The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 4 – Emergent Teaching & Clarifying Meaning

This post is in response to Güven’s CELTA Diaries Day 4.

It is important that the input sessions of the first week starts exposing trainees to how they can focus on and clarify language in the classroom, whether that language be included in their lesson aims or emergent.

This also sets the groundwork for trainees to start including a Language Analysis sheet in their lesson plan (from TP 3 onwards), and gives them a basis from which to work on Assignment 2 – Language Awareness.

With this in mind, I timetabled a session on Clarifying Meaning on Day 4, with a focus on lexis. But before that, I scheduled for the second tutor to conduct a session on giving instructions and language grading with a focus on the use of ICQs (Instruction Checking Questions) and examples/demos to clarify instructions to tasks.

What was that instruction checking question again? Did she just ask ‘Should we read in alone or in pairs’? How on earth can anyone read in pairs?
Photo by Mike Hogan

Some tutors prefer to timetable the session on instruction-giving and language grading on the first day of the CELTA, but I have noticed that such a session often could be meaningless to trainees with no experience of classroom management, and have found trainees tend to understand and take on the suggestions given when they have had the experience of setting up tasks and not being fully understood.

Not unlike the belief that students would better understand and be more motivated to learn the lexis/grammar that have emerged from their use of the language and the gaps in their knowledge, it is perhaps easier for trainees to notice the gap once they have actually tried to teach and encountered problems with that particular area.

It is also in this spirit that the session on Clarifying Meaning (of lexis) was timetabled for Day 4 and another session on Focusing on language (grammar and then lexis) for Day 5, and not any earlier.

On Day 4, the session started with me writing up ‘to binge’, ‘to defeat’, and ‘langoustine vs crab’ on the board. I then asked trainees to discuss with their partners how they would clarify meaning of these lexical items.

In open class feedback, we came up with these different ways of clarifying lexis:

  • Using pictures/drawings/flashcards
  • Using photos/Google images
  • Using mime/Acting it out
  • Using realia
  • Giving examples
  • Giving an example situation
  • Using CCQs (Concept Checking Questions, e.g. ‘to binge’ – ‘Do I drink/eat a lot?’ ‘Do I drink/eat a lot in a short time?’)
  • And a combination of 2 or more of the above.
If you draw as badly as I do, perhaps it’s best to prepare some flashcards or use Google images… : (

I then gave trainees a handout with a list of the following words and they had to decide with their partners how they would go about clarifying them.
How would you clarify these words?

  1. to pay a fine
  2. to throw a tantrum
  3. to steal  vs  to rob
  4. frustrated (adj)
  5. to go on strike
  6. to sip a cup of coffee
  7. credit card (n)
  8. to fidget
  9. suntan  vs  sunburn
  10. heavy rain
  11. heavy bag

In open class feedback, I then pretended to be a student (and a particularly daft one at that) and nominated different trainees to clarify each of these lexical items for me. ‘To pay a fine’ was an especially good one to start on as it forces some of these issues to emerge:

(a) Spending too long setting the scene

‘I was driving a car. And I needed to stop. So I needed to find a parking space. I couldn’t find one. So I decided to park on the side of the road. This is not allowed and is illegal. I did it anyway. A policeman saw this. So he came up to me and gave me a ticket. I had to pay a fine.’

Such wordy and unnecessary scenario-setting could confuse students, introduce more unfamiliar new words (e.g. parking space, came up to somebody, illegal, give a ticket) and increase unnecessary teacher talking time.

Instead, this would suffice:

‘I was driving too quickly. The policeman stopped me. I had to pay a fine.’

(b) Explaining Explaining Explaining

‘So, ‘to pay a fine’ means to give the policeman money because you have done something wrong, like in this case, you parked in the wrong place and it is not allowed. And so you have to pay a penalty. In English, we call this penalty a fine.’

Like the wordy scenario-setting, wordy explanations often means students are not involved cognitively in the clarification process and might either get confused or simply tune out. And there’s no way of checking if they really understand what you have just said.

Instead, try asking CCQs (see below).

(c) Not nailing the meaning of the language item or asking irrelevant CCQs

‘Does this mean I give the policeman money?’ (Yes)

‘Why did I give him money?’ (Because I parked in the wrong place)

At this point, I feign stupidity and say, “Ah! So teacher, ‘to pay a fine’ is same as ‘give coffee money to policeman’?”

