Four things never to say to students, please

     1.  ‘Do you understand?’

Students will always say ‘yes’. They want you to be happy and to keep the lesson going. It is highly unlikely that one individual student will risk looking silly in front of her peers by admitting she hasn’t understood something, even if everyone is in exactly the same situation.

Concept checking is by far the better approach. So let’s say you have been introducing a tricky bit of grammar like 2nd conditionals with an example like – If I had a lot of money, I’d buy a car. Ask questions like
Am I talking about the past? (because had could suggest to students that you are)
Am I talking about the present?
Do I have a lot of money?
Do I want to buy a car?

Top Tips for formulating concept check questions:
  • Analyse the language and its meaning in the given context
  • Define the essential meaning in simple statements
  • Turn these statements into questions
  • Keep the questions simple
  • Avoid sentences that are not relevant  to the meaning of the language
  • Avoid using the same grammatical forms in the questions as you are testing
  • Ask yes / no questions as much as possible
  • Plan them in advance – it is hard on the spot without practice

e.g. I’m playing tennis with Brad at 2pm tomorrow. (present continuous used to talk about appointments and plans in the near future which are definite)
Am I talking about something happening now?
Am I talking about the future?
Is it a long time in the future?
Is it a short time in the future?
It it sure?

2.  ‘Hurry up!’

It seems to me that speed has over the years become synonymous with cleverness. Children have definitely picked up on this. Just look at how satisfied they look, when they shoot their hands up shouting ‘finished’ on completing an exercise. They believe we’ll be pleased with them for being so quick, so clever. Somehow they have got the message from teachers that being slow is BAD. Of course, teachers are under huge pressure to get through a lot of material during a course, but we have to appreciate that thinking carefully, considering options, getting something written using an alien alphabet, deciphering a text – all these things deserve time to be taken over them.

It’s also worth considering if we have allowed the same amount of time for students to do a task. For example, when handing out worksheets do you start at the front of the class and work your way towards the back? Then are you surprised that the students at the front finish first? They have after all been working on the task for a good minute or two longer than their classmates at the back! Why not hand out paper upside down in front of students and ask them to wait until you say ‘go’ to turn them over, so they all have the same amount to do the work?

Research apparently tells us the average time a teacher waits for an answer to a question before moving on to another student is ONE second! Let’s slow down a bit and give the poor students time to digest the question and formulate an answer.

3         3.  ‘Shut up!’

Any shouting or aggressive imperatives should be avoided. A noisy class is just made noisier if the teacher shouts and none of us respond very well to such unfriendly instructions. How do you feel is someone shouts at you? We don’t want to create a negative atmosphere. Quite often students carry on talking to each other because they are focussed on what they are doing and don’t notice the teacher trying to get their attention. That’s actually great: it shows they are immersed in their work.

In a noisy class I tend to speak very quietly. Students notice that I’m speaking and that they can’t hear me. Their curiosity gets the better of them and they start shushing each other, quietening each other down until they hear what I am saying.
I also use different gestures to signal that it’s time for me to talk. For example, I train the students that when they see me standing at the front of the class waving my arms in the air, they should stop talking, face me and also wave their hands in the air. Some students do take some time to notice, especially if their heads are down or they are focussed on classmates. But other students elbow them or tell them and soon enough they are quiet and looking at me. This works well with younger students but I also have great success with this strategy with adults!
Different teachers have different successful strategies for getting attention and quiet. One teacher I saw in Croatia uses a loud squeaky plastic toy. A few squeezes and everyone is quiet. It’s fun, it’s friendly, it’s not aggressive and it works.

4.  ‘You’re stupid, lazy, bad etc’

When I was about six or seven years old, we started every school day with a hymn. I loved singing. It was joyous and energetic. One day as we were signing a teacher was standing next to me and when we finished she quietly commented ‘Oh dear, Olha, you can’t sing at all.’ After that I never sang in school assembly, I merely moved my mouth to look as if I was singing. In fact, I have never learnt to sing after all this time. That teacher (a very inappropriate label for someone who so demotivated a young child) had completely destroyed my confidence. The trouble is students, even teens and adults, tend to believe what teachers say. We are, after all, in positions of authority and who should know better than us?
 If we tell a student they are stupid, for example, one of two things is likely to happen.
(A) They will NOT believe us but consider us a very bad judge of students, lose all respect for us and ignore us most of the time from then onwards. They will lose motivation in the lessons and over time justify our judgement.
(B) They WILL believe us, be dispirited and stop making any effort, believing it’s a waste of time. They will lose motivation in the lessons and over time justify our judgement.
So our words become self-fulfilling prophesies.

We must be careful what we say. That teacher told me I couldn’t sing fifty years ago. I still feel a great sense of being wronged. Why didn’t she try to teach me to sing? Why didn’t she encourage me? Why didn’t she appreciate my joy of singing? Why did she have to say something so negative?

We should be very careful about what we say to students. They do hear us. We can undermine our mission or we can make our positive messages stronger.

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