Articles about Learning English
Communication Skills in the Classroom
by Matt Purland
Communication skills, whether they be written, verbal or non-verbal, are of vital importance to any teacher. If a teacher cannot communicate effectively with his or her learners, it is reasonable to assume that their learners will struggle in class. If a man asks his son go to the newsagent and buy him a paper, it will be hoped that the boy - assuming he is capable and willing - will fulfil the request. It may be that the man will need to check that the boy understands what is required of him before he sets out, but the man will be confident of a positive outcome. If the man has the intention that he wants his son to go to the newsagent and buy him a paper, but cannot communicate his request to the boy, the boy will not go, and the request will remain unfulfilled. In his book ‘Teaching Today’ Geoffrey Petty argues that ‘teaching is a two-way process’1 and concludes that it is necessary in the classroom for the learner to be able to ask questions about the tasks that they are set, and just as necessary for the teacher to receive feedback as to whether and how far the learner understands the task and steps towards completion that they must make, or have just made. He says, ‘If teaching were a one-way process, we would learn perfectly satisfactorily from books and videos, and teachers would be just an unnecessary irritation.’1
As a teacher of English to learners of other languages and nationalities it is of utmost importance to me that I know how far my learners understand what I am saying to them day in and day out, and how far they understand the tasks that they have been set. My learners come from a variety of backgrounds. I have Urdu speakers, Kurdish speakers, Farsi speakers and one learner who speaks only Czech. To be able to do my job I do not need to speak any of their languages. My processes would be exactly the same if my learners spoke Dutch, French, Spanish or Finnish. My priority is to teach them English, and for English to be the language that is most heard in the classroom. I speak only English to them; partly because I do not speak any of their languages, but largely because my understanding of my job as an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher means that it is my responsibility to communicate effectively to all my learners, in English - the target language. Some teachers and schools would have, for example, an Urdu speaker teaching an Urdu speaker to speak English. My feeling is that the aural environment must consist of mainly English being spoken. Again, if my learners cannot understand me as I speak English to them, I will not be doing my job properly. It is my job to communicate in English with them.
My learners are all low level, ranging from Pre-Entry Level to Entry Level 2. It goes without saying that I speak in a different way to them than I do with my English friends on the ‘phone! Firstly my speech is slower than normal, and more precise. I do not have a regional accent but I place emphasis on pronouncing words ‘correctly’ (in terms of Received Pronunciation). For example, where I would probably say ‘I dunno’ to my friends, I will always say ‘I don’t know’ with my learners; and where I might say to an English learner: ‘I have to say that I really think that what you have achieved here, what you’ve done with this piece of work is excellent. Brilliant - a real triumph!’ I would tone it right down for my low-level English learners and probably say, ‘Good! Excellent! Well done!’ For some of my learners they would have to learn from me that these are words of praise. But after repeated use all day they soon come to understand. As well of these there are other simple words and phrases that I repeat and repeat, for example: ‘Why are you late?’, ‘No good’, ‘Do you understand?’, ‘What do you want to say?’ and so on. It is necessary then to have a much pared down vocabulary, but to also speak to learners without patronising them, and remember at all times that they are a) not stupid, and b) not children. The learner’s IQ is not called into question at any time. They may be in a low-level class and therefore seem at a disadvantage socially, but it is important to remember that they have all kinds of other abilities and strengths as well.
Apart from the words I use, the gestures and mannerisms that I use are also quite exaggerated. One of the cardinal sins of our classroom is answering a mobile phone in class, and all the learners know that they must switch off their phones. When a phone does ring either I or the teacher that I team-teach with will make a big issue of it by pretending that it is for us. We say, ‘Is it for me? Who is it? Everyone look - there’s a phone call for us!’ We will act excited; our faces reflecting this, along with our body language. The aim of this is to encourage all learners to turn off their phones, and to point out that it is unacceptable for learners to answer their phones in lesson times. We don’t do this to be mean, rather to uphold part of the democratically agreed rules of the classroom - we all agree that it is rude to take and make calls in the classroom during lesson times. Even the lowest-level learner can see by our gestures how important we feel this issue is. Similarly, when a learner achieves something, and I can see by checking their understanding that they do understand and have a small breakthrough I will exaggerate my facial gestures a little and give more praise than may be justified, as a way of telling that student that they are doing well and making progress. Sometimes learners will get despondent and claim that they don’t understand everything that is going on. They will show me their work and I will say that, despite the mistakes that they have made, ‘It’s OK for this level.’ Every learner understands the word ‘OK’, and every learner understands praise when it is delivered in the right (non-patronising) tone of voice, and with the appropriate accompanying body language and gestures. I sometimes have to point out in this way that a small battle with the language overcome is just as important as making a giant step in learning, because all the small steps will undoubtedly in good time amount to the giant step.
