In this series of articles, we are looking at some common teaching actions which more often than not simply don’t work. If you find yourself doing this in the classroom, think about why you are doing it - if you don’t have a clear reason, or evidence that it helps students to improve their language in practice, it may not be the most effective way…
Ask many English language teachers what they find challenging about the job, and they will tell you that a lot of English grammar and vocabulary is ‘difficult to explain’ to students. It’s true - explaining abstract concepts such as grammar is difficult, and the amount of multiple meanings, synonyms and near-synonyms, idioms and other nuances of meaning make vocabulary difficult to teach through explanations.
What does it mean to ‘explain’?
At a basic level, explaining involves one person who knows more about something telling another person who doesn’t know so much about it, so that they can understand more about that thing than they did before. We might explain how a new coffee machine works, so that someone can make their own coffee; we might explain how to cook a dish so that someone can make it for themselves. Explanations are a great way to impart knowledge or information in a condensed package, if they have a clear purpose behind them.
If we transfer this to the language classroom, however, there is a problem: the purpose that a learner needs to fulfil by knowing a piece of grammar or a vocabulary concept is to be able to use it to communicate more effectively when they need to apply that concept in communication. In order to do this, the concept being explained has to be activated in the learner through practice and application, not just knowledge of that thing. Language development is not a one-time deal - a single explanation is not enough for someone to go away and integrate the language they learn, along with all its different forms and nuanced usages, from a single teacher-led explanation.
In this way, language development is more like learning to drive. An expert can explain exactly how to start a car, start driving, change gears, brake, etc., but a first-time driver will still take several attempts to successfully start moving and get up enough speed to get anywhere on the road (with several stalls and false starts along the way, if my experience is anything to go by).
A second problem with the definition of ‘explaining’, above, for language learning comes from the idea of ‘telling’ - explaining is basically a long, complex process of ‘telling’. This is a one-way process, where the information moves from the expert ‘knower’ to the receiving learner. Language learning requires interaction, even when taking a new form for the first time. A one-way strategy such as explaining is simply not effective for language learning.
Finally, as covered in a previous article, the language of explanation is by definition more complex than the thing that is being explained. This is a serious risk to the quality of learning in the language classroom, where everything is based around the use of language and concepts that are known or understood by learners, in order for them to upgrade towards language that they are not familiar with.
Why do teachers feel the need to explain?
If it is so difficult, why do so many teachers go to explanation as a first resource when introducing new language to learners? A common reason is the assumption that explaining is simply a quicker way of getting points across to students. However, as we can see from the above examples, a single explanation, no matter how detailed, leaves a lot of gaps in students’ language knowledge. A ‘quick’ explanation, followed by some language tasks can quickly become a rabbit-hole which is difficult to extract yourself from. Partial understanding leads to gaps in learners’ knowledge. This in turn leads to uninformed or inaccurate responses in tasks, requiring further explanation in feedback.
This vicious cycle may be familiar to many teachers - the never-ending questions about specific examples or usages in a set of sentences, the question ‘but why?’ And the response ‘because that’s just how it is in English…’, endless individual examples that don’t quite add up to complete understanding by the end of the lesson… these are the effects of a ‘quick’ explanation, which can end up eating twice as much of the lesson as you planned.
So what are the alternatives to explanation?
There are many ways of introducing and working with new concepts, depending on the level and preferences of your learners. Taking a top-down approach, eliciting from meaning to form, working with language in context, using a specific staging technique such as test-teach-test… Whichever choice you make about how you introduce new concepts to learners, it has to be based on a process of shared, meaningful buildup of understanding - one that doesn’t put learners at a deficit of understanding (as explaining does), and one which focuses on what student can do, and what they already know, rather than what they don’t.
These proven methods may take longer to set up at first, but the speed of application, and levels of engagement from learners that results, leads to more informed, involved and effective application of new language in the end.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.