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September 4, 2003 — Lida Baker: Informality in the Classroom - 2003-09-04

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: September 4, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: As a new school year gets under way in the United States, English teacher Lida Baker joins us to talk about informality in the classroom.

RS: She says students who come to America to study English in a college-level program are surprised to find that in many cases teachers are less formal than teachers in their own countries.

BAKER: "One of the first things that happens is that the teacher tells students to call him or her by his first name. Call me Bob, call me Jim, call me Lida. The teacher will then ask the students what they want to be called, and most of them will follow the teacher's example and they'll have the teacher call them by their first names, even if this isn't customary in the country where they come from."

RS: "Do they have a problem with that?"

BAKER: "For some students, it kind of sticks in their throat to have to call their teacher by her first name, and some students never quite get around to feeling comfortable with that and will spend the entire ten weeks of the program that I work in calling me 'teacher,' which is fine. I don't discourage them from doing that.

"Other things that students have reported to me as being surprising: the fact that teachers are very forthcoming about making jokes, and a lot of times they'll make jokes about themselves and about members of their own family. Teachers are very forthcoming, talking about themselves, their children, their dogs -- I like to talk about my dog all the time. My dog and my daughter. And I must tell you that students are very, very interested in these topics. They love hearing the details of my private life. [laughter]"

RS: "And you like telling them, right?"

BAKER: "Sure. It's a wonderful way of motivating students and getting them to feel good in the classroom. The style that we have here is more of a participatory one, one of sharing where the student's input is also valued and even expected. Another thing that students have to get used to when they come to study in this country is the fact that teachers expect them to raise their hands and ask questions. Sometimes, in fact, they don't even need to raise their hands. Students express surprise at the fact that a teacher might be talking and someone will interrupt without raising their hand to contradict the teacher or to challenge what the teacher has said."

RS: "But being active in class, that's part of your grade in some classes."

BAKER: "That's right. And teachers do not take offense -- most teachers don't take offense if you question something that they've just said and even if you challenge them and take an opposite point of view. That's considered part of the normal give-and-take in an American classroom."

AA: "And starting on time, also, punctuality?"

BAKER: "Well, punctuality is something that Americans are very, very fastidious about, and students coming to this country have to know that if a class begins at 8:30, you're expected to be there at 8:30. If you don't make it a point to show up on time, it conveys an attitude of disrespect to the person, to the professor -- or, if it's a job interview, to the person who's interviewing you. 'What's this, you're not even able to show up to class on time, so how can I trust you with something of even greater importance?' You see. So punctuality is very important in American culture, and this is something that I always explain to my students."

AA: English teacher Lida Baker says one obvious difference between American classrooms and those in some other countries is how the classroom looks.

BAKER: "Students coming here are sometimes surprised when they come into our classrooms that the chairs are not organized in rows. They might be organized in a circle or in a semi-circle, or there might be large tables in the classroom where students sit in groups around the table."

RS: "So not only do things sound different, but they look different too."

BAKER: "And there's a reason for this kind of classroom organization. It comes back to the idea that learning is a participatory activity. It is something that goes both ways, and it also imbeds the idea that students can learn from one another. And one final thing I want to point out about informality is -- actually there are couple of more things. Students might be surprised to see teachers wearing blue jeans and sandals in the classroom. And there is an expectation by American teachers that students will look them directly in the eyes, and this is an accommodation that students from some countries have to make. Because, in a lot of countries, when you want to show respect to somebody, you never look directly into their face."

AA: Lida Baker writes textbooks for English learners and teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. And that's Wordmaster for this week.

RS: Our e-mail address is and we're on the Web at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.