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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

June 15, 2001

Encouraging Classroom Language Use

by Michelle Louwerse

Part I


Kids 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. Part 1 will summarize three steps in encouraging classroom language use, and Part 2 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.

A. Requests
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.

B. Choices
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!"

C. Leadership
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."


In summary, the immediate practicality and frequency of use of classroom language helps students appreciate English as real communication and develop their confidence, in both their English abilities and in themselves as active individuals by enabling them to use it to get things done. Through the frequent and systematic use of a selected list of words and expressions, reinforced with a variety of non-verbal prompts, teachers can help students to master and enjoy using classroom language. This is not to imply that the target language is unimportant, but simply to highlight the rich possibilities for learning and even mastery that are offered by classroom language.

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!

Best of luck with your teaching!

Part II


This article will show how an activity can be modified to encourage the four kinds of classroom language (requests, choices, leadership, and manners and values) described in part 1.

The Basic Activity: Peephole Cards for Vocabulary Review

Stack of large picture cards of vocabulary for review, several A-3-sized, opaque sheets of paper with a hole cut in the middle about half a centimeter to a centimeter square in size (larger hole for younger students). I usually just ran A-3 paper through the copy machine with the cover up (although you will be scolded, like I always was, for doing this).

"What is it?", "It's a ____," "Is it a ____?", "No, it isn't," "Yes, it is."

Classroom Context:
Students have already been taught the classroom language and are familiar with the non-verbal prompts (gestures, etc.).

Teacher holds up a card with the peephole screen in front of it. "What is it?" she asks mysteriously. Students are perplexed. She moves the card behind the screen so that, through the hole, students can see different parts of the picture. Students yell guesses, teacher replies, until someone gets it right. Teacher demonstrates two more times, using different picture cards, then divides students into pairs and they take turns quizzing each other.

Administrative Hint:
When dividing classes into pairs with different roles, designate one student A and one student B. Explain that all the A's are the quizzers and all the B's the guessers. Call the A's to the front to pick up the cards. As pairs finish, tell the B's to take the peephole screen and choose a new card (as necessary).


Key Idea:
Students will not get X unless they request it appropriately (in English, of course). Students must desire X, or they will not be motivated to make the effort of requesting it, and they must have the ability and aids to make that request.

Motivating young children is simple and fun: show them something, make a big deal over it, show them there is enough for everyone, and then blatantly fail to give them any. With some classes, lording it over them, and then crying and feigning agony when you are "forced" to distribute it because they have asked appropriately, is also a great motivator.

A's come to the teacher to get the peephole screens, perhaps carelessly requesting the screen in L1. After fiercely ordering, "Line up," teacher studies the ceiling casually or admires her nails while casually prompting "____, please," with her outstretched hand.

Baffled by what the screens are called, the first A will point to it and ask, "What is it?" (If this question doesn't come, the teacher can remind the student to ask by shrugging her shoulders.) The teacher says, "Black peephole paper" (or whatever). The student says, "Black peephole paper, please," and, after getting the screen, goes to choose a picture card.


Key Idea:
This requires students to make choices and requests based on them so shy or reticent students may be unfairly discriminated against. (This can be avoided by letting students take turns choosing first, for example.) It is helpful to demonstrate how to request the choices first, such as by holding up each item and saying what it is before failing to give them away.

The peephole screens can be diversified by having the holes in different shapes, or, rather than being all black, can be of construction paper of different colors. Students then request, "Heart peephole paper, please," or "Blue peephole paper, please." The request can also be simplified if necessary to "Heart paper, please," or just "Heart, please." More peephole screens than pairs can be available, and the quizzers are free to change their screen a limited number of times. Of course, they must first request it: "Change paper, please," for example.

My students were usually in their first or second year of learning English and very young, so I kept the language structure for requests very simple. With students of more experience or older age, I would require longer, more correct requests ("May I have...?" and so on).


Key Idea
Perhaps the more accurate phrase should be "Being in Charge," or "Bossing Your Classmates Around." It's been my experience that nothing excites a child more than power (except, perhaps, causing pain). Minor adjustments to almost any activity can open it up to letting students have more control over certain aspects.

After the second or third time the class has done the activity (and so is comfortable, perhaps even a little bored with it), review the directions up, down, left, right, and stop. Then, as quizzer, communicate that you will not move the hole unless they tell you. (Be sure to clarify whose perspective will be used for left and right.) This makes the activity more fun for both A and B as one gets to choose the card while the other gets to give orders.

Manners and Values

Key Idea
If nothing else, students leave the class knowing "Thank you" and "Please." As much as the subject of the class, teachers embody certain values, and it's always been important to me–especially with the current problems of bullying and classroom collapse–to emphasize respect for each other as well as the teacher and fair play. Students also do better knowing they are in a safe and just environment. (For a discussion of rules and classroom policy, see Effective Classroom Rules.

The first A successfully requests a peephole screen from the teacher and has it in hand, but the teacher does not let go. A tugs and tugs, and is rewarded with a dark look or raised eyebrows from the teacher. A remembers–or is prompted by those behind him–to say, "Thank you!" The teacher says, "You're welcome," and lets go of the peephole screen.

During excited quizzing, A's partner B is unable to guess the picture. A forgets himself and cries out, "Baka! (Stupid!)" The classroom goes silent as the teacher immediately stops all other activity, walks up to A, and says sternly, "We don't say baka in class. No baka. Tell B you're sorry." A tells B, "I'm sorry." B replies, "That's okay." They shake hands. (This may be prompted as necessary).

Michele Louwerse

A native of Hawaii, Michele Louwerse has taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and organized summer English camps and teacher training workshops in Hong Kong and Guangdong (Canton), China. After earning an M.Ed. in Secondary English Education at New York University, she taught at the Nagoya (Japan) YMCA English School for five years, including two years as head coordinator, and specialized in classes for children aged 4-6 years. She is currently working at the National Council of YMCAs of Japan.

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