The Value of Verbal Prompts

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When I took my CELTA course, my instructor told us not to use filler phrases such as “Here’s what you need to do.” It makes sense to cut those out because they offer little meaning. If the next sentence is something like “Open your books to page 142 and circle all of the verbs ending with -ing” for instance, that instruction is made no more clear by preceding it with “Here’s what we’re going to do.” The instruction itself stands just fine on it’s own. That filler phrase seems to be doing little more than taking up two seconds of classroom time. So just take it out.

Like I said, that makes sense. However, I discovered that those phrases can have value, especially if the same phrase is used over and over again.

At one point, I regularly taught alongside another teacher who would often say “Okay, what we’re going to do is, we’re going to …” before giving instructions. She probably said this a couple times every lesson. At first, I thought it was a waste of time (not much, but still). I thought it was wholly unnecessary. But then I noticed that as time went on, students would respond to the pre-instruction phrase. Some students leaned forward a bit. Others would get their pencils ready. Students who had started to let their minds wander would return their focus to the teacher. While the teacher’s phrase didn’t hold a lot of meaning, it served as a prompt.

In psychology, a prompt is something that causes a conditioned response. Students learn to associate repeated prompts with another event, in this case the following instruction; they have expectations for what comes after the prompt. Whenever these students heard “what we’re going to do is…”, the knew that instructions would follow, and they knew that they were required to do something immediately after. As these expectations stabilized in the students’ minds, they prepared for the directions and their required action even before the actual directions began.

A different but related reason prompts work is found in a very common element of English learning: essays! Essays should always begin with an introduction and end with a summary, both of which concisely state what the body of the essay states in more detail. As my middle school teacher use to say: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.” So yes, readers will have read the key points three times by the time they finish. But repetition isn’t necessarily redundant; repetition reinforces points. The introduction of a essay sets the readers’ expectation. As they read the body of the essay, readers look for the points featured in the introduction, and they more readily identify those points when they come across them.

In short, prompts are used to set expectations. Expectations in turn prepare students for what’s coming next.

So what’s the verdict on filler phrases? I say be aware of them. It may help for another teacher to observe you so that they can tell you what filler sentence you use (since we’re not always aware that we’re using them). A lot of those fillers should probably be removed, but you may want to keep two or three if patterns emerge around them: if you tend to use them in particular circumstances, and if they tend to be a part of a sequence of events, instructions, explanations, etc. If your students are responding to your words, then they’re not empty fillers, they’re prompts. And prompts are worth reusing.

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