Keeping your language authentic

Published on 7th October, 2010 in Teaching Tips by Frances Watkins

Have you ever been in that slightly embarrassing situation where you are practising a particular language item in a language-focused lesson, and a student tells you something which is inherently interesting, sad, funny or shocking, but their language – the language in focus – is inaccurate? You feel torn. Should you respond to the real, human nature of their utterance, or respond to the quality of their language: respond as a person or as a language teacher, to what they have said, or how they have said it?

Here is an example from a lesson where the focus is on checking the verb disappoint and its related -ed/-ing adjectives:

Teacher: Tell me about something which disappointed you.
Student: Last year, when I failed my school exams. I was very disappointing. I thought I did well, but no … (pause). My family were so upset.
Teacher: Not disappointing I was very … ?
Student: Er … er … Oh, disappointed?
Teacher: Well done. And Martina …?

The skill lies in responding on both levels, with sensitivity. In this case, where the student’s experience was clearly very close to his heart, it would probably be more appropriate to simply respond sympathetically and move on. A skilled teacher could possibly do both, however:

Teacher: Tell me about something which disappointed you.
Student: Last year, when I failed my school exams. I was very disappointing. I thought I did well, but no … (pause). My family were so upset.
Teacher: Oh, you poor thing. How horrible for you. (pause and sympathetic smile) So, at the time you felt very …?
Student: Disappointing.
Teacher: Disappointed. (nodding) … And Martina?

Here the teacher initially responds to what the student has divulged. She then focuses on the target language and reformulates it herself, recognising that eliciting might not be appropriate. The student may or may not register the upgrade, but at least other students in the class may benefit.

At such points, it’s worth reminding oneself of the primary purpose of language: communication.

3 Comments

  • The most devastating example of this kind of problem was when I was teaching a one-to-one lesson with a young woman. I had asked the question, ‘What couldn’t you live without?’ expecting a trivial answer. She said, very quietly, I don’t think I have anything to live for.’ She went on to tell me that she had recently lost a child at the age of three days. I abandoned my llesson plan.

    Sarah Wright on 8 October, 2010
  • Teaching can be so unpredictable, can’t it? This situation really highlights that. Great that you had the clarity of mind to change direction completely in that lesson. It’s useful to be reminded to expect the unexpected when teaching. Thank you Sarah!

    Frances Watkins on 11 October, 2010
  • It’s a fine line between English teacher and counsellor/psychologist – especially with one:one classes! Remember – be an active listener and be congruent 😉

    Claire Bodgers on 24 January, 2011