When we think about a teacher’s job, one of the most important things that they should be able to do is to explain tricky ideas, right?
A history teacher should be able to explain why historical events happened; a geography teacher should explain how climate change has affected the world, and a science teacher should be able to explain the results of an experiment he is presenting.
All of the above is true - in most subject disciplines, explanation is an aid to learning. This is because history, geography and maths are (to a greater or lesser extent) knowledge-based subjects. Students have to know certain principles or facts, formulas or dates, to be able to progress in their subject. Explaining is especially effective when the language of instruction is the same as the first language of the students, as in most school-based instruction worldwide.
However, when it comes to language education, neither of the above points are true: language is not an information-based subject, and if students are studying a second (or other) language, the language of instruction (English) is by definition not their first language. In the field of language education (at least up to relatively high levels of proficiency), explanation is a hindrance to learning rather than a help. Here’s why:
The language of explanation is more complex than the thing being explained
Try to explain a simple, low-level concept: the word ‘car’. Imagine you were explaining this to someone for the first time, using only your words. How would you do this? Perhaps:
“It’s a vehicle with four wheels, which you can drive on the road”
This already has some vocabulary (vehicle) and grammar (relative clause - which you can…), which would cause issues for learners at the level of study where they are learning ‘car’.
If we simplify this to a more appropriate level:
“it’s a thing with four wheels on the road”
We lose the specific meaning which we want to provide (this could equally describe a minibus, truck, etc.) so the act of explaining is pretty redundant in the first place.
Ah, you might say, that is why we use pictures and flashcards: to show the meaning of simple words at this level. Yes, exactly. Low-level classes tend to include less explanation than others, which is a good thing. Still, I have seen many teachers struggle with trying to explain away ‘simple’ language at very low level classes. It rarely, if ever, works.
2) Explanation increases Teacher Talk Time and restricts Student Talk Time
Now increase the level of the language to a higher proficiency, perhaps to explain the difference between present simple and present continuous tenses. What happens when you get going in that explanation? I’d bet you run into the same issues: high-level concepts, exceptions, lengthy teacher-centred examples… none of which get the students applying (and therefore retaining) the language that they are learning.
The more you are explaining, the less the students are doing anything with the tenses you are ‘teaching’. The more likely you are to get a blank wall of switched-off faces, and confused looks. The longer you go down the explanation rabbit-hole, the more your lesson becomes an exercise in extended, high-level listening skills, and the less it becomes about grammar. The stronger listeners might follow you (if they can manage the terminology you use) - the weaker students will give up soon after you begin.
If you recognise the situation above from your classes, you are probably spending too much time explaining, and not enough time engaging your learners in tasks and questions, facilitating their learning rather than dictating through your own talk.
3) Explaining suppresses interaction
Because of the unidirectional flow of information that comes at the students through explanations, some underlying issues can be unintentionally reinforced. Long, uninterrupted flows of teacher talk, with the students listening quietly (what else can they do?) Implies that the teacher is in a superior role, which in turn affects the power dynamic of the classroom. The more you speak, the less the students feel they are able or allowed to speak, so the less they will speak, even if called on directly.
The more explanations come from the teacher, the less opportunity there will be for students to talk to each other, so the less student-student interaction there will be, and so the less the students will be prepared to speak to each other. An indirect result of this is that there will be more pressure on the teacher to fill the class time with other, teacher-presented material.
In addition, the more you explain, the less students will listen to each other, and the less peer interaction will matter in their classes, and so we go further down the explanation rabbit-hole! Explanation has many effects to reduce different types of interaction in the classroom, and it is interaction which brings language alive in students.
4) Explaining creates a deficit mindset
Another side-effect of explanation is that it sets the teacher up as the knowledgeable authority of the room, and implies that students are at a deficit because they don’t know about the thing you are explaining. This implies a negative starting point of ‘not knowing’, which is a much harder starting point that that of ‘knowing’, or even ‘finding out’. Allowing students to find out about language for themselves, through ‘noticing’ tasks, guided discovery and top-down activity can enable much higher quality of learning, and help students to work together, interacting and engaging with language together, rather than sitting back and (maybe) listening to the teacher’s explanations.
However you approach new language, think about the alternatives to explanation. There are many techniques and methods which enable, facilitate, encourage, rather than stepping on interaction and application: eliciting, checking meaning, presenting meaning before form, top-down methods… all of these are designed to engage learners in a staged way, appropriately to their level and their existing knowledge. Explaining may seem like an easier way to approach new language, but let's be honest - it has never really worked...
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF 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.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.