TEFL is full of industry terms and jargon that can sometimes seem a bit confusing and even overwhelming. One term that you may have heard before is circumlocution. You’ve probably heard it in such ways as, “this is a great way to help your students with their circumlocution” or “in order to develop fluency, it is important to work on circumlocution”. That’s great, but just what is circumlocution and how is it useful for the teacher and for the students?
Read on for an easy breakdown of what this term means, why it’s important, how you as a teacher can use it and how to develop these skills in your students. If you already know what this is, and just want a few activities that you can use in your classroom that focus on this skill, you can gain access to a free resource by clicking on the button below.
What is circumlocution?
Technically, circumlocution is using a lot of unnecessary, uh, those things that we use to represent things and ideas, instead of just using the correct word. Were you able to guess what I couldn’t think of in the last sentence? I was thinking about “words”. Let’s try again. I sometimes eat the animal that can’t fly, is usually white and lays eggs (chicken). In everyday conversation, circumlocution can come off like you are evading giving a straight answer (like a politician). However, when you are learning a new language, circumlocution is an important skill to master.
When learning a new language, a student’s vocabulary is much more limited than they are used to with their first language. This means that students will necessarily be trying to express something and find gaps in their knowledge. This often leads to frustration, reverting to L1, long pauses or simply giving up. This is where circumlocution comes in.
As a technical term for TEFL, circumlocution is the ability to talk around a word that you don’t know. There may be a more straightforward way to express meaning, but if a language learner doesn’t know it, they’ll need to substitute another word or perhaps define the thing or idea that they’re trying to get to. For example, let’s say that I don’t know the word carrot:
“I’d like to buy an [orange vegetable that is long. It’s the thing that rabbits really like to eat].”
You’d likely understand that I meant carrot if I said the above without me having to stop and look up the word or think for a long time. Circumlocution skills really help with students’ fluency. They don’t have to pause and think as much or stop talking.
Using Circumlocution as a Teacher
The more experienced you are, and the more you get to know your students, the easier it will be for you to grade your language to your students’ abilities. However, many times teachers need to use vocabulary that the students definitely won’t know. In these cases, it is important for the teacher to use this skill. Here are a few times when it’s relevant:
Giving simple definitions for a word.
Student: What does suburbs mean?
Teacher: It’s the place between the countryside and the city. It’s just outside of the city. Many people still come to the city from work who live there.
Student: What is embarrassed?
Teacher: I was talking to a friend about a pretty girl that I really liked. I didn’t know, but she was right behind me! I felt embarrassed.
Asking concept checking questions
Teacher: Do you understand what polite means?
Students: Yes… [not very confidently]
Teacher: Does it mean that you give someone a lot of money?
Teacher: If you are polite do you often say please and thank you?
Students: Yes [more confidently].
How to Develop Circumlocution Skills with Your Students
The easiest way to get your students to use circumlocution is simply to be aware of their limited vocabulary and when you see them struggling to find a word, ask them to try and put it another way. Ask them for examples. Ask them to explain what the thing looks like or other features of it. Don’t let them revert to L1 or throw their hands in the air and give up on trying to get their meaning across.
Another thing to work on with students that will help this skill is synonyms. This has the dual purpose of expanding the student’s vocabulary as well as helping them to have lots of words at their disposal for many situations. One fun activity to do with synonyms is to have a word on the board that one student can’t see. Have the other students say different related words and see if you can get the student to guess the word.
Similarly, having students get comfortable with dependent clauses will help them use circumlocution. Yes, I mean having them use: which, that, where, who, whose, when in their sentences. For example, that was the place where I went for holiday last. He was the man who could eat twenty hot dogs. If students can master this, they will have a much easier time trying to explain a word when they don’t know it.
There are a lot of games to help students with circumlocution as well. If you’d like to gain access to a few of my favorites, you can do so by clicking on the button below.
3 Circumlocution Activities