Um...eh...it's OK for teachers to get tongue-tied

The natural hesitation of speech should be embraced by teachers and students alike, says Gordon Cairns
1st November 2020, 1:00pm

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Um...eh...it's OK for teachers to get tongue-tied

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/umehits-ok-teachers-get-tongue-tied
Teacher Speech In Lessons: 'um... Eh... It's Ok For Teachers To Get Tongue-tied'

I have been on both sides of the desk. I was the vindictive schoolboy writing tally marks at the back of his jotter every time the young science teacher said "umm". But I've been the tongue-tied professional stumbling through a Death of a Salesman lesson, painfully aware that the long list of "ehs", "ahs" and "mmms" bouncing out of my mouth was gaining more attention than my interesting ideas about Biff's motivation.

It seems that when we most want to display our erudition, these verbal blips arrive unbidden, making us sound unprepared, lacking in confidence and a bit, well... stupid.


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These non-lexical utterances not only expose us to our students but also to any other adult who might be in the room. I know of one student teacher told in her crit feedback not to say "OK" so often, as it suggested that she was asking the class for permission to speak.

Teacher speech in lessons

Yet research suggests that educators should cut themselves some slack. Rather than being a sign of inarticulacy, these mishaps are actually the sign of an adept communicator. Using filler noises lets the listeners know what is about to come next, thereby creating efficient communication between teacher and students (as long as the students are not focused on marking off each use of the filler word).

To be fair to my younger self, the general consensus was that filler words were verbal detritus, until research published at the turn of the century showed that these utterances were used to simply coordinate conversations. Instead of suggesting that you don't know what to say next, an "um" is telling the class to expect a pause and wait patiently for the next section of the lesson, while the break in information gives the students extra time to process what they have just been taught. Further research has shown that a well-placed "uh" improves the recall of the listener better than if it had been replaced by a cough (which, of course, is even more undesirable in these times).

And think about the alternative to speech disfluency. A teacher standing silently for a moment or two would be far more disconcerting to the class. They'd be wondering if they were being expected to answer, start working or somehow had got themselves in trouble.

Teachers should also pause before judgement when they are the listener and hesitation is slowing things down. When you are next called upon to be the arbiter of truth, beware the misconception that filler words are used when people are struggling to come up with a plausible story, as it seems that the opposite is the case. Speech is more natural when it's full of "ehs" and "ums'", as they suggest an attempt to be honest rather than someone trying to pass off a smoothly delivered but invented story

A lesson is not an extended version of the radio show Just a Minute where any hesitation will be penalised. Allow yourself a lesson that, along with the killer, has space for filler.

Umm, is that OK?

Gordon Cairns is a forest school and English teacher who works in Scotland

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