Clarifying Language

As part of my Delta Reflection and Action stage 2 action plan I said that I would try to:

move away from a teacher-centred, board-focussed model of language clarification

In two weeks time, I have to write up my stage 3 action plan, including reflecting on what has changed in my teaching since I wrote stage 2. It seems to me that I’ve not done much about this point, and I’d like to ask your help. 

When I wrote this I was focussing specifically on language clarification, as opposed to presentation. Most of my reading seems to be talking about moving away from PPP (present-practice-produce) towards a more guided method of introducing language. I think I’ve already made this journey, and can generally choose a presentation method to match the grammar point my students need (if, indeed, they need to be taught a particular grammar ‘point’ at all). What I wanted to focus on was how to clarify the meaning of this grammar if it was unclear to the students from my initial teaching.

He just doesn’t get it…
Photo taken from by @yearinthelifeof, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,


My natural instinct is always to go to the board, and I seem to end up spending a relatively long amount of time there. The students’ eyes glaze over, and they end up none the wiser. My explanation normally includes example sentences, perhaps timelines or pictures if relevant. I use concept checking questions, and I always have some kind of context, or at least I’m pretty sure I do. 

My question to you is: what have I missed? What could I be doing instead of lecturing from the board? 

19 thoughts on “Clarifying Language

  1. Hi Sandy. I picked up some mini white boards during my DELTA to avoid being so teacher centred. It was a really smart move as in the next LSA they picked up on the student-centred clarification of language. I got them to write down answers to listening questions and share with the whole class. Much more student centred plus it gave me the chance to do some individual teaching in the process. Get them to write, check with each other, learn from each other and you can jump in their with CCQs and clarification. No board needed.

    Hope this helps,



    1. Thanks Dale and everyone else. I used mini whiteboards exactly like that in my listening LSA, but didn’t think of it as language clarification. Of course it was…duh! I’ll keep thinking about it and will experiment with some of your ideas.


  2. I guess there is always the option for peer teaching if one or two of the students know the grammar point.
    What about getting students to create questions (together) over what part they don’t understand?
    Other than those ideas I’m really looking forward to hearing other peoples ideas! It’s certainly something I’ve had issues with as well.


  3. Hi Sandy,
    It’s not completely clear from your post if you have embraced guided discovery worksheets or not? If not, then I definitely recommend them as a way of getting the students to work alone and then in pairs / groups to discover the language for themselves. The worksheet will have your CCQs on it for the students to answer and then they can finish off a guided form themselves as well. You might even get them trying to drill each other before you provide models to make it even more student-centred, though that can lead to problems and does need learner training. Using Dale’s SS WBs can be a big part of feeding back on this stage (I just use laminated blank A4 paper – can you actually buy them, Dale?), or you could get groups to create their own posters of the grammar point as they understand it. Or if you’ve monitored everything to your and the students’ satisfaction and they seem to be going good you could just praise their work so far and head straight into using the language to see if they can cope with it.

    For examples of what I mean with conditions and results see: (though this does include a whiteboard-based feedback session 🙂 ).


    1. I use them occasionally but not often because of the prep time. I like the idea of combining it with the mini whiteboards. Ad you can buy them, though I sed laminated paper before I discovered that! Thanks for the example too.


      1. Hi Sandy,
        I find the prep time well worthwhile because then you can use them again and again (and tweek your CCQs on the basis of student responses). Normally all that needs changing are the example sentences so that the guided discovery matches the context the language arose in.

        Another way of lessening teacher-centred board focus is to get the students to create a written record on the white board amongst themselves / appoint a student as scribe/teacher and you can sit back and continue to monitor what they come up with it. Part of the mindset changing that Jenny so eloquently explains below 🙂


    2. Neil I’ve also used the plastic folder-paper trick. Works wonders if you can’t get hold of mini white boards. There are quite a few sites that sell them online, that’s where I picked mine up during DELTA. They posted them to the UK but not sure if they do to more remote and beautiful parts of the world!

      Those tips sound good too and I think I’ll include that in some of my lessons this or next week.



  4. Good question and I hope I can share my ideas on how I might use the board in a way that supports student centered learning.

    I suggest you begin by thinking of the board as a meeting space; a point of departure and return. The lesson is the travel experience.

    Use the board to gather the group on a central topic or problem. It can be via a visual image or written sentence with a key question. The key question is the “problem” the travelers will solve. The best task is one that requires students use novel utterances with each other in order to solve. This task can be scaffolded with a graphic organizer you have prepared in advance, but does not include specific examples or solutions.

    I am being purposely vague here because I want your followers to understand that teacher-centric instruction is a mindset and not necessarily defined by an instructional tool. Oftentimes, a lesson can increase the degree of student ownership with very little few changes in the instructional plan. Like I said, student centered learning is a mindset of the teacher that guides lesson planning. It is more of a way of configuring the lesson than a list of tools to use to teach a specific content goal.

    For example, the language goal may be pragmatics. Written on the board are the words “sarcasm” and “slang”. Students take a piece of paper, create a T chart and write each word as column headers. Then I would ask student pairs of 2 or 3 to write examples that they think fall under each category. I would allow 4 to 7 mins at the most. Then I would rejoin the class at the whiteboard and show this 4 min video.

    After the video, I would elicit comments and give students time to add examples to their list. Then I would again rejoin the group at the board and summarize examples.

    As you can see with my intermediate language lesson on pragmatics, using the board was not overly teacher centric lesson. I included large group work, individual work, opportunities to use novel language, the board as a meeting space, multimedia and individual notebooks. Teaching with the board is ok provided you use it as a tool for student centered learning.

    For additional ideas on how to develop lessons using a student centered approach be sure to follow #eltchat and #keltchat on Twitter as I do @jankenb2.

    I love your blog. Thanks. Jenny


  5. Hi Sandy,

    If you have a chance, I highly recommend Rosemary Aitken’s “Teaching Tenses.” ( Every tense is introduced with a series of questions to, “draw the target.” For example, when dealing with futurity, a quetions to draw the target of prediction include, “What will you do if it rains?” or “What will happen if the oil runs out?” Having a list of questions which basically require the target grammar can help clarify for the students what is expected and allows for a measure of evaluation (how much do the students already know) before jumping into the teaching.

    If you’re doing a taks based lesson or the students are producing an activity, I like the use of post-it notes. Just grabbing a few sentences said by a student in the moment, correcting it, and laying the post it down on their desk gives them the language they need with out interfering too much in the flow (I got this idea from Carol Goodey’s excellent blog ).

    The problem of keeping the class student centered when working with grammar is something I struggle with myself. I’ve really enjoyed this comment thread and really apprecite you starting this conversation on your blog.



    1. Thanks very much for your suggestions. I have Teaching Tenses, but I haven’t exploited as much as I could. It’s one of those books I used a lot when I was first teaching , but have neglected since. I’ll dig it out again.
      I remember reading about post-it correction too, but never tried it. Really need to start following through a bit more! 🙂
      I’m glad I started this thread – it’s one of the most productive I’ve ever had!


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