Affective Teacher Talk

On Twitter, Kevin Stein tapped into loads of teachers’ pet peeves when he asked #IsItReallyUseful ? (N.B. I know that a lot of my posts seem Twitter-related.)

I think that what it comes down to is just going into the classroom and making sure that students don’t hate English any more than they did before going in. Some ways that we wind students up might be:

  • Inadvertently insulting them
  • Do you repeat the same questions when students don’t answer? Could you rephrase it so you don’t make it look like you think they are stupid? (Allwright & Bailey)

  • Being patronizing
  • Almost all display questions (questions you already know the answer to) are ludicrous. “What’s something that’s blue?” My mood? A corpse? Instead, we might ask, “What is something you like that’s blue?” It’s not perfect but it sounds less like teacher talk and might be useful one day.

  • ‘Anyone else? Bueller?’
  • I did this loads when I first started. I think that discovery learning and eliciting have their place but when it looks like students don’t know, to maintain sanity, how about focussing on what they need to get there or relating the language to their personal experiences?

  • Empty praise

Are you clear about what is great when you exclaim, ‘Great!’? If it isn’t great, say so. You don’t have to be Sirius Snape about it but you might say, “Thanks for trying. It’s a bit difficult.” You might then go on and recast or scaffold what the learner was trying to say.

So, basically, we need to try to figure out if we’re teaching in an annoying way. Not all students love language study but almost everyone will communicate when faced with human contact. I think if we bear the above in mind (and by ‘we’ I also mean ‘me’), we stand a good chance of making classroom experiences better.


Allwright, D and Bailey, K. (1991) Focus on the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.



4 thoughts on “Affective Teacher Talk

  1. Hi Marc

    Thank you for this post – I have also been following the ‘IsItReallyUseful’ hashtag and thinking and re-thinking some of my practices as a teacher and trainer. Might write a post about it – soon-ish.

    One thing that I paid attention to this time while re-reading your post is about empty praise. When working (playing) with small kids, praise is something that feels ‘natural’ (not just a word ‘great’ but all the range of synonyms to be used here) Now, when kids grow up and become adults, most of them (us) need specific praise as a tool to develop. I am wondering, however, if there are some adults who still need this ’empty’ or general praise as emotional support, encouragement, endorsement, etc.

    I am probably saying this thinking about beginner level students (when getting one word correctly takes effort and time). I might be also saying it from a learner’s point of view (I would be someone who needs an encouraging word from my teacher). My biggest question (to myself mainly) is how to ‘see’ those needs and address the learner in different ways.

    Thank you for making me think!


    1. Thanks Zhenya.

      My problem is that many of the language school-trained teachers are told to give a lot of praise but aren’t actually told how to praise. This leaves a lot of learners wondering why they can’t progress if everything they do is so fantastic all the time.

      Could we say ‘Nice vocabulary use’, ‘Great accuracy’ or ‘Brilliant sentence-level fluency?’ I think we could and I urge anyone reading this comment to be more specific because ‘Great guy’ even in the student record sheet tells me nothing!

      Liked by 1 person

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