Teaching and Practicing Classroom Language

Steven Whitear, Bunka Women's University


  • Key Words: Classroom management, Speaking, Interaction
  • Learner English Level: All
  • Learner Maturity Level: All
  • Preparation Time: 10 minutes
  • Activity Time: 30 minutes

Here are two ideas to teach and practice some classroom language which are especially good with a new class. This approach also functions to introduce students to pairwork if it is novel to them in the foreign language setting. In addition, it has the effect of establishing a good rapport with the class.


I write on the board the following language (adjusted according to language ability):

I'm sorry, I don't understand.    
Could you speak more slowly  
    loudly please?
  say that again    
What does ______ mean?


I then ask each student a simple question but very quickly, quietly, heavily accented, or amidst a coughing fit. I point to the relevant language, if necessary. It may take a student the use of four or five phrases of the above language to reach a correct answer. The exchange may go like this:

T Do you like rhinoceroses? (fast)
S I'm sorry, I don't understand.
T Do you like rhinoceroses? (fast)
S Could you speak more slowly, please.
T Sure. Do you like rhinoceroses? (very quietly)
S Could you speak more loudly, please.
T Of course. Do you like rhinoceroses? (while looking for a piece of chalk you have dropped under a table)
S Could you say that again, please.
T Yes, certainly. Do you like rhinoceroses?
S What does rhinoceroses mean?
T (draw picture) Do you like them?
S Yes.

If it is done comically, those who are not directly involved will still concentrate and pick up the idea. In one exchange it is better to aim for just one or two questions at first, and build it up as students feel more comfortable about doing the activity.

Example questions:

How many people live in Sendai?
How many fingers do you have?
What's the capital city of England?
What's my father's name?
Do you like cockroaches?
Do you like rhinoceroses?
Have you ever kissed a giraffe?
Would you like me to give you some money?

If someone balks at using the language, point to the relevant phrase on the board. When they ask the meaning of creatures, draw them.

Usually, someone will take too long to respond early on and I take this opportunity to introduce a three-second rule. I get a person to ask me a question in Japanese, and ham up the thinking-about-it body language for an obviously burdensome time. I then ask another student to give me another question, and I answer with a quick and confident, "Wakarimasen." I then simply say that after about three seconds silence in most situations the communication breaks down, so it's better to say something within three seconds.

When I have finished with the above questions, I then get the students to write the classroom language either on the back of name cards which they have on their desk or in their textbooks.

Next, I review large numbers and follow up with a basic number dictation. Needless to say, the numbers are dictated quickly, quietly, while chewing a sandwich or whatever it takes to have them try to 'control' your excesses. Usually, all it takes is a smile and a gesture to the board or name card. If it is done humorously enough, students respond readily.

Finally, I ask the students to write down ten high numbers and to dictate them to a partner. This is an opportunity for practice of the classroom language as well as numbers. Some students will have problems thinking of ten numbers. Go around the room and them to come up with the required numbers. This final activity is always animated. Students check the dictation themselves.

A fun follow-up activity for later, and one I always use with my English through Drama students, reviews the spirit of the interchange and is a great warm-up activity. It is also very useful for promoting the idea of eye contact.

Write on the board the following language:


Is the letter ______ ?
Could you do it again more slowly please?
I'm sorry, I don't understand.
Could you do the first/second/third/fourth letter again?


I then ask a student to tell me the three-letter word I am going to write by moving my head in the air. As before, I ham it up a bit to prompt the use of the classroom language. I then get a student to write a word with his or her head while I try to figure out what it is. Then I let the students have fun with it, but, have them stand to do it. This increases student involvement.

After a few minutes you will notice that the 'readers' often drop their heads and lose eye contact as they trace the word on the palms of their hands. I point