My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Teacher clarity: Don’t be vague.

Don’t be vague, is a pretty vague way of saying how to improve teacher clarity, but it is not without validity. Unclear language, in explanations, has a negative effect upon student learning (Hargie 2006)

Given the amount of talk teachers do it is inevitable that vagueness will occur to a certain extent,. It only becomes a problem  when teacher explanations have excessive amounts of vagueness (in excess of 7.2 vagueness terms per minute). At this point student achievement and perception of clarity in the lesson are negatively affected.  Errors are more common than we think, with an average of from three to five vagueness terms per minute of teacher talk, and an average of four word mazes per minute of teacher talk. (Snyder 1991)

Vagueness can be located in the two facets of teacher talk: What is said, and , how it is said. 

The following table categorises vague terms and teacher errors made during presentation or explanations, not as a checklist to plan what to say, but more as a way of focusing where professional learning might be most useful. The signs are that even a narrow focus on one aspect can have a positive influence on teacher clarity.(Smith 1982)


Vagueness terminology
Teachers may...
Examples of terminology
Using approximation with setting definitions or with quantities.
Lack specificity in what is communicated.

Not set clear boundaries of where rules apply.
Other people, somewhere, under certain conditions. pretty much, nearly, almost, sort of.

A bunch of, most of, a couple, some.

Bluffing phrase that make uncertain things sound certain.
Lack sufficient PCK.

Be ill prepared for a complex explanation.
Actually, and so forth, anyway,
As a matter of fact: Of course...
When we describe possibility.
When a negation evades a clear response.
Indicate a lack of clarity or lack of definite knowledge.
lead to reduced student confidence in teacher.
Maybe, might, could be, Chances are, Perhaps
not always, not quite, isn’t necessarily
When a multiple ideas are needed at once.
May gloss over complexity
aspects, types, lots, factors, kinds
Generally, often, probably, Ordinarily
Use excessive pronouns rather than a direct reference to the content. This may make the explanation more difficult to follow.
I, she, he, the former, the latter, them.


During explanations, novice learners can be distracted by accidental teacher word mazes. Student can get lost, and miss the point we are trying to make in the twists and turns of what is said. This can be as simple as repeating a phrase, repeating a phrase, that can then disjoint, can then disjoint, the meaning of the sentence. (You see what I did there)

Presentational Vagueness
Teachers may...
Lose track of where the explanation is heading.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, you know, do you understand?
Admission of Error
break fluency

reduce student confidence
I guess.., I’m sorry, Excuse my mistake, I don’t know
Utterances such as vocal fillers
break fluency making it more difficult to follow the ideas.
Urn, Err, Basically, Em. Look, Right, Well and stuff.
Word mazes that confuse the meaning of your statements.
make a false start to an explanation.

not make sense

halt in speech
Repeating phrases,
Improper pacing occurs
speak too quickly or do not allow sufficient time for students to process information.
The last five minutes of the lesson and you realise you have not explained something...
Express our reservations
lead to doubt of a point of view or fact.
lead to student being less likely to accept the information as helpful.
apparently, appears, relatively, seems

To reduce our, unintended, vagueness is once more about professional learning. As Smith concludes:  

“Teachers can be trained to significantly reduce the frequencies of vagueness terms they use. Such training involves intense focus on vagueness terms per se and on preparation of lessons to eliminate vagueness terms. Interestingly, it appears that teachers can reduce mazes by-simply presenting lessons and reviewing their presentations.” 

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