Mr. Know-It-All: Ten Ways to Avoid Talking Down to Your ESL Students

Mr. Know-It-All
Ten Ways to Avoid Talking Down to Your ESL Students

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 22,560 views |

I have a recommendation for the next time you finish a tough week of teaching and could do with a morale boost.

Open a bottle of something (if you like) and find old lesson plans and, even better, old recordings of your first ESL lessons. I tried this a few weeks ago (including opening the bottle of something) and I soon felt the need to pass on what I discovered.

Firstly, I barely recognized the twenty-two year-old on the screen. I was bumbling his way through those very early lessons during my CELTA course, and then attempting to navigate my first classes out in the real world. I had a lot of respect for what I had done, but I confess that I did cringe pretty frequently, too.

Here are some of my thoughts, on reviewing this ancient evidence of my very first classes:

  • Wow, I look like a teenager. I’m thin as a rake, and I still have all my hair!
  • I talk like an intercity train, and I don’t seem to care if anyone’s on board.
  • Dude, shut up and let them answer properly!

This last one was really revealing. New teachers (and some more experienced ones too!) have the tendency to talk too much, and to impose their views, opinions, life experiences and values on their classes. Now, a little of this might not be a bad thing - many of our students relish the chance to learn nuggets of hard-won philosophy from a westerner - but it’s very easy to turn into one of those smug, superior teachers who thinks that the whole business of education revolves around them.

This is so easy to do, in part because of the following reasons:

  • You’re a smart, experienced person, with plenty of things to say
  • You’re the only native speaker in the room, and therefore the only person capable of expressing truly sophisticated thoughts.
  • You’re the teacher, and the students are ‘programmed’ to listen to you
  • Your opinions are valuable
  • To quote Mel Brookes, “It’s fun to be the king”.

Here is a little guidance to help you avoid lecturing your students and or filling gaps with your own thoughts and opinions:

10 Ways to Avoid Talking Down to Your ESL Students

  1. 1

    Classrooms aren’t soapboxes.

    Simply put, self-indulgent pontification really isn’t what we’re all here for. Education functions best as a discourse, with guidance and practice, not as a diatribe entitled, ‘The World As I See It’.

  2. 2

    Express yourself subtly

    There are many ways of bringing your opinions to your students. Simply expressing surprise or skepticism at something your students say, or something you encounter during a video or listening exercise, can be enough. Plant the idea that a variety of opinions exist without touting yours as the best. Better still, have your students discover your views through confident questions and open dialogue.

  3. 3

    You’re Not The Smartest Person in the Room

    At least, let’s behave as though you’re not, because it’s probably true. Your students have had their own life experiences and their views about the world are likely just as sophisticated as yours. The thing is, they’re operating in their second language; this makes expressing subtlety and complexity very difficult. Remember, on these occasions and generally, that there is an awful lot more going on behind what’s being said - thought, memory, opinion, experience, weighing things up and coming to conclusions… All of this is happening all of the time but the language barrier filters out almost all of it.

  4. 4

    Record Yourself (and actually watch it)

    Audio or video both work. Record a class, and put a stopwatch on it; measure how much is Teacher Talking Time (TTT) and how much is there for your students’ use. Then, almost invariably, I’d advise you try to cut your TTT by a significant amount - perhaps 30% or more. Ask yourself this:

    How much of what I said was truly related to the lesson targets?

    Be honest during these appraisals. If possible, ask a colleague to observe your class and give their (equally honest) views on your TTT and interaction patterns.

  5. 5

    Count The Facts and Opinions

    Another use for recordings is to count just how often you dropped a fact, or gave an opinion. Try to limit this, even if you’re presenting a lot of new information. Be concise and address only the most important and relevant issues; it might be better to provide the additional information in the form of a reading or listening exercise, so the students have a change of media and pace.

  6. 6

    Ask, Don’t Tell

    I have a rule which I’ve mentioned before, but it bears frequent repetition:

    Don’t speak for longer than twenty seconds without asking a question.

    How often do you fall afoul of this rule? New teachers will do it all the time, but after a few weeks of seeing glazed expressions, they tend to catch on and review the way they communicate with their students.

  7. 7

    Include Timings on your Lesson Plan

    This is a very useful way of limiting TTT, and ensuring you aren’t rambling. If you’re ten minutes late in reaching the practice element of the class, assess why this has happened. Did you get sidetracked by a legitimate student question, or were you babbling on about something of questionable relevance? Did you need to tell that long anecdote? Was it necessary to complain bitterly about how corrupt politics has become? Track your timings and really try to stick to them.

  8. 8

    Keep Your Facts Handy

    Don’t drop them all at once. Students love it when you happen to know, during a discussions of a news story about Space-X, that Elon Musk is actually South African, or that there more than 500 different people have traveled into space. Hold onto your favorite facts, and interesting nuggets that you found through research, until just the right moment; wheeling them out all at once dilutes their impact.

  9. 9

    Avoid Conflict

    ESL classes aren’t, generally speaking, debating societies. Our purpose is the smooth acquisition of language skills, and while arguing and disagreeing are useful areas of language, their uses are limited and the time spent on them should reflect this. Getting into an intellectual scrap with one of your students (over foreign affairs, politics, or heaven forbid, religion) is a recipe for trouble. It can cause division and can compromise your students’ opinions of you. It can also waste valuable time while the other students silently sit there, wondering when this circus will end. I know, because I’ve been guilty of exactly this.

    If there are debates to be had, and they link up with the curriculum and the language points you’re supposed to be covering, then by all means schedule time and hold a prepared, structured debate. But try to be the grown-up, and stay out of the debate until the last moment. Act as moderator instead, and give the floor to the students; you don’t need to practice your English, but they do.

  10. q

    Be Ready to Apologize

    The western philosophy of education has changed impressively in the last century. Gone are the days when teachers were saintly, elevated beings with whom students could not argue, and who could never, ever be accused of being wrong. But, guess what? Teachers are humans, and therefore fallible; believe me, a comprehensive list of all my pedagogical and factual mistakes over the last 20 years would stretch BusyTeacher’s servers. I recognized early on that, if I was to retain my students’ respect, I would have to hold up my hands and say ‘sorry’ once in a while.

    If you forget something, apologize and come back to it, either during the current class or the next. If you produce poor, unclear examples of a grammar point, apologize and arrive for the next class with much better ones. If you forget someone’s name, it’s not their fault because their name is difficult to remember; say sorry and ask for their help in pronouncing it. Your fallibility is a strength if you’re prepared to admit it exists.

Above all, give your students sufficient space to be themselves, and to practice the language.

You can’t practice it for them. It doesn’t matter how much lecturing you do; skills are only gained through practice, and that requires time. Reducing your Teacher Talking Time and ‘donating’ this amount to your students is a great first step; measure this, and get help from fellow professionals to limit how often you’re at the center of things. Eventually, we’re all looking for a classroom environment in which we can present the material, set up the exercise, and back off to watch the English come tumbling forth. This is entirely possible if you de-prioritize yourself and your views, and remember what truly excellent teaching is all about.

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