Tuesday TESOL Tip #2: Slow Down! Decreasing the rate at which you talk is the best way to help your EL students.
Back in 2012, when I taught English Language Learner exclusively in Morocco, I began a series called "Tuesday TESOL Teaching Tips". The series was long before a variety of website changes, so I have decided to revise it. I will be sharing one tip each Tuesday, starting with the original tips and expanding on them with the additional knowledge I've added in the last 8 years. Today's TESOL Teaching Tip is to speak SLOWLY!
If you’ve ever tried to speak or understand another language, the first thing you notice is how fast every seems to speak. Actually, most native speakers of any language speak at about the same rate, anywhere between 150 and 200 words per minute, (give or take some, depending on dialect and whose doing the counting). However, when you are learning a language, and you don’t know all the words, your brain processes what you are hearing at a slower pace. In TESOL Teaching tip #23, we will talk about why it is important to experience being the language learner when you are a language teacher. For now, though, let’s do a simple experiment. Watch these two videos. The first one is a student who is just learning Arabic. The second one is a native speaker of Arabic. Which one are you able to understand better?
Now, I know you saw a difference in the speed of these speakers. Remember also, that when you are being taped, you tend to slow your rate of speed. Imagine that the native speaker wasn’t talking for a video camera, but was having a conversation with a friend, I am sure that his speech would then get faster.
How do English Language Learning students feel in a classroom?
For 3 years, I was a non-Arabic speaker living in an Arabic speaking country, and I have had Arabic speaking in-laws for 18 years. I can tell you that Arabic still feels like it is spoken a million miles a minute to me. This helps me to understand why my students tell me that they feel that English goes a million miles a minute. Truly, it is just part of learning a language, the language we are learning, whichever language it is, travels by us faster because we are not understanding every word.
Now picture the English Language Learners in your classroom. Every day they sit and hear the language traveling around them so fast they feel that they miss more and more words each time you talk. Frustrating – right? Frustrating enough to make them start to tune you out, and maybe act up a little? Frustrating enough to make them give up on understanding? Frustrating enough for them to start daydreaming or talking to a friend in their home language? These are behaviors I have seen in my classrooms and that I have done myself when feeling overwhelmed in a French as a second language classroom.
How can we help EL students feel less frustrated?
SLOW DOWN. Don’t over-exaggerate your speech. Language learners need to hear real language flow, not a simplified version of English. However, they also need to understand what you’re talking about. So pretend there’s a camera in front of you and slow down to a solid 130 – 150 words per minute. Also, give a nice solid pause between sentences and an even longer one when you ask a question. (Try counting to 50 or 100 Mississippis in your head after you ask a question.) Language learning students are often still processing the words of the question when we are sitting impatiently waiting for an answer – give them a chance to finish processing before you move on and give them the answer. (You may also want to train the other students in your class to be patient during this time. I have some suggestions for this in Tip# 21.)
Another thing that will help your students is recording yourself and giving them them the recording to have as a reference. For example, let's say you're doing a "lecture" based lesson on an important person for a Social Studies class. After the lesson, you are going to have your students complete one of my Digital Graphic Organizers to reflect on what they learned. While you are "lecturing", record yourself. It doesn't have to be fancy, FlipGrid or your computer's video camera would work. Then post that video to Google Classroom so that students can use it while completing the graphic organizer. This might not slow you down a lot, (Although being recorded does seem to slow our speech overall.) but it will give your students a chance to listen again. They can also be taught how to use the software to slow down the audio as they re-listen.
Real Life Teaching Example:
One simple way to help you slow down when asking questions is to give students a 2-colored chip or card. I like to glue a red construction paper square to a green construction paper square, so that when flipped it looks like a stop and a go sign. While you are talking, the red side is up (this is also a great cue that they shouldn't be talking.) Then after you have stopped talking, they take time to process what you said and think of an answer to the question. When they have an answer, they flip the card over and you know they are ready to answer because their card is green. In addition to giving students additional processing time, this gives you a real life idea of how much processing time students need.
Pro-tip: This can be used with all students, regardless of their language learning status. If you have some students who are processing much faster than others, then have a notebook or sticky notes ready for them to write (or draw) their response on while they wait for the others to finish processing.
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