The inners and outers of classroom language

Here’s a simple activity that we did with a group of kids from the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. They were divided into a girls’ team and a boys’ team. I showed each team a series of 10 flashcards and asked one person at the front to try to remember as many of the words as possible. The rest of the team could help. When I’d finished with the girls’ team I did the same with the boys (the extract below) so it was a competition to see who could remember the most. In fact both teams remembered all of the objects! While I was going through the cards, I tried to engage in conversation with the person at the front as much as possible by asking questions. This was a useful bit of exposure to English at a sentence level for them and, by personalising it in this way, it may also have helped them to remember the words. Of course it was great that Haneen was there at the other end to clarify and translate where necessary.

When I was watching the video I was reminded of Jane Willis’s (1992) way of categorizing classroom language into what she termed inner language and outer language. Inner language is the target structure or vocabulary of the lesson; the things that we might drill, or write on the board, or use in some kind of controlled practice. It’s the language that is in the coursebook, English for Palestine, and the language that they will inevitably be tested on at some point. In the extract above the inner language is the vocabulary on the flashcards.

Outer language, on the other hand, is language that we use to “socialize, organize, explain and check, and generally to enable the pedagogic activities to take place” (Willis 1992 p. 162) There’s quite a lot of outer language happening in this short extract. For example…

Socialising: ‘Hi! I don’t know your name…?’ , ‘You’ve got very short hair..’ etc

Organising: ‘The next one is…’ ‘Are you ready?’ etc

Explaining and checking: ‘How do you say lettuce in Arabic?’ , ‘You have to beat 10’ etc.

Of course outer language doesn’t immediately become part of the learners repertoire in the same way that inner language might, but we know as teachers that if we use English for this purpose then learners do quickly get used to it, and start picking things up. It strikes me that activities like the one in the video that encourage processing of both inner and outer language can be useful ones to have in a language classroom. But getting the balance right is the key. Too much inner language and learners don’t develop an awareness of language as a tool for communication; too little and they end up wondering if they’re actually learning anything.

But it’s easy for me to say all this. I’m a native speaker of English so it comes naturally for me to do all of the outer stuff in English (and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it in Arabic anyway!). I’m also very lucky to have Haneen at the other end to help me out and translate what I’m saying if the kids don’t follow. To what extent is the way of working in the video feasible in your classes? What sort of balance between inner and outer classroom language do you want to have when you teach?


Willis, J. (1992) Inner and Outer: spoken discourse in the language classroom in Coulthard, M. Advances in Spoken discourse analysis; Routledge p 162 -183

15 thoughts on “The inners and outers of classroom language

    1. Nick, you are doing very practical activities with Palestinian students such as the girls from Zaatri school. I know you also do Skype meetings with other refugee students from Syria. And you did about eight Skype meetings with my students who study at Kharabtha Al-Mesbah school/ Ramallah. All what you do is very practical and helps these students greatly. These students only learn English at school; they never have the opportunity to practice real English
      conversations. Your Skype meetings really gave them this opportunity. Thanks a lot for your lasting efforts.


      1. Thanks for your comment Atiyyeh. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Learners in most classrooms around the world don’t get many opportunities to have real English conversations. One way of helping them to do this is through online communication, but it’s not the only way of course. Teachers simply talking to their students in English can help to provide them with these opportunities too. In many ways this can be even more effective in my opinion than communicating with someone from outside. Teachers know their students. They know their level, their personalities and their interests. This means that they can pitch their conversations so that they are challenging and interesting for their learners. They know when to push the learners and when to hold back. You seem to be doing a great job in this respect.


  1. Very nice Mr Nick . Thanks for your precious efforts . Our teachers can simply do that activity following your model and also add their creative touches .


    1. Thanks. Yes I think those are the best kind of activities. Those where there is a strong element of control but also where there is scope for creativity and genuine communication.


  2. Hmm…I understand that inner language is the target structure or vocabulary while outer language is the language we use to introduce an activity, for example, or explain something. Well, I think both of them are integrated one way or another. Suppose that I’m going to teach my students the word ‘firework'(inner language) before a reading passage, now, asking a question like ‘when do we usually see fireworks display?’ is classified as outer language? If I teach my students months of the year then I asked, “When is your birthday, Ali?”, does that mean that I’m shifting to the outer language? No! Actually, I’m re-using the language in different contexts and for different purposes (socialising, organising or explaining)


  3. Hi Amal. Thanks for your comment. I think you’re right to challenge the idea that we can always easily define language as being ‘inner’ or ‘outer’. The questions you ask in your examples (like the questions I ask in the video) are used fairly communicatively, but, as you rightly point out, they are also part of the process of teaching the target vocabulary by clarifying, exemplifying, and personalising. Perhaps we should look at outer language as being on a cline, with ‘weak outer’ (like our examples) at one end and ‘strong outer’ at the other end. ‘Strong outer’ would be where we use language when the focus is purely on communication, without any ulterior motive to teach or practice particular items. So it might be things like ‘Now, which page in the coursebook did we get to?’ ‘What do you think about rearranging the groups you’re working in?’, or ‘How was the wedding Mohammed?’

    What do you think?


  4. Yes, such questions or instructions are pure outer language unless I’m teaching words like rearrange or coursebook 😀
    You know what? A teacher can control what’s said and done inside the classroom. We can direct students to use or even listen to the target language. I mean that I can intentionally push the target language in my classroom language. However, we need to use the outer language not only for communication purposes, but for creating amusing atmosphere or even for giving students a break.


    1. You’re right Amal and I like the way you express it. My feeling is that lots of teachers around the world emphasise too much the inner language, at the expense of providing plenty of opportunities for outer language use. What do you think? What’s your experience of classrooms in Palestine?


  5. In the end students need to digest what we’ve put into their brains 🙂 So, yes, we end up emphasizing the inner language especially at the end of the year. We have this inside struggle, I understand that my students would need the language to communicate but still they have to get ready for written exams.


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