How teachers can simplify their language to make it understandable.
“All right, you lot. Now, what we’re going to do today is we’re gonna work on your listening, you know, how to get what people are talking about, how to spot what’s important, that sort of stuff. So, just check you got that, what’re we gonna do?”
The class of 30 second-year economics undergraduates, who had been noisy and lively when he came in, were now silent. Most were looking at the work on their desks, studiously avoiding Peter’s eyes. Peter decided he would wait until someone volunteered an answer. After nearly a minute of uncomfortable silence, he gave up.
“Come on, you lot. The other teachers tell me you’re an alright group. I know we’re only just getting to know each other - start of term and all that, but I think you’re a good bunch. If you wanna learn English though, you’ve gotta give it a go. You’ve gotta have a stab at answering questions, you’ve gotta put yourself forward and speak out. So let’s give it another try. What’re we gonna do today?”
Rina gingerly put her hand up.
“Yeah, you over there, what d’you reckon?”
“Listening?”, said Rina uncertainly.
“Spot on. Good stuff. At least one person here’s got the guts to have a shot at it. Why don’t the rest of you?”
Peter started to explain two listening strategies, listening for gist and identifying key points. Throughout his explanation, the students looked restless and, unlike the normal behaviour of Indonesian students, continuously whispered to each other. Their behaviour changed, however, when Peter handed out the worksheets. All the students suddenly became studious, read through the worksheets carefully, and concentrated while listening to the passages from the tape recorder.
After the lesson, Peter took the students’ completed worksheets to his office to mark. He had worked through about half when Cherie, who shared the office with him, came in.
“I just don’t get it”, said Peter. “These second-year economics students are a strange lot. I’m marking their listening exercises now. They’re excellent. The lowest is seventeen out of twenty.”
“Oh, them”, interrupted Cherie. ”Yes, they’re a really good group of students. There aren’t any weak students in that class. I took them for Foundation English last year. They’re great.”
Peter looked a bit annoyed at being interrupted. “Yeah, their listening marks are great, but that’s not the problem. In class, they don’t look at me, they don’t answer questions, they just sit there like lumps of clay. It’s as if nothing I’m saying’s going into their heads.”
Cherie was surprised. “Oh, I found them most cooperative. It’s probably just start-of-term blues. Give them a couple of weeks to get used to you and they’ll be fine.”
“I hope so. If they don’t change soon, I’m not going to enjoy this class.”
Later in the day, Cherie was wandering over to the library when she met Rina, one of the economics students.
“Hello, Rina. Do you enjoy being a sophomore?”
“Yes. We’re learning about international economics now. I enjoy.”
“Yes, but English. I don’t know. I don’t understand what Peter say. He speak and speak, but I don’t know what he say.”
“I don’t know. He uses easy words, but I don’t understand. It very difficult to explain. When you teach me, I understand everything easy, but now I don’t understand. I want to understand because Peter look nice, but I don’t know what to do. Can you help?”
Cherie had a soft spot for Rina, who had been an exemplary student the previous year. She reluctantly agreed to talk to Peter on Rina’s behalf.
In the library, Cherie tried to concentrate on the book she needed to read, but her mind kept turning to Rina’s request and how to bring the matter up with Peter. Although they shared the same office, Cherie’s relationship with Peter was not close. She knew that he was a responsible teacher and a helpful colleague. But she also found him touchy and quick to take offence. While he was easy-going when the conversation was on general topics, he shut himself up and became easily irritated if the conversation became personal.
Cherie tried to imagine how a conversation with Peter about Rina’s problem would go.
“Peter, one of your students asked me to talk to you about the problems she’s having.”
“Uh, I’d rather not say.”
“Why not? If they want to complain, they’d better complain to my face, not behind my back.”
No, that wouldn’t do. Perhaps she should start in a different way.
“Peter, can I talk to you about how you use English in the classroom?”
“Yes.” Peter would reply suspiciously.
“Well, do you try to keep your language simple for your students?”
“Of course I do. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a very good teacher, would I?”
“Um, yes, of course. How do you keep your language simple.”
“Speak slowly. Avoid difficult words. Why do you want to know?”
“Come on. What are you getting at? Have my students been complaining to you?”
Cherie couldn’t think of a way of broaching the topic of Rina’s problem without seeming to criticise Peter, and she now regretted agreeing to help Rina. It looked like helping out a student would make life much more difficult with a colleague. Cherie felt trapped between the proverbial rock and the hard place.
1. Rina’s problem is that she has trouble understanding what Peter says. She says, “He uses easy words, but I don’t understand.” Looking through Peter’s teacher talk (i.e. the language he uses in the classroom), he does use very few low-frequency (i.e. uncommon) words. So why is it difficult for the students to understand Peter?
2. Can you rewrite Peter’s teacher talk so that it will be easier for the students to understand while retaining the same meaning? How do you decide what to change? On what basis do you make your changes?
3. Teacher talk is a vital aspect of classroom-based language learning, since it is one of the main sources of language input for the learners and facilitates classroom interaction and management. Teacher talk involves modifications in the language that the teacher uses, usually with the aim of making the teacher’s language easier. These modifications can occur at several levels, one of which is vocabulary. Other levels which are frequently modified in teacher talk include speech rate, frequency of pauses, enunciation, length of sentences, and repetition or rephrasing of sentences. To further simplify Peter’s teacher talk, can you make any modifications in these other levels? For example, should Peter pause anywhere? Are any of Peter’s sentences too long? Would any sentences be usefully repeated?
4. Difficulties in listening comprehension don’t depend solely on the aspects of language considered with regard to teacher talk. Other factors include the familiarity of the topic and environmental factors such as background noise. Can you think of any more factors which can affect difficulty in listening? Can the teacher control any of these factors, and if so, how?
5. Cherie wants to help Rina by talking to Peter about his teacher talk. She’s worried, however, about Peter’s defensiveness. What makes people defensive? How should Cherie approach Peter without making him defensive?
6. If Cherie is able to bring up the topic of teacher talk with Peter, how can she give him feedback without appearing to criticise him?
The purposes of simplifying teacher talk and other kinds of language input are discussed by Scarcella and Oxford (1992), while Chaudron (1988), Lynch (1996) and Tsui (1995) give details of the different levels at which modifications can be made, and Campbell and Kryszewska (1995) contains activities for how to simplify teacher talk. Anderson and Lynch (1988), Brown (1994) and Nunan (1991) examine the factors which make listening difficult. Defensive behaviour and ways of overcoming defensiveness are covered in most books on interpersonal communication, such as Adler et al. (1989), Gamble and Gamble (1993) and Johnson (1986), and specifically for ELT teachers in Head and Taylor (1997). Gebhard (1990), Wallace (1991) and Woodward (1992) suggest various ways of giving feedback.