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