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Clarity is all

I began my teaching career believing that teaching almost always in the target language was the way to go to maximise pupil progress. I would still hold to this pretty strongly, but after many years of experience teaching quite able young linguists I came to realise more and more that pupils understood less of what I and my colleagues were saying than I had thought. So much for comprehensible input!

I also realised that some students were being put off the subject a bit because basically they didn't really know what was going on all the time. They felt confused and even a little alienated. Maybe, to put it technically, their "affective filter" comes into play, makes them feel uncomfortable and negative about the subject. This would occur typically when, after explaining an activity in French, you realised you had to do it again in English to ensure everyone was clear what they were doing and successfully on task. My conclusion was that, in order to maximise motivation and, ultimately, useful comprehension of the target language, you had to compromise on its use.

You see, clarity is vital for children, isn't it? They love to know exactly what is expected of them. If you confuse them before or during a task, they will switch off, learn little, get bored and behave worse. Now, having assumed that we use all the usual clues to aid with understanding of the TL - picture, gesture, mime etc - when would we be justified in using English without any feelings of shame?! When do we need to sweeten the pill?

  • When explaining grammar points orally or in writing
  • When setting up a complex pair, group or writing task
  • When giving pep talks to classes about why you use certain methods and what you expect from pupils
  • When correcting poor behaviour
  • When telling anecdotes or talking about the target language culture
  • When explaining exam specifications and mark schemes
  • When giving general feedback about homework
  • When doing translation or other "transfer of meaning" work
  • When explaining what the aim of a lesson is or was
  • When recapping what was learnt (plenaries)
  • When giving extra special praise (this could carry more weight than a run-of-the-mill comment in French)
  • Checking meaning of individual words
  • When greeting and saying goodbye to individual pupils - making personal contact, getting to know them better
  • When intervening in pair work to give personal support
  • When raising the voice for effect
  • When writing in detailed feedback in an exercise book
  • When discussing targets
  • When giving immediate feedback to a student after an oral presentation
The relationship between a teacher and a class is an immensely subtle one and, whilst I do not say it is impossible to work solely in the target language, I believe that using English judiciously will improve relationships and ultimately result in greater motivation and progress. I have read of a 90% rule and this does not seem unreasonable.


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