Watch your language: how, and when, and how not to grade.

teachers-appreciation-weekOne of the challenges of teaching lower level students is knowing when, and how, to grade your language. Although by the end of my Trinity I’d just about got my head around how to talk to elementary students, I still tended to find that I’d frequently be greeted by blank stares for the first few minutes of the lesson – before I’d graded my language enough to be easily understood. The first time I taught beginner students I had no idea how to speak to them!

Grading your language is one of those things that seems much easier in theory than it is in practice. You just use simpler words, right? Well, yes… and then some. Like any other aspect of teaching, grading your language is a skill that takes practice. So while you’re getting to grips with it, here’s my ‘Grading Your Language 101’.

 1. Speak slowly (Edit: enunciate and add pauses).

As everyone who’s witnessed the stereotype of a British or American tourist on holiday knows, repeating yourself loudly and slowly doesn’t guarantee comprehension. However, speaking more slowly in addition to other techniques WILL increase your chances of being understood.

2. Use simpler vocabulary.

If you’re teaching a level you don’t have much experience of, reading through an appropriate level coursebook or two before planning your lesson/teaching your class is always a good idea. This applies to any level, not just beginners/low-level students! Having a look at a coursebook will give you an idea of the types of text and what kind of vocabulary your students are likely to be familiar with. A good rule of thumb is not to introduce too much new material at any one time – so if you’re giving students practise of a new grammar point, don’t include lots of new vocabulary as well. Let your students focus on one thing at a time.

The same holds true with your spoken language: use simpler vocabulary for instructions or explanations (times when you want your students to be able to focus on the content of what’s being said, but not necessarily on the individual words being used).

3. Use simpler grammatical structures.puzzled

Grading your language isn’t only about using simpler vocabulary – it’s also important to pay attention to the grammatical structures you use. ‘If you had a million pounds, what would you do?’ isn’t likely to be understood by students who aren’t ready to study conditionals… but ‘Imagine – you have a million pounds. What do you want to buy?’ expresses the same idea (without the complex grammar!). Again, if you aren’t sure it’s worth looking through a coursebook to get an idea of what your students are likely to be familiar with.

4. Use natural English.

Especially if you’re teaching a lot of low-level classes, it’s not too unusual for teachers to find that they are mimicking their students’ English – missing out articles, using ‘is’ instead of ‘are’, or not using full sentences are common ones. This is a bad habit that it’s remarkably easy to get into – even though few people want to admit that they do it! The problem with this is that it provides an incorrect model for your students, and therefore they’re more likely to copy the mistake than to learn to correct their own errors.

5. Say things in a different way.

Don’t assume that the blank expressions mean that your students don’t understand the gist of the question or don’t have the vocabulary to respond – they may simply not understand the way you phrased it. As an example, one of the things I’m most guilty of is the following conversation:

Me: Where are you from?

Student: Russia.

Me: Ah, cool! Whereabouts in Russia?

Student: Sorry, I don’t understand.

When speaking English naturally I always tend to phrase the question this way – for some reason ‘whereabouts’ comes far more easily to me than any possible alternative. If I’m talking to anyone other than a high level or native speaker, though, they’re not going to understand! I could assume that they don’t understand or can’t answer the question and completely write it off… but it makes more sense to ask the question in a different way first, like so:

Me: Where are you from?

Student: Russia.

Me: Ah, cool! Whereabouts in Russia?

Student: Sorry, I don’t understand.

Me: Sorry, where are you from in Russia? What town or city?

Student: Ah! Moscow.

Reframing the question (and using simpler language when doing so!) gives the student another shot at answering, especially if you slipped up and didn’t grade your language enough the first time!

6. Allow them thinking time.

Before jumping in and rephrasing the question, it’s worth remembering that your students need time to think – so don’t jump in and reframe or move on immediately. This is something that most teachers (including myself!) find tricky – not least because it can feel really awkward standing and simply waiting for an answer. When teaching low level students, though, that pause is vital, to give them time to understand the question and formulate their answer. If you want to find out more about thinking time (or ‘wait time’) I highly recommend Rachael Roberts’ post, ‘The wonder of wait time’.

7. Don’t Patronise Your Students.

Your students don’t speak much English, but that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. I’ve taught doctors, engineers and phD candidates – people far more intelligent than me and with more qualifications than I will probably ever have…but circumstances, situations and priorities have meant that they’ve still been beginner English language students. Yes, you’re going to need to speak slowly, use simple language and perhaps talk about simpler topics than you would do normally, but it’s important not to treat your students like idiots. Bear in mind also that your low-level adult students are not children. That might sound obvious, but many of the ‘beginner’ resources out there are aimed at young learners – particularly if you’re looking to teach vocabulary such as rooms in a house, furniture, clothes, etc. Some of these materials are still fine to use with adult students, but others aren’t appropriate. Use your discretion and be discerning when it comes to choosing materials.

8. Don’t be afraid to use some unknown language.

When I first taught ‘starter’ students (complete beginners) I used to worry about using language they didn’t know, or at least language that I hadn’t taught them or wasn’t in the process of teaching them. On joining my class anything beyond ‘hello’ was new language for them – so wasn’t it a bit much to expect them, six or so lessons in, to be able to understand a text containing lots of new vocabulary? Well, no – because of how we acquire language. Your students might not be able to produce the language, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t understand it. Your students’ vocabulary will grow as they are exposed to new language, so don’t be afraid to introduce them to it! Do grade your language – but don’t worry that your students need to know and be able to produce every word you say.



8 thoughts on “Watch your language: how, and when, and how not to grade.

  1. On #4, I’m not sure whether the primary concern is whether students will copy the teacher’s errors, or just that in that case you have the kind of teacher who isn’t aware of the ways in which his or her speech is changing. If you have the kinds of students who very quickly pick up on minutiae like that, then yes the former is a danger. The latter is more common in my experience.


  2. Hi Elly,
    I’d perhaps say something different to ‘speak slowly’ – instead I’d go for ‘enunciate’ and ‘add pauses’. Some CELTA trainees I’ve seen go to the opposite extreme, where they speak so slowly that it can be quite painful sometimes! By enunciating more, they automatically slow down their speech. Adding pauses gives students more processing time.
    I’d also second the point about needing thinking time. This is how I explain the process students go through when we ask them a question:
    1. Hear question.
    2. Process question in English.
    3. (Quite possibly!) Translate it into their language.
    4. Decide what their answer is (quite possibly in L1)
    5. Work out how to say it in English.
    6. Figure out how to move the relevant muscles to produce the sentence.
    7. Speak.
    It’s no wonder they often can’t answer in the time we give them 😉
    A great set of tips. I’m adding this to my Useful links for CELTA post now.


  3. Great ideas.

    I try not to speak too slowly for any levels above intermediate. I used to find myself talking too robotic, and I’d got home and my mates would ask me why I was speaking like a fool. I try to be as natural as possible in class now, but I do grade my language and vocabulary accordingly. Thanks for the tips.


  4. Hi Elly. I printed this off before I actually read it. I thought it would be relevant to me as I have just started again with beginner / elementary 1-2-1 students and, very soon, low-level English classes. And it is, except for the points raised by others above. I think they prefer a natural speaking voice, but still graded vocab. Today, my false beginner, female Chinese learner needed a lot of visual clues and direct translations using an app called ChinesePod and the Google Tranlsate app for iPad. I also used a lot of pauses, silences and gave her loads of space to come up with her own questions. But the issue of grading my language was at the forefront of my mind as I ‘taught’ and got to know her today. Making the right impression is important for me right now, as I don’t want them to feel I have nothing to offer them as a teacher.


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