Graded Language: Use it! | Grading Language for ESL Students

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Use Graded Language to help your students

I’m sure we’ve all been there. We’re in a language class, and the teacher is talking, but we’re actually understanding nothing about what is going on around us. Kind of like the deer in headlights effect.

All of our students have been there too. Should we care? Should we try to use language that is simpler, or speak slower? Or, should we just soldier on because we’re helping them get used to what it’s like in the real world.

Keep on reading to find out. Let’s dig into two of the major theories related to this idea of graded language.

Stephen Krashen: Comprehensible Input

One of the major principles of language acquisition is the idea of comprehensible input, whereby learners are able to comprehend language that is it a slightly higher level than they’re currently at. This is a major tenet in Stephen Krashen’s Natural Approach to language acquisition.

Vgotsky’s ZPD

Closely related to this is Vgotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, where he proposes real learning can take place if the concept is something that is just slightly higher than the student’s current ability. They can also be assisted by a teacher or another student to understanding.

Graded Language: Use it

How does this relate to English class you might be wondering. Graded language—you need to use it.

Some Bad Stuff Going on

During my years teaching ESL, I’ve had the opportunity to witness plenty of other teachers who talk at their normal rate and don’t simplify their language at all. For slow talkers, it was perhaps kind of okay. But for those who normally talked quite quickly? It was certainly not ideal

Their utterances are met with confused looks and no response because the students actually had no idea what they were talking about it. These teachers often defend their actions saying things like, “Students need to get used to how it is in the real world.”

What Exactly Is It?

That logic is flawed on many levels, but the biggest problem is that it’s not in the “zone,” nor is it comprehensible input. This means that it’s unlikely to help the students in any way whatsoever.

Plus, the student will likely view your class as a total waste of time since you’re just talking at them, and not with them. Nobody likes being talked at, especially in another language that they’re struggling to figure out.

Challenge Students, at a Slightly Higher Level

While it is good to challenge our students, challenge them at a level only slightly higher than they’re at. You can help them understand what you’ve said, if necessary.

Talk Slowly and Simply for Beginners

You can do this by talking slowly and using simple grammar concepts and vocabulary. This is especially important if you have lower-level students. By not doing this, you’re actually doing a disservice to your students.

And of course remember to tell your freakishly high-level student in a class with lower-level students to grade their language as well. This is what I did when I had native English speakers from Singapore in a public speaking class with low-intermediate Korean students.

The students from Singapore were kind of unaware that most of their fellow students couldn’t really understand them!

Like this English Teaching Tip? 

Then you’re going to love this: How to Teach English Conversation. Check it out for even more ideas for the English classroom.

Graded Language: Do you Use It?

What are your thoughts on using graded language in an ESL or EFL classroom? Good, bad, or you’re not sure.

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.


  1. Fun Fact. Stephen Krashen is the plenary speaker at the 2018 Korea TESOL International Conference October 13-14.

    • Good stuff. Krashen has a term input “i+1” Introduced it back…30 some years ago.
      + 1 means that new knowledge is introduced that a student should acquire.

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