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Teacher Courtesy in the ESL Classroom

Let’s talk about teacher courtesy in the ESL classroom. Teachers aren’t always the most courteous of speakers. We use commanding statements such as, ” wrong answer,” “don’t say it like that, say it like this,” and “turn to page 33 in your textbook.”

However, we should remember that much of what we teach is caught not taught.

As ESL teachers, we’re modeling speech, so when we speak this way, so will our students.

We can model courteous speech when we interact with our class members and show them a better way.

Today’s blog presents practical examples of what we say and how we can say it with courtesy.

Courtesy in the ESL Classroom

The following are words, phrases, and or full statements I’ve encountered in my teacher observations over the years.

In my early days, I even said a few of these.

They’re a combination of online, one-on-one, group, and traditional classes.

“Write your answer here.”

Consider how this might come across to a class member. You’re basically commanding them to do something. A more courteous way to express in the ESL classroom would be:

      • Please write your answer here.
      • You can write your answer here.
      • Kindly write your answer here.

Requests rather than commands may not be noticed right away, but they’ll eventually rub off on your learners.

In time, they may just begin using the same courteous phrasing.

Using inclusive speech in the ESL classroom

“Open your book to …” / ”Turn in your book to …”

Here’s another command we may be using without realizing how it sounds. Something more courteous could be:

      • Please open your book …
      • Let’s open our books to … (inclusive speech).
      • Let’s check out what we have today in our book … (inclusive speech).

Inclusive speech helps create a feeling that you’re in this with them—i.e. we’re in this together.

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“I can’t hear you.” / “Speak louder.”

I don’t know about you, but if someone said that to me, I’d be a little bothered by it. It seems so direct. We can use something more courteous like: 

      • I’m sorry, I’m not able to hear you very well; would you mind turning your volume up.
      • Could I ask you to speak just a little louder … it’s somewhat difficult for me to hear from you.
      • I’d like to make sure I heard you correctly; would you mind saying that just a little louder?
      • I’m sorry, I can’t hear you very well; could you speak up just a little more.

Sure, they’re a little longer than saying “speak louder,” but going the extra mile creates a much more courteous ESL classroom environment.

“Better say …”

We use this sometimes when we’re correcting someone. But it reminds me of telling someone to do something, or else! Let’s try something a little kinder, softer, gentler, and sweeter like:

      • You can say …
      • We say … (Inclusive speech)
      • Another way to say it is like this …
      • You can also say …
      • You could also say it like this …

Your students will or already realize that your way is better, but without ordering them to say it like that.

Encouraging a response from your ESL learners

“Pay attention.”

When we feel learners, especially children, aren’t paying attention, we want to tell them to pay attention. But again, this comes across as unpleasant. Perhaps we can use phrasing like the following:

      • What are you doing…?
      • What’s that you have?
      • What’s so interesting over there?
      • Whatchya got there?

When you use this language, you’re likely to get a response because you’ve gone from teacher mode to curious mode.

They might respond and you can get things back on track using the distraction. At the very least, you get them using English and can take it from there.

Remember, every time language is used in a real way it’s an opportunity to learn. It takes creativity and practice, but it’s much better than the command version.

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“Say it again.”

Sometimes when we don’t hear something, we use this command. Imagine how you might feel if a help-center rep said that to you.

It feels likes you’re responding to an order from a superior instead of a request from an equal. Therefore, couldn’t we use the following courteous forms below:

      • Pardon?
      • I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to hear your answer … could you please repeat that?
      • Oh, sorry, I didn’t catch what you said, would you mind repeating that, please?
      • I’m sorry … ?

This also shows your class members how to respond in similar situations, since the common phrase they may be using is, “what!?”

“I don’t understand what you said.”

Along the same lines as the previous statement, we may be using this expression but inadvertently discouraging our learners. We can express the same thing but use less discouraging words like this:

      • I’m sorry, I didn’t follow what you said. Could you please repeat that using different words?
      • Pardon?
      • Would you mind repeating that/saying that again?
      • Sorry, I missed what you said, could you please repeat that.
      • I didn’t quite catch that; would you mind saying that a different way?

Using a simple “sorry” takes some of the shame of the student and gives the teacher an opportunity to shoulder some.

In other words, your students may be embarrassed when you say you don’t understand what they say. When you express it like this, it gives them a way to save face.

Becoming more approachable in the ESL classroom

“I want you to …”

This is one of the most popular statements I’ve encountered over the years.

As teachers, we “want” a lot! I also hear this being used in politics, business environments, religious messages, and pretty much everywhere.

It suggests that the person speaking is on a higher plane than those being spoken to. Perhaps the following would sound better:

      • Can you give me…
      • Would you mind…
      • Could you give teacher…
      • Please _____.

To promote a more level playing field, try getting rid of the “wants.”

“You should …”

I call this the motherly advice expression. Using these words can infer that you know better than your learners.

As a result, you come across as a little condescending.

Try something a little more courteous that gives them an informed choice instead of advice.

      • You might want to …
      • It might be better if you …
      • You may want to …
      • What if you tried it like this …?
      • You could …

I know it all seems so silly splitting hairs like this.

However, it helps create a much friendlier, professional, and comfortable learning environment when we speak with courtesy in the ESL classroom.

And remember, at some level, learners are our customers. Give it a try and see what happens.

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Courtesy of the Best Policy 

So, we’ve shared a little about courtesy and teacher speech in the ESL classroom. What do you think?

Do you agree or disagree? Maybe you have something courteous to add.

Or, maybe you can share other examples of direct or imperative teacher speech that we can learn from. Share your experiences or reactions to this blog with us.

Recommended Reading:

6 Ways You May Be Teaching English All Wrong

3 Perspectives on Teaching ESL

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