It is important for me as the teacher to ensure that I don’t allow my own personal moods and preoccupations to follow me into the classroom. This is of course easier said than done sometimes, but it is something that I try to be aware of - to make the learners the priority in the time that I spend with them. Just as important is to take into account the attention spans of the various learners. It is received wisdom that the average attention span among Western adults is twenty minutes. I’m not sure how that equates to my learners who have come from diverse cultural backgrounds, but I try to account for this by varying the activity types within my lessons, varying the learning focus, and varying the assessment process, while always keeping my eye on the progression activity, i.e. what’s coming up next, and how it relates to what we are doing now. For example, a fifteen minute discussion about ‘What would be your ideal job?’ could move into a ten minute vocabulary and spelling session on different occupation titles, before moving into a more structured written exercise, done individually, which could then be checked in pairs, before coming to group feedback at the end. This could then lead to looking at a Jobs Vacant section in a newspaper, and so on.
Ensuring the effective communication skills and techniques of my learners is a big part of my job, because the students are assessed on their abilities to communicate in English, either by written evidence or oral evidence. One example of this is the Entry Level Oral test paper that we use, where students have to record evidence of their speaking ability, which is then put forward for assessment by the ESOL coordinator. Part of my role is to coach all the students prior to the taping, and to ensure that they all know what they are saying and what it all means. It is not enough just to repeat the words and sentences parrot fashion. I check understanding of context and meaning by doing various supporting activities based around the material in the test paper. In terms of checking understanding it is not enough that a learner says ‘Yes’ or nods when I ask ‘Do you understand’. It has got easier with experience to tell when a learner is just saying what they think you want to hear. Some learners clearly cannot understand and may not be put forward for the assessment.
Assessment of the seven OCN ESOL units is
done largely by marking learners’ work - giving a tick or a cross in red ink.
There are two units where they are assessed by recorded material on a tape. It
would be better for the learners and their assessors if they could be recorded
doing the oral work on videotape, because then they would have their non-verbal
communication as well, as further supporting evidence of their understanding.
It is also possible to encourage learners to communicate and to practise the
English language that they are learning by making yourself available to them
informally at break times and after lessons. By developing good working
relationships with individual students it is possible to see their
communication skills - particularly their verbal skills - come on in leaps and
bounds. A good accelerator to learning any language is to practise what you
have learnt, rather than keep it all locked up in your head and in your folder.
Language is a living thing, and my learners are fortunate to be able to go
One way to encourage learners to have confidence in speaking English is to maintain good discipline within the classroom. If one learner is dominating every day, through bad behaviour or showing off, it will dissuade others from taking part. The lazy learners will get the impression that ‘The lesson does not need me to take part’, and the more timid learners will gain justification for their lack of involvement. The class code of conduct and standards of behaviour for learners are discussed with learners at induction and their monthly reviews. My aim as the teacher is to foster a safe and supportive environment where students can feel safe and supported enough to take risks with their language, without the fear of being made to look foolish. If the wayward students repeatedly hi-jack the lesson, all the will to participate that is inside the quieter learners will fade away. The responsibility for me as the teacher is to abide by the rules that have been set, and enforce the rules when required, making decisions within the framework of the agreed-upon safe and supportive environment. For example, I cannot justifiably give a verbal warning for bad language to a learner, and explain to them that this will not be tolerated, if I myself use such abusive language; or I cannot stress the importance of punctuality effectively if I am late for every lesson. Similarly, being unprepared for class sets a poor example to learners, and can for some of them undermine their willingness to participate.
The learning process is reviewed with learners every month at a formal review, where progress on the previous month’s objectives is analysed, and problems or questions can be raised on both sides. However, as stated before, learners are able to come and talk to any of the teaching staff at our centre at any time, since we operate an open-door policy, and we particularly encourage English learners to talk to us because we know this is helping them to practise their English language skills. At the end of the six month course students are asked to complete an Exit Questionnaire from which we collate feedback. However, the feedback that is most vital to us is what we get minute by minute in the classroom, with regard to the learners’ levels of understanding.
1 Teaching Today, Geoffrey Petty, Nelson Thomas, 2001