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LCB Teachers Training College Rodrigo Rouco

Taller Didáctico p. Enseñanza de Inglés en el Nivel Medio

Class Observation # 3: The Teacher’s Meta-language


Class: 4th year secondary school Nº of learners: 9
Age of learners: 16 approx. Length of lesson: 40 min.
Level: Upper-intermediate Teacher observed: M

The teacher’s meta-language chart

What does the What is the What is the How might this
teacher say? communicative immediate be said to a
purpose? context? native speaker?
i) ‘C, your letter Giving praise. T is praising one Not that
was excellent! st’s writing piece differently.
Very good, C!’ in last exam. Perhaps others
like ‘Outstanding
work; Very well
done (?)’
ii) ‘Please, Giving Setting up seating 1st: ‘Sit away from
separate. When I instructions. arrangement your partners.’
say separate, what before carrying To those specific
do you understand out a listening sts: ‘(Can you)
by separate?’ mock-test. She’s split? / break it
asking two sts. to up? / Sit apart
sit away from from your
each other. They partner.’
took longer than
the rest; that’s
why the question.
iii) ‘Have you all Giving T is making a ‘Take out your
got your books instructions. transition from books. We have to
here? Remember Reminding of previous activity finish the activity
that we had to previous (listening). She’s on writing a letter’
finish that assignment. asking sts to take
question of the out their books
letter?’ and reminding
them of a pending
task (letter
writing).

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iv) ‘Onwards? Explaining. T is answering a ‘Onwards means
From that moment Responding to st’s question: that sth. begins at
on and then you question. ‘What’s the a particular time
continue. En meaning of and continues
adelante.’ ‘onwards’?’ She’s after that time.’
explaining the Perhaps an
meaning and example: ‘I work
giving a at the school from
translation in 1 o’clock
learner’s L1. onwards.’
v) ‘Using these Giving T is setting up a ‘You’re going to
instructions, you instructions. writing task: answer this letter
will write a letter. Explaining. Writing a letter to giving information
Remember that a penfriend giving about schools in
the information is information about Argentina. Use the
about schools local schools / letter in the book
here, in Argentina. education. T is as an example.’
Use this reminding sts
information to what info they
help you.’ have to include
and referring them
to the sample
letter in the book.

1) All in all, communication was purposeful in the 5 examples mentioned. In i, the


language used to give praise was pretty clear: by this time in her learning
process, the student was well acquainted with the language of feedback. She was
indeed delighted when she received the teacher’s praise – and her classmates
clapped her (!). In ii, the teacher was emphasising the point of making sts sit
apart for the listening. The use of ‘please’ was, at the same time, a polite and
emphatic way of prompting two ‘lingering’ sts to do so. The use of the true
cognate ‘separate’ made understanding easier, though, in fact, it was the
neutral / appropriate term to use in a classroom context. Both sts understood the
teacher’s message and split. The use of the (sarcastic?) question could be taken
as emphatic and showing a little annoyance, but also in a light-hearted way,
which I believe the sts perceived.
iii, instead, was even less direct. The teacher did not need tell the class explicitly
to take their books out, and that they were going to finish a pending activity. She
used more real-life-like utterances. This was a good example of how much the
sts could follow her without being given direct commands. By this time, I
noticed that the sts could pick up the communicative purpose behind the
teacher’s utterances from quite indirect, but realistic, forms.
In iv, the echo question highlighted the term to be explained. The explanation of
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the term might have been somewhat unclear to the student. This might have
prompted the teacher to use translation, which solved the difficulty. The
important thing to consider here is that communication was purposeful – the
learners’ communicative need was in fact solved: she received an answer to her
question.
Finally, in v, at the moment of setting up the task, the communicative purpose
was, by now, largely clear. The class had been analysing the format of a letter for
a while. I can imagine they were expecting the next instructions would be ‘write
a letter’. The teacher’s explanations were mostly clarifying. However, though
students were familiar with the task format, it was a good choice for her to
remind them that they had to use certain given information. When setting up a
task, it was a right moment not to resort to ‘indirect’ communication, for it was
(and it always is) the time when sts would most need clear, straightforward
messages (instructions). In this way, they could tackle the task with a clear aim
and, as a result, more confidence.

