Communication skills for teachers in the language classroom

Written by: Desmond Thomas, British Council Bulgaria & Svetlana Dimitrova, NBU

Introduction
The way in which some teachers communicate with and establish positive rapport with language learner students often seems effortless – one of life’s mysteries. How do they do it? The question is worth asking because:

  1. Teacher trainers can produce plenty of anecdotal evidence of the opposite extreme – trainee teachers or even experienced teachers who fail to communicate with their students.
  2. Emerging evidence from a new research project in Bulgaria (see below) supports this idea and gives a picture of the negative consequences of communication failure. These include: demotivation of students, frustration for the teacher and conflict rather than co-operation in the classroom (cf. Malamah-Thomas 1987:8-9)
  3. It’s a question that doesn’t get asked as frequently as it should. A brief survey of articles and books which deal with the ‘communicative classroom’ shows that they tend to focus on ways of encouraging learners to be more communicative. When communication skills for teachers are mentioned, these tend to equate with presentation skills for conferences or seminars.

There are exceptions to this. For instance, Penny Ur (1997) in a conference presentation entitled “Are teachers born or made?” concludes that there may be some individuals who are born not to teach. In this respect she identifies some essential qualities, which relate to teaching rather than other professions:

  • I sense where the learner is at, what their problem is: I feel what they know and what they don’t know.
  • I know how to transform what I know about the language into a form that is accessible to my learners
  • I know how to design and administer activities and exercises that will foster learning
  • I know when learning is and is not happening by the way the learners behave: I don’t need tests
  • I get my ‘buzz’ from when the students succeed, learn, progress

Communication skills and the ability to build rapport are implied here rather than stated directly. Richard Cullen (1998) is a little more explicit, providing useful ideas on features of teacher talk, which can help foster communication with students. His initial list includes: use of referential questions (rather than display questions), content feedback (rather than form-focused feedback), use of speech modification such as rephrasing and attempts to negotiate meaning. However, he quite rightly points out that such a list is defined in terms of the norms of communication from outside the classroom. So what do desirable classroom norms look like? He suggests the following list:

  • Questioning/eliciting
  • Responding to students’ contributions
  • Presenting/explaining
  • Organizing/giving instructions
  • Evaluating/correcting
  • ‘Sociating’/establishing & maintaining classroom rapport

An effective language teacher will aim to use all of the above channels of communication, whether it is through varying questioning techniques, taking care to give clear instructions, being sensitive to feedback from students, and so on. But it is the last category – “establishing and maintaining classroom rapport” – which is of particular interest, since this is the area about which relatively little appears to have been written. How do we go about improving our ability to ‘sociate’ or to establish rapport? Illustrative case studies, some of them taken from an on-going research project could provide at least a partial answer.

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A Baseline survey of English Language Teacher Education in Bulgaria

As part of its commitment to encouraging the development of effective teacher education programmes in Bulgaria, the British Council is currently helping to co-ordinate the first ever extensive survey of English language pre-service teacher education in the country. A pilot project is already underway in Veliko Turnovo.

Some of the case studies quoted below have emerged from that pilot project. Some pre-date the project and have been taken from teaching practice supervision exercises in the Sofia region. All the case studies are real and have been well-documented.

The case studies appear to confirm that one very important factor that contributes to successful teaching is indeed the teacher’s ability to communicate directly, clearly and in a supportive and encouraging manner with her students. Here are some typical examples (greatly abbreviated from the original reports):

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Case 1

In a lesson based on the topic of “advertising”, Teacher B gives out brochures & leaflets (in Bulgarian) advertising various products for his 9th grade students to look at in pairs. But after a couple of minutes of excitement and interest in the colourful realia, the students look puzzled – no task has been given. Meanwhile, Teacher B is at his desk, looking intently at his lesson plan, completely unaware of the problem .

10 minutes later Teacher B starts walking round the class, asking every pair for the English name of the product advertised in their sample and whether the advertisement is effective. He speaks in a low voice, which can hardly be heard across the room and so do the Ss in providing answers to his questions. (‘What is advertised?’ and ‘Is it effective?’) Ss do not listen to each other and start talking among themselves until their turn comes.

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Case 2

In a grammar lesson on degrees of comparison with a group of adult elementary students, Teacher N begins by instructing them to look at the grammar table in their textbooks while she reads out the information from the same table on a small handout stuck on the blackboard. While she does this, she stands with her back to the students. She explains the different patterns one by one in Bulgarian in a low and monotonous tone of voice, insisting on Ss’ silence (noise was caused by Ss trying to clarify the pattern to each other).

After each pattern explanation, she makes the students repeat in chorus the examples from the table. Some of the adult students are rather reluctant to do so. A task follows, which requires them to use the comparative of some adjectives. A number of problems occur with selecting the right form and the spelling of the adjectives. Teacher N blames the students for not being careful enough while she was explaining the rules.

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Case 3

In a class of 9th graders, Teacher P gives instructions for a listening comprehension task in Bulgarian. After an attempt to pre-teach three key vocabulary items, he plays the recording leaving the students no time to get familiar with the elements of the task. Some students find the task difficult and start following the tapescript at the back of the book – this goes unnoticed by the teacher.

Answers are demanded immediately after the end of the recording. Only one girl volunteers and after helplessly searching with his eyes for other contributors in vain, Teacher P allows that student to provide all the answers. It’s not clear whether they have failed to complete the task or whether they simply refuse to cooperate. No evidence or support from the text is elicited for the right answers. When the student fails, the correct answer is provided by the teacher himself. No further listening is done.

