Embracing your Inner Neanderthal

Verbose. Loquacious. Garrulous. Long-winded. Discursive. Concisely-challenged. All those beautiful synonyms describe you, a purveyor of verbal diarrhea, perfectly. I could talk forever about how you talk too much. Having flogged this dead horse, I hope by now you get the point — words are the enemy of understanding.

The perceptive reader will note the irony of me talking at length about how talking is a bad thing. You, on the other hand, probably didn’t notice a damn thing. Fair enough. I guess I’ll have to show you how this works.

Let’s start with a real classroom example of why words — those beautiful, delicious nouns and adjectives that make English so great — have no place in the classroom.

“Teacher, what does *** mean?”

You, the word puker, say, “Oh, alright, well let’s crack open the dictionary and see what it has to say.” Your fat fingers fumble the pages until you finally get there. “A domesticated carnivorous mammal occurring as a wide variety of breeds, many of which are traditionally used for hunting, herding, drawing sleds, and other tasks, and are kept as pets.”

Native speakers of English might even take a second or two to move from the definition to the concept it’s trying to relate. So imagine the wide eyes and arched brows and what-the-fuck faces of your poor elementary students who didn’t understand a single word of  the definition, let alone the concept of ‘dog’ you were trying to teach.

No, you don’t need to open your mouth to teach the word ‘dog’. You don’t need to say anything for the majority of words you teach at elementary levels. You simply have to show them. Let’s try this again.

“Teacher, what’s a dog?”

You find a picture online. “This is a dog.”


No Internet in the classroom? Use your phone you troglodyte. No phone? You do have a whiteboard, right? Get your marker.

“This is a dog.”

Dog Doodle

You don’t need to be Picasso, but perhaps you’re even more challenged than I thought. Then I guess you have no choice.

“This is a dog.”

Gay pride dog costume.

That’s right. Get down on your hands and knees and say bow wow. Take a dump on the floor and sniff it if you have to. Anything is better than opening a dictionary and blathering on about the canine genus. And guess which one your students will remember.

Humans are visual creatures. It’s no coincidence that the first attempts at written communication were images and verbal communication was little more than grunting and gesturing. The larger irony here, probably lost on you of course, is that we’re not relying on language to teach language. Instead, we’re reverting back to our caveman instincts when concepts were shown rather than told. So embrace your inner Neanderthal and go spear a mammoth or dance naked around a fire, but whatever you do, don’t say what can’t be understood.



Pace, Grade, Brevity. (What we talk about when we talk about talking.)

As fun (and accurate) as it is, it isn’t enough to merely say that you talk too much. That only hits one third of the equation — brevity. There are still two other factors, namely pace and grade, to be conscious of whenever you’re addressing your class.

Pace (peɪs) n. rate or style of proceeding at some activity

teacher talking time (stfu)

Have you ever listened to Eminem and had to rewind because he was rapping too fast to be understood? Me neither. He whines too much. It was probably about his mom, anyway.

The point is that  what seems like a completely normal pace of speech to us can sound like an auctioneer’s sale to beginning-level students. So how slow do you need to speak? Slow. Painfully slow. Slow to the point where it feels awkward and patronizing because it’s as if you’re talking to small children.

Grade(grād) n. an accepted level or standard.

POTC quote

Generally speaking, most new teachers are given beginner-level classes. Just as students in these levels are severely limited in vocabulary, so too must the teacher restrict him/herself to language that the students can understand. It’s not as easy as it sounds. How do you know how much vocabulary your students know? Often you don’t, at least not until you get into the classroom. A good rule of thumb is to assume they know nothing. Aim for the same level of vocabulary you’d use when talking to a toddler and adjust accordingly only when you’re positive most of the students can understand you.

Brevity: (brĕv′ĭ-tē) n. concise expression; terseness

the dude

Brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s the essence of understanding in an EFL classroom. To put it simply, the shorter you can keep your expressions, the more likely you are to be understood. To put it even more simply, talk less.

A Case Study

The following instruction was taken verbatim from a teacher addressing an elementary class:

“Okay. Alright guys. Let’s open our books to page 98 and let’s review the different aspects of hotels which we’ve been studying for the last two weeks.”

Even if this had been delivered at an appropriate pace, which it wasn’t, there is approximately zero chance of elementary students understanding this sentence.

Check out the grade. Many elementary students won’t know ‘alright, guys, page, review, aspects’. ‘…which we’ve been studying…’ is grammar they won’t have encountered yet.

How about the brevity? More like, what brevity? That’s the opposite of brevity. That’s longwindness, garrulousness and verboseness all wrapped into one big travesty of an instruction.

What is the essential information the teacher was trying to convey? ‘Open your books to page 98.’ That’s it. That’s all you need, and you don’t even need that. Could you get your students to open their books to page 98 without saying anything? Sure. Just write page 98 on the board and mime opening a book. The rest is extraneous verbiage you needn’t waste your breath on.

Learning to speak with grade and brevity at a slower than normal pace is a crucial aspect of TTT, a skill that some experienced teachers struggle with (often without even being aware of it). But how are you supposed to teach if you can barely talk to your students? There’s the rub.

Time for some show and tell.