Tips on successful and appropriate word choice in the classroom and three keys to giving effective instructions
Verbal expression is, along with (non-verbal) body language, one of the key tools at a teacher’s disposal for conducting classes, paraphrasing vocabulary, elucidating linguistic structures and, in particular, explaining to learners how, with whom, for how long etc. an activity is to be carried out in class.
VERBAL COMMUNICATION, LIKE MUSIC, IS MORE THAN JUST SOUND
Spoken language works on two mutually complementary levels to put information across effectively: the para-verbal (i.e. physical) level, i.e. our speaking volume, pitch, tempo and manner, and the content level, i.e. which words we use in which order and with what intention. These two levels are involved in an ongoing interplay that is (often unconsciously) coordinated by the speaker. If we pay notice to intonation or where the stress falls in a word or sentence, for example, we soon notice that these physical cues (volume, pitch, rhythm) help to ensure that the words uttered are understood as the speaker intended.
HOW DO I USE SPEAKING VOLUME AND TEMPO EFFECTIVELY?
With regard to the physical characteristics of speech, it goes without saying that speaking too softly or too loudly is likely to be poorly received: in the first case, the speaker can’t be heard, and in the second, they come across as rude, even aggressive. Furthermore, people who talk too fast are often not properly understood and may seem insecure. On the other hand, speaking too slowly can seem artificial and give learners the impression you are underestimating them – that is to say, their ability to understand the foreign language. So it’s advisable to vary both your speaking tempo and volume during lessons, especially if you want to stress a point or get and hold the class’s attention (cf. Heidemann 2009).
Using language geared to the recipients | ©Adobe Stock
ADJUST CHOICE OF WORDS TO PURPOSE AND CONTEXT
With regard to content, it’s important to suit your word choice to the function and context of each utterance. If you’re giving oral instructions on a certain task or activity, bear in mind their concrete function in a learning context: they can (or must) be worded differently from remarks embedded in an everyday conversation. Their purpose is not to start a conversation or keep it going, but to inform learners as clearly and precisely as possible which activity they are to engage in now and how to go about it. So it’s a matter of giving clear and concrete instructions.
With this in mind, we can provide some specific pointers on formulating instructions for learners concisely and effectively.
THREE ASPECTS OF EFFECTIVELY WORDED INSTRUCTIONS
The best way to put our meaning across to learners is to follow a few basic principles. To be effective, instructions for language learners should be
: The shorter, the better. Less is usually more, in this context. Which is why lead-ins like "Now I would like you to..." or "Now I would ask that you..." are unnecessary and even counterproductive. It might be argued that these turns of phrase are simply part of the language and could actually be used for teaching purposes as examples of how to word a request very politely. But don’t forget: the longer and more complex an utterance is, the harder it will be for listeners to grasp it, because all that information has to be processed. Using convoluted syntax is bound to slow down that processing.
2. Geared to the class
: If you’re teaching a foreign language class – and giving instructions – in that language, your word choice is critical and should generally be adapted to the learners’ passive vocabulary. If there’s no avoiding the use of a new, unfamiliar word, it should either be explained beforehand or accompanied by non-verbal aids (pictures, symbols, gestures, facial expressions) to make its meaning clear. It’s important to pay attention not only to the meaning of the words you choose, but also to their sociolinguistic register, so as to avoid using words whose equivalents in the learners' first language (or other foreign languages) may well be similar, but are rarely if ever used by native speakers in this context. This is often the case with Latinate synonyms for ordinary German words, for example.
3. Clearly structured
: Instructions on tasks and activities should contain the answers to the following questions: What, how, and for how long (or till when) – ideally in that order! First of all, learners need to understand what they are supposed to do: read/write a text, underline words, match words to pictures, etc. Then the teacher should specify whether they are to work alone or in groups, and only then hand out materials (worksheets, scrap paper etc.) (cf. Ziebell/Schmiidjell 2012).
But it’s also important to pause regularly and wait for feedback from learners to make sure they’ve understood everything.
- Heidermann, Rudolf (2009). Körpersprache im Unterricht, 9th edition. Kempten: Quelle & Meyer Verlag.
- Ziebell, B. & Schmidjell, A. (2012). Unterrichtsbeobachtung und kollegiale Beratung NEU. Fernstudieneinheit 32 Kassel/Munich: Langenscheidt.