Classroom language is that collection of phrases used for communication among teacher and students, from "Open your books to page fifteen" to "May I go to the bathroom?" While emphasis is usually placed primarily on the target language, classroom language, too, can be an invaluable way of promoting English as real communication, student involvement in the lesson, and active language learning skills.
I will summarize three steps in encouraging classroom language use, and will show how an activity can be modified to encourage the four different kinds of classroom language (requests, choices, leadership, and manners and values).
1. Practical Purpose for Students: Enabling Students to Get Things Done
Students can be encouraged to use classroom language independently under two conditions: it helps them to express themselves or have their needs and wishes met, and the lesson structure enables them to make decisions and requests. Below are some examples of lesson structures and the classroom language they enable.
This is perhaps the most familiar condition, in which students use expressions such as "How do you spell ____?" or "Can you repeat that?" to express their needs to the teacher. Through activities such as TPR, this can be expanded beyond the lesson to other areas, such as room conditions ("I'm hot. Can I open the window?") and restroom needs.
Given a coloring worksheet with, for example, numbered items of clothing, rather than dictating what students should do, teachers can create opportunities for students to make choices and even tell other students what to do. In this case, a student might say, "Let's color the . . . pants . . . um, pink!", or, at a more basic level, simply say the elements, "Number 6, pants, pink!"
Once students get accustomed to an activity, a student rather than the teacher can be in charge, whether as caller for bingo or slap, or as roll taker.
D. Manners and Values
Although this involves set expressions ("Thank you," "You're welcome," "I'm sorry," "That's okay"), it is also important to respect feelings and express appreciation.
For an example of how an activity can be modified to incorporate these four types of classroom language, see Encouraging Classroom Language Use - Part 2.
2. Selection of Expressions: Few, Frequent, and Systematic
I've worked mostly with students in their first or second year of English study from ages 4 to 9, who came for weekly, hour-long lessons. The most frequently used phrase is "please," and one reason is that students need to ask for everything: worksheets, game pieces, crafts supplies, the next item for bingo or slap, permission to wash their hands. Next is "What is it?" I used to teach "I don't know," but some students, particularly those with low self-confidence, tended to use it all the time to avoid answering. "What is it?", on the other hand, allowed students to ask for help, and in reply I would give the answer, provide hints, or invite the other students to help. The student in question would then be able to give the answer with confidence.
Two other well use phrases are "What's next?" and "Again, please." Both are used during activities such as dictation or bingo, when students must request the next item and ask me to repeat when they can't understand.
3. Reinforcement: Non-verbal Prompts
Key to any teaching strategy is how the language is reinforced after the initial introduction and practice. A problem with verbal prompts is that they easily become "feeds," where the prompter may unconsciously give away the language to the student. Students can quickly figure out that eventually the teacher will feed them the desired answer, and will come to depend on the teacher rather than try to remember the language themselves.
Non-verbal prompts can help remind students what expression the situation calls for or recall the language, while also building student confidence and the spirit of helping each other. Below are some forms of non-verbal prompts.
A. Visual Prompts
Pictures illustrating situations such as "I'm sorry" can be reviewed regularly and posted. When needed, the teacher can point to them or hold them up.
B. Reading Prompts
Students comfortable with reading can have a list of useful phrases which can be posted and/or glued to the inside cover of their textbooks. I've posted numbered lists with large letters, and have sometimes held up fingers to indicate the number of the expression they should be using.
C. Gesture Prompts
Shrugging can indicate "I don't know," and outstretched hand "please," a hand cupping the ear "Can you repeat that?", and so on. (Gesture prompts are used in Part 2.)
D. Pronunciation Prompts
Especially in classes paying close attention to pronunciation and phonics, such as those using the "Finding Out" series, I've sometimes mouthed the expression, and let students deduce the sounds.
E. Clue Prompts
Rather than the entire phrase, just the first word or first sound can be given, or blanks can be written on the board with the first letter of each word. This takes a little time, so I've usually used it in situations where the phrase will be used several times, such as reminding students of "What's next?" during a game.
Be careful to distinguish between meaning reinforcement and usage reinforcement. Meaning may be reinforced, say, when a new term is being introduced or when students are unable, even as a class, to remember what something means. Thus, in introducing the command, "Open your books," you might actually open a book, or use your hands to mime opening a book, to help students comprehend the message through visual as well as audio input.
In usage reinforcement, students already know the meaning, but need to be reminded to use it or of how to say it correctly. Thus, the (silent) open hand gesture reminds students there is a term to be used to request getting what they want, but there is no cue as to what that term is.
Meaning reinforcement should be used only after the students as a class have shown they don't understand the expression. Otherwise, they will respond to the on-verbal cues rather than to the language itself. In other words, they will be "listening" to the gesture of opening the book rather than to your words, "Open your books."
For myself, with the exceptions of Halloween and Christmas, classroom language has been the most fun to teach, as even the shyest students have gotten a kick out of barking orders or being able to choose what the class will color next. It takes planning and self-discipline on the part of the teacher, but seeing the students get more involved in the class is well worth it!