Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Praise of Explaining

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

When I did my initial teaching course way back in 1992, our trainers made it clear that standing at the front of the class and explaining things to students was simply not the done thing. Good teachers, we were told, don’t explain things; good teachers have special techniques for “eliciting” or “facilitating discovery” of the points they want to get across.

I suspect that this was a reaction to the excessively teacher-centered methods that had gone before, and to be fair, my trainers did have a point. After all, who wants to sit in a classroom and be “talked at” day after day? As with so many things in our profession, however, this new awareness did not result in a logical “Perhaps we should do less one-way explaining” or “Perhaps we should combine explaining with other methods of instruction,” but rather the more reactionary “Right! Nobody is to explain anything anymore!”

This way of thinking was particularly noticeable in the area of vocabulary instruction. In the 1990s, no self-respecting teacher would offer students a simple translation of a new word. Well, not in an observed lesson, anyway! I remember being told that there was no need to translate words because a skilled teacher should be able to convey the meaning of any vocabulary item through other methods, such as the use of gestures or mime. I still hear this claim a lot even now: I can explain any word without using the students’ language!

Again, an argument can be made in favor of this approach, but I think it misses an extremely important point that is often overlooked in language teaching: the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Is it possible for me to do XYZ?” but rather “Is XYZ the most productive way of using the very limited time available?” It is all very well contorting yourself to demonstrate the meaning of a word like “accelerate” through exaggerated mime, but is that really the best use of the teacher’s and the students’ time?

This week, I went to watch three of my university students doing their teaching practice at junior high schools here in Japan. As you might expect with a demonstration lesson, all of them had put a great amount of thought into the opening activity, which was generally the one that introduced the language point that was to be the focus of the lesson. One of them had made a complicated game, another had developed a skit to be performed with the regular teacher, and the other had students working on a kind of self-discovery exercise. From my point of view, all of these activities had two things in common. Firstly, they took up far more of the lesson than they should have done. Secondly, they failed to adequately convey the nuances of meaning of the language points they were introducing.

One that particularly stood out involved the teaching of the notoriously difficult “must” vs “mustn’t” vs “have to” vs “don’t have to.” The student had created a skit based on the idea of explaining the school rules to a visitor. This was quite an interesting activity, but it did not deal with the difference between “mustn’t” and “don’t have to.” After all, how do you explain a rule using “don’t have to”? If you don’t have to do something, then it’s not a rule! Of course, there are ways to get around this. One way would be to explain rules that depend on time or situation; something like “You have to wear a necktie in the winter, but you don’t have to wear one in the summer.”

A far easier way of dealing with this tricky concept, however, would be an L1 explanation by the teacher with plenty of translation and comparisons to the students’ language. An explanation like that wouldn’t be very interesting for an observer to watch, but there is every reason to believe that it would be a) much quicker, and b) much more effective in achieving the aims of the lesson. And of course, the quicker the students manage to understand the concept and meaning of the language point, the quicker they can get to work practicing it, which means that far more of the lesson can be dedicated to learning how to use new language instead of wasting time trying to figure out what it means.

Please do not get me wrong; I am not saying that teachers should just stand at the front and explain everything to students using their language. What I am saying, however, is that teachers should not be afraid to do that from time to time when they judge it to be appropriate. Neither am I saying that eliciting and self-discovery are not effective methods of instruction. Clearly they are, but not to the extent that they negate the need for a simple explanation or, as it used to be called, “teaching” from time to time.

Of course, I doubt that anyone would recommend using stand-at-the-front explanations too much during teacher training courses or observed lessons, although I cannot help wondering why this should be so. I think there tends to be an assumption that “anyone can just explain; we want to see what other clever methods you can come up with.” Personally, I do not think that this is true. In my experience, very few people are good explainers. Explaining something well is an art form that requires extensive practice and experience. If you don’t believe me, just ask Betty Azar how many times she has had to rewrite or revise the explanations in her grammar books!

The first barrier an explainer has to overcome is a phenomenon known as “the curse of knowledge.” The idea of this is that the minute you understand something, it becomes impossible for you to see it in the same way as a person who does not understand it. Obviously, the more time that goes by, the more of a problem this becomes. In addition, good explainers need to be able to come up with examples that clearly illustrate concepts and differences, they need to be able to sense when students are following and when they are not, and of course, they need to be able to deal “on the hoof” with the questions that will inevitably arise. All in all, I would suggest that providing useful and clear explanations is most definitely not just “something that anyone can do,” and if I were training teachers, I would want to see how well they handled this most crucial of teaching responsibilities.

So, while I fully agree with the need for teachers to develop a wide repertoire of instructional techniques, I hope that no one will be forced to do that at the expense of developing their ability to “just explain” the language to their students. And while it might not be the wisest thing to give L1 explanations during an observed lesson, no teacher should feel guilty about doing so in their regular lessons whenever they feel it is the right thing to do.


Comment from Richard Firsten
October 4, 2012 at 7:21 pm

As the British say, you’re spot on, David! I, for one, certainly used the students’ native language at times to get across a difficult concept or tricky vocabulary item when it was the most efficient strategy for me to take. But I only did that, of course, with a homogeneous group. If I had students with various L1’s, I’d only use that time- and energy-saving strategy if I could do so in each and every language represented in the group. Otherwise, it was English only.

Comment from David Barker
October 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your comment. That’s a good point, but even if you are using English only, it is still possible to just explain new language rather than coming up with complicated ways to “facilitate its discovery,” if you know what I mean. That was the main point I wanted to make.

Comment from Natalie
October 21, 2012 at 4:39 am

Thank you! Luckily, in the U.S. using the L1 is pretty much considered a best practice when teaching ELLs, but many people still don’t see it that way. I am still building the confidence to move past the idea that I must creatively elicit the students to pull everything out of their own heads. I have wasted much time and even more precious energy doing that. Sometimes the fast and easy way is really the best way.

Comment from David Barker
October 21, 2012 at 5:23 am

Hi Natalie,

Thanks for your comment. I agree 100% that fast and easy is best. We like fast and easy 🙂

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