2) For the most part, the level of meta-language used by the teacher was not
adjusted downwards. We should bear in mind that the level of this class was pre-
First Certificate. At this level, students are expected to be able to manage quite
‘complex’ language already. Probably because of this, the teacher should not
have been concerned greatly about adjusting her language much – in terms of
‘levelling’. On the other hand, I believe she did make sure her instructions,
comments, explanations were plain and unambiguous. The evidence is that no
communication break-down took place during the lesson and her exchanges with
the class were successful.
Nevertheless, with lower-level classes, teachers should stop to adjust their meta-
language. With elementary learners, ‘roughly-tuned’ input and unequivocal
speech is key in supporting the learners’ comprehension, task performance and
language development. As they progress in their language learning, they will.
Apart from linguistic simplification, there are other ways open to a teacher to
ease comprehension of meta-language: elaboration, paraphrasing, slower
speech rate, gestures, providing contextual cues through use of realia,
comprehension checks, repetition, translation. These interaction or
communication strategies can aid understanding and they are truly
communicative, realistic, as they can be included within the strategic
competence component of communicative ability as described by Tricia Hedge
– ‘they help to keep the communicative channel open’.

3) Several of the teacher’s ‘meta-language’ utterances could be regarded as


patterned behaviour. For example, the way of giving praise in i (‘your work was
excellent!’ etc); the way of arranging seating in ii (‘Please, separate’); in iii
(‘Have you got…? / remember that we had to finish X.’); in v (‘Using these
instructions, you will…’).
As these chunks can usually be used by the teacher, this gives continuous
exposure to the learners to that language. This may help them incorporate it
meaningfully and in a real context. The students first comprehend, and then
acquire, these ‘language behaviours’ by the teacher’s repetitive use. What makes

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this use of meta-language different from a ‘pattern drill’ is that it is genuinely
communicative and therefore meaningful. In keeping with the communicative
classroom, the teacher thus provides a rich source of input for students to pick
up or acquire gradually.

4) In this particular lesson, not many features of the immediate context supported
the teacher’s meta-language. In ii, the teacher made use of gestures to intensify
the meaning of ‘separating’: she moved her hands apart from each other. She
also used a gesture with her hands to express the idea of ‘onwards’. True to say,
the other utterances did not require much support.
To heighten contextual clues, teachers can: use gestures (with hands, fingers,
arms), draw on the board, use realia, cards, have posters around showing useful
language / prompts, mime, facial expressions, point, have a dictionary
available, …
Finally, the use of all these can be accompanied by explanations, examples,
comprehensions checks by asking sts for further contexts, translations, …

5) a) Linguistic accommodations do not necessarily imply a loss of the ‘richness’


of the language our students are learning. And this last point is our main
concern. As teachers we are focusing on our students’ learning process. In any
process, there are steps or stages to cover. To be able to cover them, you need to
be able to build upon what has gone before. What is more, the key roles of the
teacher are to be both facilitators of this process, and mediators between the
learners and the language (systems & skills) to be learned. Those
simplifications, especially for lower level students, are necessary in view of
these teacher’s roles. If we don’t support our students’ process by narrowing
down the gap between their current knowledge and what is to be learned, we are
not fulfilling our roles. Moreover, and especially in a foreign language learning
context, students will need these simplifications, not only to facilitate their
learning but, in fact, to speed up the process. By roughly tuning in the meta-
language, we provide them manageable and attainable input, render the whole
learning task more success-oriented, and can motivate and encourage them to go
on. Gradually, we will be able to expose them to more ‘complex’ language. A
so-called ‘delay’ should not be seen as a disadvantage, but as gradual,
supportive steps in a (life) long process.
b) As I mentioned earlier, this being an upper-intermediate class, they were quite
able to follow the teacher’s meta-language. Only ii & iv might show instances of
simplification. The explanation of ‘onwards’ could have been more elaborate for
a native speaker, and certainly no translation would have been used (an example,
instead). In ii, the use of the cognate may be easier to understand than ‘split’ or
‘break up’ – though I believe the cognate appropriate in the context, even for
natives.
c) In my opinion, we can reconcile the need for meta-language to be ‘easy’ with
exposing our students to authentic language. The reason for this is that authentic
does not always mean difficult. In fact, simplification or ‘accommodation’ is in
keeping with the communicative classroom. It is at the core of the strategic
component of language competence. In a real communicative context, students

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will need to develop strategic skills such as, in this case, accommodating
language to their interlocutors.

Reflection

This observation task has helped me become more aware of the fundamental role of
teacher’s meta-language in the classroom. First and foremost, I can see that every time
we communicate something to our students, we are providing them with exposure to the
target language. In this way, what we say and how we say it can be a profitable source
of language learning, even though we may not have planned it that way at first. And this
may be what makes teacher talk so truly communicative: the fact that it is spontaneous
and real most of the time. What teachers should keep in mind is that there is some
language we can plan, prepare, and incorporate as part of our kit of ‘language patterns’,
not as a mechanical thing, but as part of our unique ‘idiolect’. I believe that this can help
us deal with different classroom situations in a better-prepared and professional way.
However, as when it happens outside the classroom, interaction is natural. We react in
real time to what others are telling us here and now, without any prepared speech or
lines. As teachers, this aspect of ‘our’ talk is essential because of its value as promoter
of real communication in our lessons.

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