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How to Speak to English Language Students

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Probably the worst thing you can do…

New teachers often have problems trying to decide how to speak to students so they understand them best.

Should they keep their grammar‏‎ really simple? Should they avoid unusual words‏‎? Should they slow down? Should they speak to students as though they were speaking to young children even if they are adults?

First to remember is that the way in which you speak to your students will depend to a greater or lesser extent on their level. Obviously with beginners‏‎ you will need to simplify much of what you say, but ideally as the students become more proficient you should stretch them as far as you can until with the advanced classes you are speaking to them as you would another native English speaker.

This, then, is fairly self-evident. But then comes the other side of the equation: you and your speech.

In speaking there are several areas to consider:

  • speed
  • accent‏‎
  • grammar
  • vocabulary‏‎

This article looks at all these areas and offers some useful ideas to think about when you are talking in class.

Speed

Perhaps the most important aspect of being understood in speech is the speed at which you speak. Quite simply, when a beginner listens to speech they need to take each word and process it internally (often translating it) before they can move on to the next word. This means that when you, as a teacher, speak quickly to your students there’s a good chance that they will understand the first couple of words but as they’re processing them you’ve moved on and they’re lost. A single awkward word in what you say can throw them off the whole utterance.

Thus the most important thing you can do when speaking to learners of English is slow down your speech. That is not to say you pause and wait between each word, but you need to make sure you keep your utterances short, you speak slowly, and that your listeners have time to process what you say.

With Beginners, make a short utterance and then pause for a moment to allow your students to understand (possibly translate in their heads) and then catch up with you. Then move on. As you deal with students of a higher level, the pauses get shorter until with advanced students you speak to them almost at the same speed as you would a native speaker.

Accent

Accents take getting used to. Even native speakers will have problems when they first hear a very different English accent and they will take time to get used to it and understand it.

Thus, for example, an American on holiday in the UK might find it hard to understand a Scottish accent; but after listening for a while they will “tune in” to it and find it as easy to understand as an accent from back home.

This means it’s important to keep your accent as neutral as possible with students who are unused to hearing native speakers live. By this we mean speaking with a standard and commonly heard accent – the kind of accent your students may well have heard on television, for example.

But English accents are part and parcel of learning so feel free to speak in your own accent with higher level classes.

Vocabulary

It is estimated that the most common 1,000 words in English‏ make up about 90% of all speech. Bearing in mind that beginner level students will have a vocabulary of up to 2,000 words this means that most English learners will understand most of the vocabulary you use in class.

Of course there will be unknown words, but most of what you say to your class will be familiar and easily understood by your students. This, then, should not be of too much concern to you. Obviously you can simplify your vocabulary to a certain extent and keep slang, jargon and so on to a minimum (as well as idioms and suchlike), but this shouldn’t prove to be too much of an issue.

Grammar

When we speak we tend to use slightly simpler grammar (and vocabulary) than when we write. We would use the passive voice‏‎ less, for example, than in written English and we tend to use shorter, less convoluted utterances. This is all good for a class.

In speaking with lower level classes, however, you may need to simplify your grammar even further. This would mean reducing the number of verb forms‏‎ so you would avoid conditionals‏‎ and perfect forms if you can. With very low-level beginners you would also probably use just the present simple‏‎ and no other tense:

Please open your books.

Turn to page 3.

What time is it?

My name is Mr Jones.

And so on. But again, students tend not to have too much trouble understanding the grammatical structure of spoken English

Volume

On a final point, many speakers think that raising the volume of their speech helps others understand. It doesn’t so don’t do it. Keep your volume the same as if you were talking to a native speaker!

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2 Responses to How to Speak to English Language Students

  1. patrick willis mbeta says:

    I have enjoyed the lesson and wish to learn more

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