Teach in English? Try these tips on using signposts and stimulating interaction in the classroom

Teacher talks to students in the classroom

For non-native speakers, teaching in English can take more effort and skill. Simply translating your lecture slides into English won’t do the trick. Do you recognize having word finding trouble, difficulty expressing exactly what you want to say, and a lack of interaction with your students? Marjolein Cremer explains how a clear structure and the use of signposts can be of great help. Also, she discusses useful techniques to stimulate interaction with students in class.

Structure and signposts

Many lectures or seminars have great content but lack good signaling words or signposts about what the content consists of, what is coming next, what has just been completed, summaries, reviews, and so on  (Gibbs, G. and Trevor Habeshaw, 1992).

Signposts are essential for making your story easy to follow

Signposts are words (first, finally), phrases (in contrast to this, in a similar way) or whole sentences (let me summarise the main points, let me rephrase that) that speakers use to make the structure of what they are saying explicit. Signposts are essential for making your story easy to follow. Listeners understand a presentation better if signposts are used, even if they do not consciously notice them. 

Signposts can:

  • Indicate the start or end of sections (I think that covers everything regarding…). 
  • Highlight important points (I want to stress that...). 
  • Indicate the organisation of an explanation in advance (I will now move on to X. There are three parts to X, (i), (ii) and (iii). The first is brief but the other two are more detailed. I will illustrate each in turn).
  • Connect ideas, e.g., showing contrast (however), result (therefore), or addition (also). 
  • Refer backward or forward (As mentioned earlier migration is… , I’ll come to that later).
  • Move away from a topic (Digressing for a moment, I’d like to discuss…).

Interaction and asking questions

Research has shown that non-native speakers who are teaching in English have a tendency to interact less frequently with their students (for example Diana Vinke, 1995). This is a pity, as interaction is a useful tool for enhancing student learning in general, and even more important in the second-language classroom as it provides opportunities for checking and confirming understanding, or for clarifying meaning. Important areas are asking questions, leading classroom discussions, and dealing with questions from students. 

Asking questions

As a lecturer, you may pose questions to your students for different reasons. To check students’ understanding, stimulate critical thinking, start a discussion, or to keep everyone involved. Many teachers fear the silence which often ensues after they have asked a question. There are a couple of techniques you can use to avoid this situation. 

  • First of all, do not be tempted to answer the question yourself! If you give the answer, students will expect you to do this every time and not make an effort themselves. 
  • Second, give students sufficient time to think. Keep quiet; people need time first to think and then to formulate their answer in English. Also, when a student has given an answer, wait a moment before giving your reaction, so everyone gets a chance to form their own opinion of the answer*. There may even be students who will use this space to offer their own feedback or addition to the response given, thus involving the whole class much more. 
  • Finally, always treat those who offer answers with respect. Make sure no one is made to look stupid in front of the whole class, even if their answer is incorrect. To encourage students to open up it is also good to ask questions that do not have a right or wrong answer, such as “What is your experience of…” or “How do you feel about this?”. 

To develop your students’ critical thinking skills, certain types of questions are useful (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006), such as: causal effect questions (What is the cause of x?, Why do you think x led to y?), evaluative questions: asking students to make informed judgments (Which of these two theories best accounts for these facts and why?), and critical questions: to examine the validity of an argument (Can you think of situations that would invalidate this author’s argument?).

*  Increasing wait time both before calling on a student and after a student’s initial response (i.e. before the teacher comments on the response) often increases the length of the students’ responses, increases the number of questions asked by students, and increases student involvement in learning (Richards, J.C., Platt, J. & Platt, H. 1992).

Classroom discussions

Encouraging students to discuss a topic in class, and keeping the discussion on track, is not an easy task; if both the lecturer and the students are communicating in a language which is not their mother tongue, this is even more of a challenge.

Pay attention to language issues and pedagogical techniques

When preparing a classroom discussion in English it is necessary to pay attention both to language issues (what English expressions should you use to facilitate the discussion, how do you formulate questions appropriately?) and to pedagogical techniques that support effective discussions.

The following guidelines give practical and useful hints both for preparing and for executing effective classroom discussions. 

And in addition to all this, when teaching in English, you also need a little confidence!

Could you use some help?

Utrecht University offers several courses that may help you out as a non-native speaker teaching in English. For example: English pronunciation for lecturers.  A new course starts 9 January 2024.


  • Gibbs, G. and Trevor Habeshaw (1992). Preparing to Teach: An Introduction to Effective Teaching in Higher Education. Technical and Educational Services Ltd, pp. 42, 43.
  • “English as the medium of instruction in Dutch engineering education”, Diana Vinke, 1995. 
  • Richards, J.C., Platt, J. & Platt, H. 1992. Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics. Longman.
  • “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips”, by McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006

With special thanks to Evelyn van de Veen