The Basis and the Bedrock
If the basis of classroom management is communication between the teacher and the students, then its bedrock is certainly language grading.
Language grading, put simply, is adjusting one’s language in the classroom—both orally and in writing—in order to match the level of the students and ensure students’ understanding. Appropriate language grading can drastically transform the dynamic between the students and the teacher. A teacher who is not communicating in a way that makes them easily understood sends the message that they don’t care whether their students understand them or not. A teacher who is easily understood sends the opposite message: they are not just going through the motions, they are there for them, to communicate with them, to be understood by them.
The Centerpiece of the Language Classroom: Communication
Creating a classroom where the centerpiece is communication—the entire idea of communicative language teaching—relies on the teacher making their language accessible to the students. The result can be an opening of communicative floodgates, and a veritable outpouring of student language—in particular, that is, when compared to classrooms where the teacher’s language is not well graded.
This is because when students don’t have to focus on deciphering what their teacher is saying, they can focus more efficiently on interpreting its meaning. Their mental energy is now freed up to react, plan, and reflect on what they are going to do or say, rather than trying to understand what the teacher is trying to tell them. This is exactly what we do when we are speaking our L1. Language grading paves the road to students’ appropriation of the foreign language.
Three Components of Language Grading (plus one)
There are three factors that, together, determine language grading:
Speed. The faster a teacher speaks, the more difficult they are to understand. With lower-level students, plan to speak more slowly.
Complexity. Structurally and lexically complex language is difficult for lower-level learners to understand. With them, plan to use higher frequency words, and simpler sentences.
Quantity. Remember that the more words are coming at your students, the more they have to focus on deciphering each one. Lower teacher talk and well graded language go in lockstep; plan to speak as little as necessary.
The “plus one” mentioned above is what each of these three factors have in common: planning. Grading language appropriately is something that is planned for, not improvised. When rehearsing your lesson in your head, picture how you are going to say what you intend to say—whether it’s instructions, clarifying language, or setting the context—and listen to yourself say it. Calculate the amount of time you will be talking, and factor in your language grading.
Pit and Opportunity: Intonation
A fourth component doesn’t directly impact teachers’ language grading, but does impact their rapport, and that is intonation. The risk, when grading your language low (say for A2 level learners) is to sound as if you are talking to very small children. Teachers may feel tempted to draw out syllables, or use exaggerated stress patterns.
The remedy to this is making sure that you maintain natural intonation patterns as you speak. Focus on the two elements that make up intonation, which are pitch variation and stress patterns. They should remain the same no matter what level are your students, as they are integral parts of correct pronunciation—excessive changes to intonation actually create flawed language models, in addition to making students feel they are being pandered to. Instead, plan to speak less, speak more slowly, and use simpler language.
Techniques for Better Language Grading: Non-Verbal Cues
As communication is not only oral, visuals and gestures can also be leveraged in order to support your language grading. L2 speakers seize on any and all clues to help facilitate their understanding of what is going on. Hence, we should provide as many clues as possible, including gestures and visuals.
Sometimes just seeing a word in written form will solve grading problems—remember that many students’ reading skills far surpass their listening skills—so plan in advance which words students may need to see in writing as you are saying them. Sometimes, rather than writing the word or idea, it’s simpler and easier to draw its meaning. In both cases, you should consider where you are in the classroom as you talk to your students. Wherever you are, you may need to run to the front of the class, in order to write or draw on the board, should a difficult concept or vocabulary come up.
And no matter where you are, make sure all the students in the classroom can see your face at all times. Your facial expression goes a long way in helping students understand and follow what you are saying. Here too, try to stay natural—except, that is, if you have a generally inexpressive face when speaking in the classroom. If that’s the case, don’t hesitate to “over-do” it a bit, by making your smile a little more pronounced, and your frowns a little deeper.
Exclusion and Inclusion
Language is a vehicle for both inclusion and exclusion, and, as in so many things pedagogical, the tone is set by the teacher. By grading their language, teachers establishes that class culture as being cooperative, rather than competitive, based on mutual support rather than domination, and a factor for inclusion, rather than exclusion. This is why language grading is one of the five top classroom management skills for a teacher to have.