Sometimes the best thing about watching a great teacher run a workshop is not the activities or theories they teach you, but the things they say in between the key takeaways. How they give instructions, organize the class, or deal with participation.
When I had the fortune to attend a weekend workshop last year led by EFL/ESL teachers and authors Adrian Underhill, Jim Scrivener and Chaz Pugliese, I took note of ― and began to say ― five statements that continue to make me a better teacher.
1. “Could you just take 31 seconds to look back at your notes and ask me if there was anything you don’t understand?”
You’re a lucky teacher indeed if “Any questions?” returns more than just blank stares. No one wants to expose their ignorance, and students have the doubly face-threatening risk of exposing their ignorance ungrammatically.
We give students silent rehearsal time before performing a speaking task. Why not, as Chaz Pugliese does, give them time to both reflect on and formulate their lack of comprehension? It might just get you some questions (or at least a moment for everyone to breathe before plowing into the next activity).
2. “Say it faster.”
As Adrian Underhill has written in Demand High, whether you’re checking an activity or getting an answer to a question, the idea is not to simply settle for a learner just managing to stumble through a sentence and get to the end. As a teacher what you’re after is better, more fluent production. If it’s the first time the student has vocalized what’s on the page, then think of it as just a rehearsal.
And better than simply “say it again”, say it faster is a goal and a challenge. Every student aspires to be more fluent, and this simple command gives every student somewhere to grow.
3. “You don’t have to get it right.”
Everybody’s afraid of getting it wrong. But when you’re analyzing a text or structure, the beauty of Jim Scrivener’s statement is that it works to instantly defuse the tension and let people off the hook. And it lets everybody know ― both the struggling and the self-assured ― that error is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged, particularly when in the phase of exploration, hypothesizing and discovery.
4. “Do you believe her (or him)?”
Intonation is often fundamental to conveying meaning in speech, but so often our students respond to questions about likes, preferences and opinions with the sort of robotic monotone that might be puzzling, or even disturbing if we were outside the language classroom.
So forget about accuracy for a moment and shift the focus to believable intonation with a sly appeal to the class. Even without being explicit about it, you can encourage students (like Adrian Underhill does) to arrive at their own conclusions about what might make that utterance believable or not. And then model and practice correct intonation.
5. “Do you agree?”
While this is standard practice in paired language assessment, it’s not necessarily par for the course when it comes to teaching a group class. As the teacher it’s unavoidable that you have more rights in class ― the right to mediate the conversation, end it and initiate a new one. So if you want to generate discussion between students in whole-class setting, refrain from weighing in with a comment.
Rather, as Adrian Underhill does, simply lob it back to another student. It’s a way of encouraging the members of the class to listen and participate. Say it enough and you probably won’t have to anymore, because you’ll have established a classroom culture in which students don’t have to seek out the teacher’s permission to comment during class discussions.
Development as a classroom teacher often involves boiling down a lot of teacher talk ― as in these five statements ― to the powerful essentials.
What else would you add to this list?