As ESL teachers, we are models. Not catwalk models (alas), but models of English. But we don’t need to speak the Queen’s English. Rather, we should model real, everyday English that students can apply in the real world.

Here are 5 ways to model English in class, based on research about how adult learners acquire a new language.

1. Size isn’t everything

Using “big words” isn’t necessarily a sign of a high IQ (and by “big” I mean weighty not necessarily long), although some students seem to think that it is. I had a very endearing ESL student who made it his mission to use the most obscure words possible. “Teacher,” he said, “I hope you have a perfunctory day!” (Fun fact: There are roughly 47,156 words no longer used in contemporary English. We seem to go through them quite quickly).

Model "Plain English" when communicating with your students.

Sir Talkalot, noticing his ye Olde English was often received with blank stares, asked me if it was a problem that he wanted to use uncommon words. The thing with superfluous, loquacious circumlocution using enigmatic dialectical structures is that the listener - notwithstanding those with a Pantagruelian vocabulary - might well become cerebrally confounded, if not supine. To translate: someone who uses uncommon words might confuse people or put them to sleep.

The purpose of communication is to be understood. The word “communicate” comes from the Latin “communicatus", which partly means, “to participate”. If the listener does not follow what you’re saying, then you’re not communicating clearly. Native speakers are also guilty of this. This article lists no less than seventy-five words that native speakers use incorrectly.

The solution? Use “plain English” - clear, straightforward English. Okay, you might say, so how does this signify intelligence? I believe it does because to say something concisely often requires clear thinking and top-notch reasoning ability. Daniel Oppenheimer, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of California, backs me up here: “People associate intelligence with clarity of expression.”

2: Forget what I said in #1

That said, I’m not advocating that we shrink our vocabulary. One of my pet peeves is when a student overuses words like “nice” or “beautiful”. There are so many other possible synonyms that still qualify as “common” words. How many times has an ESL teacher silently wept while marking a piece of writing about the “nice beaches” in Cape Town? So do yourself and your students a favour by using - and thus modelling - various synonyms to overused words in class.

“People associate intelligence with clarity of expression.”

Daniel Oppenheimer, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, University of California

I feel it does a great disservice to a language so rich in synonyms to only use a fraction of them. According to “It’s quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages.” The reason, to make a very long story short, is because English has borrowed many words from other languages, such as French and German.

Robert J. Sternberg, psychologist, psychometrician, and Professor of Human Development at Cornell University (now that’s a title!), studies what makes people smart for a living. He says: “Vocabulary is probably the best single indicator of a person’s overall level of intelligence.”

However, it’s not just about being able to remember a long string of words. Rather, says Sternberg, intelligence is linked to understanding how words operate in different contexts. Context is king. “The movie was a riot” might have one thinking of people throwing popcorn in protest. They’d be confusing “riot” with its other meaning as a violent public display.

Be sure to model new vocabulary in different contexts.

To avoid confusion, it helps to model and teach the word combinations that lead to specific meanings. For example, saying, “My friend caused a riot”, means he or she started a protest, whereas, “My friend is a riot”, means they are really funny. I find sharing personal anecdotes like this are great.

The issue of context has another dimension – knowing the time and place to use certain words and when not to. Using technical jargon is perfectly acceptable if your audience is, say, in the same field as you, or if you’re at a job interview, or hanging out with fellow botanists. But it may not be a good idea to use slang with a 90-year-old (unless she’s a hipster granny).

It is still possible to use synonyms for clichéd words/phrases and meet Professor Oppenheimer's criterion for intelligence, which is clarity of expression.

3. Not llamas! Lemmas!

How many words does the average native speaker of any language know? A BBC article puts the figure at 15,000 to 20,000 word families - or “lemmas”. A lemma is a root word plus all its inflections, such as: sing, singing, sang.

If that sounds like a lot to you, I’ve got good news, which you can share with your students. Linguistics Professor Stuart Webb says that the most effective way to speak a language quickly is to learn “the 800 to 1,000 lemmas which appear most frequently in a language”.

If students want to study the 1,000 common English lemmas every weekend, they can knock themselves out by visiting this site. If they want to know how many of these words they already know, there’s a quiz for that here. You can assist your students in reaching the “One Thousand Mark” by modelling these words in class and providing the very necessary context.

The most effective way to speak a language quickly is to learn “the 800 to 1,000 lemmas which appear most frequently in a language”.

Professor Stuart Webb, Linguistics Professor, University of Western Ontario

It must be said that this figure goes up significantly if you want to understand dialogue in movies (3,000 lemmas). To successfully read literature like books, newspapers, and online articles in English, or any language for that matter, the figure shoots up even more to between 8,000 and 9,000 lemmas.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day, so students can take comfort in knowing that if they learn the 1000 frequently-used lemmas in English, they will grasp 75% of everyday spoken English and be able to hold and follow an intelligent conversation with ease. Woohoo!

4. Read, read, and read some more

Students may not always need to use complex words to convey a message (even a complex one), but at a higher level they do need to know them. Otherwise, how will they understand what other people are saying and respond appropriately?

Carrying around a toolkit of “big words” isn’t the only determiner of intelligence – so is knowing about the little guys. Teach your students to spare a thought for poor prepositions, neglected articles, and unloved punctuation marks. Encourage your students to read and take note of these. I’ve found it helpful for students to choose a news or feature story that interests them, or report the major news from their country.

Encourage your students to read the news and general interest feature stories from a variety of sources to boost their vocabulary. They can also follow blogs that interest them.

Reading can also help students understand humour and sarcasm in English. This NewsWeek article cites research that humour is linked with “intellectual agility”.

5. Model conversation techniques

Sometimes people use complex words to appear smart, which begs the question: if you are so smart, why pretend? They might also do this to disguise their lack of knowledge on a topic, or because their thinking is muddled, or they haven’t prepared for an interview question. Not so smart.

So don’t be a poser. Encourage your students to talk about topics they know about, and see #4 to help them increase their knowledge if they don’t. I was really impressed the other day when, after asking students for their opinions about a certain political event, one student said: “I’m afraid I can’t comment on that as I don’t know enough about it. But I will go and research it and get back to you.”

This sort of language is useful to teach students because we so often teach them how to agree or disagree, but not how to “save face” when talking about unknown subjects.

Showing respect in a conversation by practising turn-taking techniques can also go a long way in demonstrating good social skills. Model this in class by giving your students enough time to think and speak in class discussions.

Teach them how to use placeholders while they think about a question, such as: “Let me think,” or, “Please give me a minute.”

Have you ever been asked a question by a student that can’t always be answered in a quick, throwaway line? Model to students how they too can give themselves more time to think with a response like: “That’s an interesting question. I’d like to give that more thought. Could I get back to you on that?” 

You can also model how to acknowledge what people are saying with a phrase like, “I see”, or polite interjections such as “uh-huh”. I’ve noticed that sometimes students don’t comment at all while another student is talking with them, and this is quite unusual in English, where we like to show that we’re being attentive. Do you have a student with contentious views? Model how to disagree politely with a line like: “That’s interesting. What makes you say that?”.


To sum up, you can help your students develop greater fluency by modelling Plain English, encouraging them to read regularly, focusing on hitting the 1,000 "lemma" mark, teaching polite turn-taking phrases as well as interjections, and modelling new vocabulary in different contexts.

By Leigh-Anne Hunter