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Case 4

In a reading lesson based on the topic of “Human Cloning”, teacher L spends the first part of the lesson in lecture mode – in effect giving a science lecture. At the beginning she attempts to create rapport with the students by telling a joke related to the topic, but few of them understand and the effect of the joke is lost. She doesn’t really attempt to elicit students’ ideas on the topic.

Throughout this part of the lesson L stays in her chair at the front of the class. Through negative body language she also transmits a lack of real interest in the topic. She very quickly goes on to the reading of the text, during which she asks individual students to translate word for word. The students seem grateful to hear the bell for the end of the lesson.

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Case 5

At the beginning of the lesson Teacher E announces to her 10th grade class : “Today we’re going to do revision exercises. We will begin with a grammar exercise for the present continuous”. The pattern of the lesson then becomes very clear: students do one grammar exercise after another (always on a different topic) and then E checks it. The order of the textbook is followed rigidly, and E’s checking consists of asking individual students to volunteer the right answer. No attempt is made to determine whether the others have understood: the teacher doesn’t even look towards the back row, where the students are either sleeping or chatting to their friends in low voices.

Occasionally, E decides to give brief grammar explanations. Her voice is low and monotonous, and her presence in class rather muted. Her body language doesn’t help: she doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about the task in hand. She forgets to use the blackboard during her short explanations, so that these rely on students listening carefully to what she says.

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Tentative conclusions: areas which help & hinder the development of rapport

From these five cases studies and many more, (some giving positive and some giving negative examples of effective classroom communication), it is possible to draw some preliminary conclusions concerning factors which can help or hinder teacher-student communication in English language classes in Bulgarian schools. For more ideas on the first three categories see also Gower et al., 1995: 8-18.

Use of eye contact

In all of the case studies the trainee teachers underestimated the power of eye contact to encourage contributions from the students, to hold the attention of students, to elicit feedback from them, to check comprehension and to signal when to start or stop. In Case Study 1, for example, the teacher is too busy consulting his notes to be able to use his eyes to see how students are coping with the set activities.

Use of body language

Gestures, facial expressions and mime have multiple uses. They can help convey the meaning of language, facilitate classroom management or can entirely substitute verbal explanations. They also convey a sense of involvement and interest on the part of the teacher. Where they are noticeably absent, as in Case Studies 2, 4 and 5, students easily become distracted and disengaged from the target activities.

Use of voice

In most of the case studies reference is made to the “low and monotonous tone of voice” employed by the teacher. Trainee teachers need to be aware of the potential effects of varying the use of the voice (whether through loudness/softness, high speed/low speed, high pitch/low pitch etc.). Voice variation can help energize or calm a class, can help draw attention to key items, can express moods and feelings and can help provide structural markers during a lesson.

Use of varied patterns of teacher & student talk

In many of the case studies (eg Case Study 4) unsuccessful trainee teachers tended to rely on lecture mode to communicate with their classes (perhaps subconsciously copying the style of their university lecturers). Those trainees who made a conscious attempt to vary the patterns of interaction during a particular lesson tended to be more successful.

Use of techniques to gain, keep & spread attention

Case Studies 3 and 5 represent typical examples of trainee teachers who are unable to discover a means of involving the majority of students in the target activities. In desperation, such teachers tend to accept any answer to questions presented to the whole group, even if this means the same individual repeatedly supplying all the answers. Where simple techniques such as moving around the class or asking students to prepare answers in pairs were used, the amount of student involvement rises dramatically. Other techniques such as using visual aids to focus attention also seem to help in this respect.

Ability to adapt materials & activities to suit the context

This crucial aspect of teaching seems to be lacking in most of the case studies cited above. The reaction of the teacher in Case Study 2 is typical of many trainees, who find it much easier to blame the student for not understanding the explanation given.

In Case Study 5, Teacher E’s insistence on keeping to the order of exercises prescribed by the textbook shows an insensitivity to the context and an inability to communicate with those whose needs are not being taken into account.

Flexibility & sensitivity to changing demands of the lesson

In the pilot project and in other classes observed successful communicators were often those who refused be slaves to the coursebook, or the lesson plan, or the exam syllabus. In several cases, being willing to jettison an activity (or even the entire the lesson plan) sometimes determined the outcome of a lesson.

As well as these factors mentioned above, there are others which are less easily definable. For instance, certain personality traits in the teacher may play an important part in determining the degree of successful communication between teacher and students. But the cases observed are inconclusive in this respect: obvious extroverts often had more difficulties than more thoughtful introverts, who tended to spend more time thinking about different ways of improving communication.

In conclusion, it seems that only a more extensive enquiry building on these preliminary findings will begin to solve the ‘mystery’ of successful classroom communication between teachers and their students. The baseline survey of pre-service teacher training in Bulgaria may provide both an opportunity and a meaningful context for this. In the meantime, the idea of the ‘born teacher’ and ‘born communicator’ remains neither proven nor unproven.

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References

Cullen, R., 1998, “Teacher talk & the classroom context”, ELTJournal 52/3
Gower,R., Phillips,D. & Walters,W. 1995, Teaching Practice Handbook, Heinemann
Malamah-Thomas, A. 1987, Classroom Interaction, Oxford University Press
Ur, P. ,1997, “Are teachers born or made?”, IATEFL UK conference proceedings

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