Helping Students with Appropriate Language

 by Joe McVeigh

English language teachers who work with students in the United States know only too well that teaching language by itself is not sufficient. Language learners also need to grasp the culture of the country they are living in, as well as learn how to overcome intercultural differences. These differences often surface in issues such as how to be polite, how to express yourself non-verbally, and how to maintain academic integrity in the classroom.

One challenge for English language learners is discerning the appropriate register  to use in different situations. A communicatively competent person doesn’t speak the same way all of the time. For instance, a teenager would probably use one form of expression with her friends and classmates, but a more polite and formal type of language, or register, with a teacher or principal.

To help students learn about different types of register, try this activity:

1. Write the following on the board:
“Shut the door.”
“Shut the door, please.”
“Would you please shut the door?”
“Gee, it’s a little chilly in here. Shut the stupid door!”

2. Ask students to identify which sentences they think are the most and least polite. Discuss which sentences would be appropriate to use with different people.

3. Write the following on the board:

“What time is it?”
“Hand me those scissors.”
“Bring me a glass of water.”

  • Form small groups and ask each group to choose one of the sentences and write a list of possible ways to express the meaning ranging from very polite to rude.
  • Ask groups for their ideas and write them on the board. Discuss the sentences and the students’ ideas.

You can find more ideas for teaching culture in the classroom in Tips for Teaching Culture, part of the Tips for Teaching series from Pearson.  The Tips for Teaching series covers topics of practical classroom-centered interest for English language teachers. Written in clearly comprehensible terms, each book offers soundly conceived practical approaches to classroom instruction that are firmly grounded in current pedagogical research.

Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at