Saturday, February 20, 2010

While Teaching: Using Words That are Easy to Understand

Welcome fellow ESL Teachers and Tutors!

Today's topic is regarding the words that we use when we teach. It is important to listen to the words we use when we teach, and be sure that we use words that our ESL students will understand. 

The easiest way to improve our ESL students' comprehension is to slow down. Say words and sentences more than once. During the repetition, listen to what you are saying. Are you saying words that are more difficult than the vocabulary of the lesson? Are you using idioms that your ESL students might not understand?

Here are two enlightening examples:

EXAMPLE 1 Use Words and Sentence Patterns That Are Easy to Understand

Say you want to explain what "coffee" is. You could say, for example:

"It's a bitter drink with a lot of caffeine"
"It's brown. You drink it. It wakes you up!"

If you say the first, you are giving your students even more words that they do not understand, like "bitter" and "caffeine". Hence, they will be confused.

If you use the simpler explanation, and act out the last part about waking up, your students will have a fighting chance of actually figuring out what "coffee" is.

EXAMPLE 2 Using Idiomatic Expressions

Today, one of our volunteer teachers in training asked the class "Do you get that?" The class was very quiet, and so he asked the question again.

The reason they were so quiet was because they didn't understand his question, as it is an idiomatic expression. Instead he could ask "Do you have any questions?" or "Do you understand?". Check your level of students before using expressions

Idioms are sometimes hard for native speakers to detect, as they are phrases that to us, mean what they say. But when looking closer at the actual words we are using, the meaning would not be obvious to an ESL student.

Take the following as examples (in parenthesis is how you might explain the idiom or word to your students):

Take: Take this sentence as an example. ("take" means "use")
It's about time: It's about time you came to class. ("It's about time" means "finally")
Tackle: Let's tackle the vocabulary shall we? ("tackle" means "look at" or "work on")
As is: The homework is good as is. ("as is" means "the same" or "unchanged")
Leave it: Leave it as is. ("Leave it" means "don't touch it" or "don't change it" or "Let it stay the same")

A good ESL teacher will pay close attention to the words they use when they are in front of a class. Using appropriate level words makes all the difference (here, "makes all the difference" means "will help your ESL students understand what you say and thus enjoy and learn from your teaching"...that was a joke...)!

Let me know if you have any questions! There is a thin line here between abstract meanings of concrete words (take, tackle...) and idiomatic expressions (It's about time). However, the point is clear, if it isn't easy for students to understand, don't use it...or explain it.

For reference, there is an extensive list of idioms at Wikipedia and also a short list of commonly used idioms at GoEnglish.

Feel free to post other words or expressions that "come out" when we teach, and that are hard to "pin down" =) It will help your fellow ESL teachers "catch" them before they say them.

Your fellow ESL teacher,



  1. This blog is so awesome!

    Yesterday I couldn't speak any English.

    Now I feel nearly fluent!

  2. I wish I were that effective =)

    Thanks for your visit!