Helping your students to speak proper, innit

22nd August 2014 at 01:00
Reinforcing correct spoken English with adult learners can be a struggle, but we owe it to students to help them master this skill

Teaching adults is different from teaching children. My students choose to learn in their spare time, often after a busy day at work or in the home. This means that they are attentive and hard-working. I rarely have to ask them to stop talking. But that can be a problem in itself, as many simply don't talk enough.

Adult students can be very quiet. Returning to study after five, 10 or even 40 years' absence can be a daunting prospect. Many have bad memories of school and associate learning with failure. Just being back in the classroom environment can make them clam up. A crippling lack of self-confidence is a common trait and it takes time, encouragement and a lot of support to overcome this.

Unsurprisingly, students with development needs in their written English often have similar issues when they speak the language. Here in East London, conversation is thick with the urban twang of "we was", "dunnit" and "innit".

Tackling these verbal mistakes is not easy - I certainly don't want to humiliate anyone. In many cases, I'm the first person who has ever told them that these expressions are incorrect. So what do I do? The following strategies can produce impressive results:


Write each of the most common clangers on a large piece of paper and stick it on the wall with a pencil-drawn gallows. Its mere presence cuts down the amount of blunders as people think before they speak.

However, when a mistake is made, the culprit must walk up to the sheet and add a limb. I use this only in classes where students feel at ease with each other, otherwise it could turn into a "walk of shame".

Do as I do, not as I say

I use slang. We all do. I say "gonna", instead of "going to" and "give it me", instead of "give it to me" (a fact I wasn't aware of until it was pointed out by my students). I encourage my class to pick me up on it and then I repeat the sentence back with the correction and breezily carry on to show them that it's no big deal. This reinforces the fact that we all make mistakes but can only improve if we learn from them.

Make a noise

Bell, whistle, buzzer, whoopee cushion: plonk a few noisy items on desks around the room. When a student says something incorrectly, the others race to grab one and be the first to sound the alarm. The noise often produces a giggle or two, which tends to defuse any awkwardness felt by the person in the spotlight. This approach also means everyone listens for errors.

Know when to leave it

Helping to improve a person's speech and criticising how they speak are two different things. Picking on someone, especially if they already lack confidence, can do more harm than good. Focus on a few, frequent mistakes and leave it at that. For now.

Make them bovvered

I use a clip of Catherine Tate's slouching, scowling schoolgirl character Lauren as an example of negative body language. With her repeated use of "aks" and "innit", not to mention her trademark "Am I bovvered?", she is the perfect anti-role model. My learners, many of whom are parents, squirm at her garbled nonsense and the clip leads to discussions about the importance of clear speech.

Repeat it back

Student: "I done it last year." Me: "You did it last year, did you?" Student: "Yes, I did it last year." Simple but effective.

Play it again

Recording speech makes students pay more attention because they view it as a performance. And the tapes can be used to measure

improvements with accuracy and pronunciation. Few people like the sound of their own voice - but hearing their verbal errors can make them determined to iron them out.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches English to adults in East London

What else?

How teaching text-speak could improve pupils' grammar.


Revise eight key parts of speech, including nouns, adjectives and interjections.


A teacher seeks advice about dealing with challenging behaviour from adult learners on the TES website forums.


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