Incidental Language: The Ultimate ‘Do Not’ in the Online ESL Classroom

Incidental language - Teaching English online Incidental language is one of the major infractions that will automatically get points docked from your interview/mock lesson score and lower your performance review. This is because when practiced in an ESL classroom, especially with newer learners, it throws off the flow of your lesson and puts your students in a confused, agitated, or non-responsive state which, in turn, can lose both you and the company clients. This type of language is speech that would not be a problem to use when conversing with native or fluent English speakers. However, when teaching in an ESL classroom, especially an online one, it’s the ultimate killer. This is because, as foreign language teachers, we are required by duty to speak slowly, carefully, clearly, and to the point, catering to each student’s individual capacity and level. It’s only natural that we use it in our daily lives, so we are completely accustomed to it. Most times, we don’t even realize that we are doing it. In fact, it takes a conscious effort to train yourself out of the habit. Here are some examples of the incidental language that I was guilty of using in my early online ESL teaching days and tips for how you can easily tweak or totally avoid it.

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1) “First we will x, then we will y.”

This is perhaps one of the hardest habits to break as a teacher. I know that when I was growing up and attending school, my teachers would always prep us for the day by detailing the schedule and expectations. I carried on this tradition in my English classroom while teaching in both Turkey and South Korea, writing the schedule out on the board. In the online teaching world, however, using long sentences like this will get you docked major points during your demo lesson. Why? Because it’s boring, takes time (when your lesson will typically only last 25 minutes), and your students will probably not understand you. In order to keep students engaged, constant activities and regular slide changes have been proven to be effective and even necessary. While explaining the learning outcomes and objectives of the lesson seems like a solid idea, I promise you that online companies do not want you to do this. The likelihood of your student understanding you when you say, “First we will read sentences, then we will practice old vocabulary, learn new vocabulary, and finally play a game” is slim to absolutely none.

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2) “Okay, let’s see…”

Not only do these words lack a purpose: they also make it seem like you are not prepared for the lesson. In our daily lives, these words are a place filler- and that’s fine. We use place fillers all of the time when we’re trying to collect and organize our thoughts. The problem is that when you are in the teaching role of a short online lesson, it is inherently expected that your plans are already organized. Sure, a student might struggle with certain exercises and you will need to adapt and respond, but using, “Ok, let’s see” or phrases like this as a transition are certainly frowned upon by employers, especially those located in Asia.

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3) Transitions in General

This is a super challenging element of teaching a powerpoint online, through a screen, and it directly ties to my point above. When we get nervous or flustered, it’s very common to make unintelligible utterances when we are transitioning to something new. Even if we are perfectly composed, it’s easy to forget that we are speaking to students, not fluent speakers. Deciding on an appropriate transition between slides and activities will depend entirely on the level of the student and the material being taught. For example, “Now let’s write!” or “It’s time to read!” may be awesome transitions for some students, while others will respond better to simple praise for completing a task while you click to the next slide. With lower level learners, I typically start new slides that contain images with “What do you see?”, using TPR for ‘what’ (hands open, shrugging motion), ‘do you’ (point politely to student), and ‘see’ (point to eyes). This is something that you’ll need to practice, and I recommend watching any of the many example videos and tutorials on Youtube to help you with this.

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4) “Do you remember _____?”

In my first mock lesson, I lost quite a few points for (accidentally) asking this question repeatedly during a review section. Again, if you know your student well and they can recognize this question and answer it appropriately, go for it. All language building will help them in the future, but it needs to come at a time when they can comprehend it. Asking a first-year 6-year-old learner, “Do you remember what this picture is?” will likely get a blank stare- or they will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as a guess. To adapt this question to a more level-appropriate one, simply circle the item and say, “What is it?”. In your early days as an online teacher, you may get entirely fed up with asking, “What is it?” 50 times a lesson, but this repetition has been proven to work for retention. Plus, it still allows you to ask your student a reasonable question and expect a full sentence as a response- “It is a ___”.


5) “Can you _____?”

Unless the target grammar of your lesson is explaining ability versus permission with the modal verb ‘can’, avoid this question. I am still guilty of it from time to time, to be honest. It is a great and useful thing to learn in English, but in the online classroom, it is often misused and prevents students from having the opportunity to build their speaking abilities. For example, if you are teaching modal verbs and you ask your student, “Can you swim?”, it’s great for them to respond with, “Yes, I can” or “No, I can’t.” However, if you are asking your student, “Can you read the sentence?” and they nod, “Yes”, you will often find yourselves in an awkward standstill. While we use ‘can’ in this way (as in, “Are you able to” or “Will you”) every day and understand it, new and even intermediate students will understand it as a basic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question and not as a request to do an activity. If you want your student to try to read, use simple language “Please read this” while underlining the sentence on the screen.

All of these situations seem straightforward, but I assure you that reprogramming your style of speaking is a lot more challenging than you’d initially think. As a native speaker, you are going against habits that you’ve had for many years and often use without even knowing it. Solution? Simplify, simplify, simplify. This will fix every instance of incidental language if you can train yourself properly. As adults, we overthink and use complex language all the time because we can work out complex problems in our own language with relative ease. When giving instructions to your students, always make it as simple as possible. While you might feel inherently rude constantly using command forms, don’t! If that is where their language skills currently are, then that is the best method to use for them. This is the most effective way to complete tasks, and you can, of course, gradually increase the difficulty of your instructions as the student progresses. Happy teaching!

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