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Surviving and succeeding in the first year of teaching: How to explain things clearly

surviving-teachingAlex Galvin, Senior Education Lead, SSAT, writes…

In this series we are sharing advice for new teachers from Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School on how to make a success of your early months in teaching. This sixth article is the first of three that focus on the first few weeks in the classroom. First up – five tips to help you communicate clearly with your students…


‘Explaining’ is one of the most important skills a teacher needs. However much we might want our students to learn by doing, there will always be times when we need to explain. Less effective teachers often get this bit wrong.

They aren’t clear enough in their explanations and they talk for too long. Students lose interest and off-task behaviour sets in. Watch a great teacher at work and you’ll see an apparently effortless ability to take complicated subject matter and make it clear and understandable through explanation. Here’s how to do just that…

  1. In order to understand your explanations, students need to be able to concentrate. The classroom conditions therefore need to be right. Students need to know that when you (or anyone else) is speaking, they are expected to listen. Establish this from the outset. Never continue speaking if a student speaks – always make an issue of it. Taking the register in a formal way near the start of each lesson will reinforce the importance of listening.
  2. Be clear in your own mind of what you are aiming to explain. The old adage taught to preachers isn’t a bad one: ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you’ve told them’. This means being more repetitive in your language than you would if talking to a friend. You’ll use phrases to emphasise key ideas, such as ‘I’m going to explain how you need to approach the task; then tell you how you will be assessed; then I’ll pause to take any questions before you get started. Does that make sense? Right – here’s how to approach the task…’
  3. Use numbers – especially the ‘power of three’ – to help add clarity to your instructions. ‘Here are three main ideas you need to know: first…’ This helps students to see the connections (and differences) between ideas.
  4. Use visuals to help clarify points. Some of us learn best by seeing. This doesn’t mean you need a ready-made PowerPoint slide – sometimes it’s actually better for students to see you drawing a diagram or demonstrating an idea on a whiteboard/smartboard.
  5. Remember to use the key vocabulary needed in your explanation. Students need to hear how these words are used in the context of your subject. Verbally bracket a simpler meaning after using a complex word – ‘You will see that the writer is quite cynical (negative) at this point. See if you can tell me how this cynicism (this negative attitude) is put across or conveyed by the writer…’ Ideally, you would have these key words on display so that you can point to them and show students how they are spelt as well as how they are pronounced.


What are your experiences of your first year in teaching? What worked for you? What didn’t work? Let us know via Twitter with the hashtag #SSATsurvive or in the comments below.

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