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Using language appropriately for a range of classroom functions

Module Three | Teachers’ and learners’ language in the classroom

How is language to be used in an appropriate way for a range of classroom functions?


To answer questions 1-5, have a look at the situations given and the three possible things that a teacher would say. Select what you think is the most suitable option 1, 2 or 3.

  1. A class of primary children of 9-10 years of age is finishing a pairwork task. The teacher needs to check the answers with the class.
    1. What is the answer to number 1? Please put your hands up.
    2. Can anyone tell me what you think could be the answer for question number 1?
    3. Answer?
  2. A teacher of a class of teenagers who are in their second year of English has introduced a new grammatical structure to her students. She wants to check whether the students understand the meaning.
    1. Do you all understand?
    2. Can you please explain the meaning for me?
    3. Can anyone give me an example of a sentence?
  3. A discussion activity is being done by a group of businessmen. The teacher realizes that a student has made an error. She says:
    1. That answer is bad.
    2. That answer is wrong.
    3. Is that answer correct?
  4. A class of adult students of mixed levels is given the first instruction by the teacher for a complicated group activity.
    1. Everyone knows what has to be done, so you can all begin.
    2. I’m giving a handout for the activity. Here you are. You can start.
    3. First, everybody get into the groups you were in yesterday.
  5. A teacher is narrating a story to a class of young primary learners. They have only been learning English for a month.
    1. Stories are very important for you to learn new grammar.
    2. Here is a beautiful girl. Look. One day…
    3. This is a story about a small, naughty boy who used to live in an old village far away from the city.


To use a language appropriately means to use language that suits the students and the situation in the best way. The teachers and students use language in the classroom for certain purposes which are known as classroom functions. They differ from teachers to students. Classroom functions for teachers could be for example, to manage activities and learning, to proceed smoothly from one stage of the lesson to the next stage and to explain the learning points.

Common classroom functions

Using language appropriately for a range of classroom functions 2

Here are some examples of common classroom functions that teachers use:

Instructing – the process of telling the students what to do at different stages of the lesson. The language that is usually used to give instructions especially for younger students and beginners, is imperative such as ‘Open your textbooks at page 10’. For students who are at higher levels, other forms of language can be used. Eg: for this activity, you are going to work in groups.’

Explaining – a teacher would explain to the students how to do an activity correctly, how to organise a project, the meaning of certain vocabulary or maybe why a correction is needed. Here is an example: when explaining about a project work, a teacher might say something like this: ‘The project work will be put on the walls so we must ensure that everything is clear and looks good.’

Narrating – this is the process of telling a story or describing something that has taken place. Stories are often told to students in the primary classroom. This happens in the secondary and adult classrooms too, but there might be more talk about past experiences as well as things that have happened in the past.

Eliciting – when information (it can be information about topics or language) is received from, rather than given to our students. Here is an example: the teacher can show the students a picture and ask them ‘In this picture, what do you see?’ The teacher can also request the students to provide general information. For example, what a particular animal eats.

Prompting students – is when a teacher says something to aid the students in thinking of ideas or remembering a word or phrase by just giving them a small part of it. A teacher could tell the students the beginning of a storytelling activity ‘You can start the story using this picture’, or if a student finds that he/she cannot remember a word, the teacher could help them with the first sound of the word, eg. lang for ‘language’.

Correcting – students can be corrected by the use of language to show where or how they have made an error.

Checking learning – this is done all the time during the lessons. However, it is most often done after new language has been presented, and also at the end of a lesson to provide the teacher with information he/she needs in order to plan the next lesson.

Conveying the meaning of new language – when meaning is conveyed, the person conveying it shows the meaning of new words or structures. This can be done in a few ways. For example: bringing in realia, using mime or by asking concept questions. It may be necessary to explain the meaning, demonstrate the meaning or (in certain situations where the meaning is tough to explain in English) to translate it.


Nerd baby says ...​

The language used in a classroom should be proper and suitable for the classroom function. It has to suit the level of the students as well as their age. For example, when dealing with primary students, it is not ideal to use formal language whereas with older students it is not appropriate to use language that is too babyish.

The language used needs to be graded to match the language level of the students as well as their age. This means deciding to use classroom language that is below or otherwise at the level of language of the students. Grading means that the language used is at the right language level for the students to understand.

Language must be sequenced properly in order to give students learning opportunities. Using language in an order that is logical is sequencing. This is especially important for descriptions, explanations and instructions.

Students can learn classroom language by hearing it being used repeatedly. Therefore, it is essential to use the same classroom language for the classroom functions at the beginning stages of learning. Phrases that are easy can be built up to suit the students’ age and level.

It is important to consider what language is to be used for different classroom functions as well as to ensure that the language being used is suitable. Appropriate language will have the right level of formality for the students, be graded well, sequenced and clear. If the teacher does not plan or consider the language he/she will use, he/she might use language which is too complicated. This would not aid the students with their learning.

Test Your Knowledge

Take a look at the list of classroom functions in the key concepts given above and the activities carried out by a teacher given below. Decide which classroom functions you would use at which stage of the lesson. More than one classroom function can be used at each stage.

Stages of a lesson

  1. Providing feedback after completion of a task
  2. Monitoring the students during an activity that is controlled practice
  3. Telling a story to the rest of the class and asking them to join in
  4. Brainstorming ideas with the whole class for a writing task
  5. Introducing new vocabulary

Read the instructions given by the teacher to the students on how to make a dog puppet. Which language form do you think the teacher uses for each instruction? Which conjunctions does she use in order to sequence her instructions?

Now watch me first. Take the scissors and cut. Start with the bunny’s head. OK, be careful. Cut round the head and now his big ears… his big ears that go flop, flop, flop. And up the ear and down again and round his head. Then, cut here round the bunny’s face and round his shoulder and down round his body and now down to his feet.

(adapted from English for Primary Teachers by Mary Slattery and Jane Willis, Oxford University Press 2001)

Here are some comments from teachers. Which of these commends would you agree with and why?

  1. I don’t have to plan the language I use to give instructions. I just think of and decide what to say at the moment and I know if my students understand me or not.
  2. I collect different phrases that I use to manage my classes. I select from these phrases when I plan my lessons. I teacher various levels. However, I can use the same language for each level.
  3. My students speak the same language as I do. Therefore, it’s better for me to use the mother tongue for setting up activities and to check the understanding of the students.

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