Teaching Techniques

Tips on Communicating

by Judie Haynes

Provide clues to meaning

  • Use drawings, dramatic gestures, actions, emotions, voice, mime, chalkboard sketches, photographs and visual materials to provide clues to meaning.
  • If necessary, repeat your actions using the same simple structures and actions.
  • Simplify your message as much as possible breaking them into smaller, manageable parts to give newcomers a chance at comprehending.
  • Make sure the student's attention is focused.
  • Don't insist, however,that students make eye contact with you when you are speaking to them. This is considered rude in many cultures.

Modify your speech

  • Talk at a slow-to-normal pace, in short sentences.
  • Use a pleasant tone
  • Use simple sentence structure (subject-verb-object) and high-frequency words
  • Use names of people rather than pronouns.
  • Pause after phrases or short sentences, not after each word. You do not want to distort the rhythm of the language.
  • Avoid using the passive voice and complex sentences.
  • If you have something important to convey, speak one-on- one to the newcomer rather than in front of the class. The anxiety of being in the spotlight interferes with comprehension.
  • Ask simple yes/no questions so that newcomers have an opportunity to respond.
  • Accept one-word answers or gestures.

Be an active listener

  • Give full attention to your newcomer and make every effort to understand his / her attempts to communicate
  • Smile
  • Talk in a calm, quiet manner. Raising your voice does not help comprehension
  • Demonstrate your patience through your facial expressions and body language.
  • Give your ESL students extra time to respond.
  • Encourage new learners of English to act out or to draw pictures to get their meaning across.
  • Don't jump in immediately to supply the words for the student.
  • If the student response is heavily accented, correct by repeating the words correctly. Do not ask the student to repeat the correction. This can be very embarrassing.
  • Resist the urge to over correct. This will inhibit newcomers so that they will be less willing to speak. Allow students to use a bilingual dictionary for words that can not be acted out.

Check comprehension frequently

  • Don't ask "Do you understand?" unless you have taught it. This is not a reliable check since many students will nod "yes" when they don't really understand.
  • Teach the phrases (or have a bilingual volunteer teach them) "I don't understand," "Slowly, please," and "Please repeat."
  • Write down messages so students have a visual as well as auditory input. Make a list of phrases you want your student to learn and to understand. Ask a bilingual volunteer to work with the student on those phrases.
  • When students can't understand you, speak slower and enunciate; do not speak louder.
  • Body language is important; use it to your advantage to help convey meaning.
  • Be aware that not all body language is universal (ex: pointing -- seems like a good idea, but it is often offensive)
  • Use diagrams and pictures to help explain vocab
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat...and then write down.
  • Ask your students to explain what you just said.
  • Be aware that some words do not exist in your students' languages (ex: crib, awkward)
  • If you think it will help, explain to your students that learning English takes a long time (1 to 7 years, depending on learning ability, age, motivation, and level of fluency the student wishes to achieve)
  • Try not to make your student feel pressured to speak quickly; this societal pressure often discourages non-native speakers from participating in conversations.

Things Teachers Can Do to Improve Their Students' English:

  • Remember that adults think like adults, even if they speak like children.
  • Remember that reading/writing skills could be superior to speaking/listening skills, or vice versa.
  • Simplify your words but don't use baby talk -- leaving out articles does not help the student! "I Go School" is not a useful phrase to know.
  • Don't be afraid to use conjunctions -- they are used in everyday speech. Conversely, limit idiom use.
  • Speak clearly but naturally.
  • Pause between words.
  • Be careful if you use children's books; some students may be insulted.
  • Learn a few words (hello, goodbye) in your student's language.
  • Flash cards!
  • Teach your students how to use the library. Encourage them to borrow books and movies so they can practice. 
  • The Pine Hills Library in Albany has a great ESL section, check it out!