Indeed, those CCQs could easily lead one to misconstrue that paying a fine means to give the policeman a bribe.

One extra CCQ is needed to ensure learners do not misunderstand the lexical item.

Who receives the money? Does the policeman keep it? Or the government?’ (Technically, the government)

As for irrelevant CCQs, here’s one of my favourites:

Lexical item: Season (Level: Elementary)

CCQ: What seasons are there? (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter)

Okay that was a good CCQ…wait till you hear the next one…

CCQ: Does this mean I put salt and vinegar on something? (DOH!!!)

Colourful Egyptian spices to season your food with…
Did you just get it? ; )
Photo by Chia Suan Chong

On Day 5, I look at the clarification of meaning for grammatical structures, and look at how to systematically focus on MFP (Meaning, Form and Pronunciation).

But I’ll leave that for my next post…

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

17 thoughts on “The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 4 – Emergent Teaching & Clarifying Meaning”

  1. Great post and practical examples, to ensure that students get the meaning of new lexis is useful to set claryfing questions. Additionally, it’s necessary that students use these new vocabulary in a presonal context.
    Keep tracking the development of the course and thanks for sharing it. Personally, I find this way to share experiences more practical.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Thanks for commenting. You are absolutely right in saying that vocabulary often occurs in a context, may it be through a text or as emergent language. The trainees were made to clarify the list of lexis without a given context (although they had to generate their own) which made it slightly less realistic. But it was a way of giving intensive practice of language clarification.
      I’m glad you find the posts helpful and would love to hear more from you. Thanks once again!


  2. Hello, thanks for the useful tips. I have a suggestion: in the example `to pay fine` and of course other examples, as a teacher i would have students act the scene, like one being policeman and other driver.

    1. Thanks for commenting!
      Getting students to act out scenes is definitely creative and can break the monotony in a language class. It of course depends on the students you are teaching as well. If you are a Business English trainer and working in company, perhaps role plays need to be kept for professional scenarios with a Business/Communicative Skill as its aim (e.g. negotiations, presentations, chairing meetings, etc).
      But I think a key factor in helping me decide how to clarify meaning, aside from clarity itself, is the time and effort that goes into clarifying something, and whether it is worth it.
      In other words, I try to choose the quickest way to clarifying meaning and not spend too much precious classroom time which can be better used having learners practising and taking part in authentic communication with each other.
      If asking 2-3 CCQs would clarify meaning and usage, and provide a context for the lexical item, I’d go with that.
      Roleplays can sometimes take up too much time…

      I wonder if you’d agree?


      1. Totally agree with precious time in classroom. I teach english to 10-14 yo students and naturally they like to be involved in learning process more actively.

        1. Ah! You teach YLs! That totally changes things!
          I teach mostly adults (the youngest in the GE class is probably 16 but those aren’t that common. Most students are in their 20s or 30s) and I also do a lot of Business English teaching to experienced business people…
          Again, context is everything!
          ; )

  3. I like your choice of items because each one lends itself to a different method / way of clarifying lexis on the list you and your trainees came up with:

    7 credit card – using realia

    9 suntan vs sunburn – using photos / Google images

    3 to steal vs to rob – you’d have to give examples here to clarify the difference in use

    6 to sip a cup of coffee and 8 to fidget – miming / acting it out
    I guess I could also act out #2 🙂

    Like your CELTA series – reminds me of those insanely hectic days…
    Looking forward to the next post on clarifying grammar.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Leo!
      You have sussed out why I have chosen those lexical items to give my trainees.
      Indeed, they each require slightly different ways of meaning clarification.
      With (9) suntan vs sunburn, another way is to ask the CCQ: What colour am I? (Suntanned – brown; Sunburnt – red)
      As for (2), it probably requires a combination of setting the scene, miming/acting it out, and the CCQ ‘Who usually throw tantrums?’ – I forsee quite a sexist answer to this one… ; )

      I’ve just posted the one on clarifying grammatical structures, but you might notice that I’ve taken quite a lexical approach to it…
      Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this, Lexical Leo…


