essential ideas.
    The guide is linked below or you can open it in a new tab by clicking here.
  2. Make sure for an assessed lesson that you write down the questions you are going to use to make concepts clear, lead people to noticing key concepts and doing the tasks the way you want them done.

Missing out on these areas will often result in not meeting some key teaching criteria, in particular those to do with focusing learners, managing activities and supplying the right information about language and skills at the right time.


Being in the wrong place and sending confusing signals

When you are planning an assessed or observed less (or any other lesson in an ideal world), it is worth taking a little time to consider where in the classroom you should be to signal what your role is during the various stages and activities.
It is surprising how often even very experienced teachers like you can fail to appreciate how much their place in the room contributes to the smooth running of a lesson with everyone knowing what their role is and what your role is.
Here's a short rundown, taken from the initial plus guide to teacher roles.

What role does the position of the teacher imply to you?

The teacher's positions are indicated by the red star symbol.
Click on the diagrams to see some comments.


Related guides
meeting the teaching criteria guides which take each section at a time and explain what the criteria mean and how to meet them
visualising the lesson this exercise will take around thirty minutes and repay you well
writing a Delta lesson plan because many of the issues discussed on this page can be avoided with good planning
checking questions for the initial plus guide to instruction- and concept-checking questions
the external assessment so you know what to expect in the externally assessed lesson
teacher-induced error for a guide to how to avoid creating errors rather than dealing with them