Why can't American high school be more difficult

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Along with (non-verbal) body language, verbal language is one of the most important tools teachers have at their disposal to control lessons, semantize vocabulary, explain structures and, in particular, explain to learners how, with whom, for how long, etc. something should be done in class.

It's not just the sound that makes the music - what we have to pay attention to when speaking

Language works on two levels that complement each other in order to efficiently pass on information: The paraverbal (physical) level, i.e. volume, pitch, speaking speed and the way of speaking, and the content level, i.e. which words I use in which order with which speech intention. These levels are in an interplay coordinated by the speaker (sometimes unconsciously). For example, if you look at the intonation or the word and sentence accent, you can quickly see that this physical level (volume, pitch, rhythm) helps ensure that the uttered words are understood as the speaker intended.

How do I use volume and speaking speed correctly?

Regarding the physical characteristics of language, it can be assumed that speaking too softly or too loudly is more likely to result in negative perception. Because you are either not understood acoustically or perceived as impolite or even aggressive. Those who speak too quickly are often not properly understood and can appear insecure. On the other hand, speaking too slowly can appear unnatural and give learners the impression that the teacher is underestimating them or their ability to understand the foreign language. For these reasons, it is advisable for teachers to vary both the speed of speaking and the volume of the voice in the course of the lesson, especially when it comes to emphasizing something and attracting more attention from the learners (cf. Heidemann2009).
Use language in a recipient-oriented manner | © Adobe Stock

Tip for choosing a word: Note the communication goal!

As far as the content is concerned, one must above all pay attention to the function and context of each utterance. If a teacher gives work assignments orally, she must bear in mind that these have a clear function in the teaching context and can therefore (or must) be formulated differently than utterances embedded in an everyday conversation. The aim of a task is not to keep a conversation going or to initiate a conversation, but rather to tell the learners as precisely and clearly as possible which classroom activity they are to cope with and how they should do it. So it's about specific instructions.

You can assign specific characteristics to tasks, which help to formulate the work assignments in the classroom in a concise and effective manner.

Three characteristics of successful class assignments

We can best reach learners when we adhere to the following basic principles. Successful teaching instructions are:

  1. Economically: The rule "the shorter the better" applies here. That is why introductions like "Now I want you ..." or "Now I would like to ask you ..." are unnecessary and even counterproductive. Some might argue that these utterances are simply part of the language, are very polite, and can serve as an example (input) in class on how to ask something. However, one should not forget: the more complex and longer an utterance, the more difficulties it causes the listener to decipher, since every piece of information has to be processed. Just the structure of a subordinate clause with verb (s) at the end can contribute to slowing down the processing of such an utterance.
  2. Target group oriented: Assuming that the target language is the language of instruction and the tasks are formulated in this language, the choice of words plays a very important role and should in principle be based on the learner's receptive vocabulary. If you cannot do without a new, unknown word, it must either be accompanied by non-verbal elements (images, symbols, gestures, facial expressions) or explained before the task is set. It is also important to pay attention not only to the meaning but also to the register so that there is no tendency to use words whose equivalents in the learner's first language (or other foreign languages) are similar, but rarely or never would be used by native speakers in this context, which is often the case, for example, with synonyms from Latin.
  3. Clearly structured: Tasks should contain information that answers the following questions: What, how, and how long or until when, ideally in this order! First, the learners have to understand what they should actually do: read / write a text, underline words, assign pictures to words, etc. Then the teacher explains whether they are working alone or in a group and only then are materials (worksheets, snippets, etc. ) (see Ziebell / Schmiidjell 2012).
But it is also important to always take breaks and wait for feedback from the learners to ensure that everything has been understood.


  • Heidermann, Rudolf (2009). Body language in class, 9th edition. Kempten: Quelle & Meyer Verlag.
  • Ziebell, B. & Schmidjell, A. (2012). Class observation and collegial advice NEW. Distance learning unit 32. Kassel / Munich: Langenscheidt.


Andrea Pfeil heads the language department of the Goethe-Institut in New York. For many years she has been working intensively on the quality development of educational processes and the development of hybrid language and advanced training courses.

Translation: Quotes from English: Elisabeth Meister
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., editorial staff magazine language
July 2020

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