  4. I ended up at this blog entry in a rather round about way. Does anyone read posts or comments after they post’s gone down the blog list? Well anyway, I’d just like to say I really like these kinds of posts that deal with specific language. I wonder if a better example might be something like: I had to pay an £80 fine for speeding. I was only doing 10km/hour over the speed limit! I might then ask as a concept question like = “what else do you pay a fine for?’. That seems sufficient really as a CQ as it will quickly become clear from the answers if the meaning is clear or if there are similar, but conflicting concepts in other countries / languages. It might even lead to a broader discussion on punishment – a dogme moment!
    I’ve recently started a blog on these kinds of language issues which you might be interested in or be useful for CELTA or DELTA trainees. This one is about lexical sets:

    1. Thanks for your comments, Andrew.
      I’m glad you like the post.

      Your CCQs are totally sound, especially when dealing with levels B2 and above. I know I didn’t mentioned levels much in the post, but on the CELTA, I spend quite a bit of time trying to get my trainees to grade their language. So ‘speeding’ and ‘doing 10km’ and ‘over the speed limit’ might be a little too difficult for them… As always, it all depends on the students and their needs, I guess.

      BTW, thanks for sharing your post on lexical sets, and…
      Glad to meet a fellow Dogmetician!


      1. Thnaks for the reply to my belated post. Funnily enough fining people came up in my Elementary class only yesterday! It followed on from some homework where I’d asked students to talk about government plans and their opinions of them. This used grammar of ‘going to’ and some vocab I’d taught them from the book we’re using – create jobs / provide a service / build homes / introduce a new law / doesn’t work / save money / cut tax etc. and in fact speed limit (which is probably what I had in mind when I wrote the post). All of these words (if you consider speed and limit as separate word meanings) are in the top 2500 most frequent verbs according to Macmillan. Interestingly, ‘fine’ is in the 2500-5000 band. While I don’t think frequency is everything, I think it’s something we have to train ourselves to be more aware of. Having said that I think I gave the example initially of breaking the speed limit though later a student said he got a a …and waved an imaginary ticket, which led to parking / speeding ticket. You are of course right about grading language, but it depends what you explain as you give your answer or where the vocab came from (was it a meaning the student had produced which you are responding to). The problem with trainees is explanations with ungraded language which is itself then untaught or explained. I certainly am interested in Dogme and use students a lot, but I would point out that the original source in this particular chain was… a coursebook!

        1. Hi Andrew,
          May I ask, which book are you using? It sounds fascinating…

          I do agree that frequency is one of the factors that we should take into consideration when deciding whether or not to focus on a new piece of language. And both ‘speed’ and ‘limit’ are indeed frequent words.
          And of course, we should always be providing that ‘+1’ of comprehensible input for students and not just be dumbing down our language use to that of an elementary level.
          I think in the case of clarifying language, my concern for trainees is to steer them away from explaining unknown words with more unknown words which would need further explanation. But from your comment, I see that you totally got that.

          Funny that you got this from a coursebook though. ; )


  5. The book is Outcomes Elementary – Unit 8 part 3. As a trainer myself, I understand where you are coming from re- grading and in the end you may be better to err on the side of caution. I don’t know. It’s something which I’m trying to work on myself at the moment both in terms of my own teaching as well as training and I’m coming to the conclusion that we all need to do a lot more work thinking about examples and questions around vocab, which is basically what our blog is about.


  6. I don’t know if we have met, but you may know me though Hugh Dellar, who I work with and with whom I wrote …er … Outcomes Elementary (sorry I was trying to avoid a shameless plug!! while trying to say that not all coursebooks are the same!). Anyway, while we’re on a slightly different subject, we’re organizing a conference next year – May 11 – on lexical teaching which is a kind of celebration of the 20th anniversary of the lexical approach with updates and workshops on teaching vocabulary and lexical approaches to grammar. Michael Hoey will be giving a plenary on lexical approaches to learning Chinese and Hugh will be giving the other plenary. Would you be interested in taking part? If you want to contact me directly, you can at

    1. Hahaha…Don’t worry about the plug. Not shameless at all, especially considering the fact that I was the one who asked you about the coursebook and then about your secret identity. : )
      A Lexical Approach conference does sound brilliant. Thanks for the invite! I’ll email you about that shortly.


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