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by Erica Fischer on Mar 12, 2014

10 Tricks for Teaching Novice Students to Circumlocute

Although there are many skills that must be explored in the first stages of language acquisition, there is some debate about whether circumlocution is one that should be emphasized. Key vocabulary, grammatical structures and conversational skills are clearly important elements of the novice classroom, but is there a place for circumlocution at this early stage of language development? During this week’s #Langchat, our forum discussed the importance of circumlocution at the novice level, and gave some concrete ways to improve this skill through classroom activities.

The Power of Circumlocution

In order to really discuss the value of circumlocution at the novice level, it is vital to really understand what it is and what it can do for a young learner. @placido gave an excellent, simple definition of this action: “[Circumlocution] is “talking around” a word you don’t know. @msfrenchteach added that it includes, “Anything you do to get learners to communicate interpersonally – spontaneous and without preparation.”

There are a couple key benefits for novice language learners to use circumlocution when they are conversing.

1. Increases Risk-Taking. By giving them the freedom to not know exactly how to say what they’re saying, they learn that it’s okay to make mistakes or be creative with their answers. @sonrisadelcampo said, “They learn it’s not wrong to not know; simply learn another way to express it.”

2. Empowers Student Knowledge. @sonrisadelcampo also shared that circumlocution, when addressed correctly by the teacher, can provide a huge confidence boost for students. By helping students, “show me what they know–not what they don’t know,” they are encouraged to circumlocute and recognize how much language they have actually acquired.

3. Creates Flexible, Creative Communicators. By having to “think around” language problems through circumlocution, there may be some cognitive training that allows students to think more flexibly later on. @SraSpanglish said, “It seems to me if we present possible [circumlocution] strategies early on, though, they develop more flexibility.”

Should Teachers Expect Novices to Circumlocute?

Despite the positive benefits of learning this skills, many students balk at the idea of using circumlocution in novice classes. @msfrenchteach said, “When I think about circumlocution in my novice classes, it is not happening much. They are in survival mode.” @tournesol74 responded, “”Survival mode”- That’s almost when they need it most!”

This raises a very valid question about whether it is appropriate to teach this skill while students are still very new to the second language. It can lead to frustration and confusion if not handled correctly. At the same time, it is one of the most natural processes in any kind of language learning scenario, even in very young language learners attaining a first language.

In order for novices to have a desire to circumlocute, there must be an established sense of freedom and creativity that allows for this kind of exploration. @msfrenchteach said, “It seems to me that the top language learners are going to circumlocute at novice level. In general, of course, it may be different.” @placido said, “Novices may inadvertently circumlocute. I praise their creativity with language! #LangChat”

Still, there was some discussion as to whether novices are even really prepared to learn this skill while trying to grasp the basics of a second language. The general consensus, was that it was smart to have attainable expectations for these novice learners. @MaryBethHills said, “I like the idea of introducing strategies at novice level. Maybe emphasize more as they progress in the second language.” @tiesamgraf agreed, saying, “At this level we can model circumlocution-and explain the skill – but can’t expect them to perform.”

10 Tricks for Teaching Novice Language Students to Circumlocute

1. Give Alternatives: One of the simplest ways you can support novices in circumlocution is by making sure they have specific alternatives to use when they run out of things to say. While this might be direct instruction, like @BeckyTetzner suggester, it might also come as informal formative feedback suggestions. @SraSpanglish said, “I think the key is making them aware of their options when vocabulary runs out #langchat gestures, cognate synonyms, drawing, opposites” @placido said, “When kids say “how do I say…?” I say “What is another way to phrase that idea?”

2. Play Circumlocution Games: There’s nothing like a game to keep students interested and engaged in the learning. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent circumlocution games that can be adapted for the world language classroom. Still, it is important to remember to keep the games in context and connected to prior learning. @msfrenchteach said, “For me, circumlocution definitely does not include games out of context. I give examples when they are needed.”

Some of the evening’s game suggestions included:

$64,000 Pyramid
Ellen’s Head’s Up App

3. Teach Them Reasonable Expectations: When teaching circumlocution, students have a tendency towards frustration with their own lack of language skill. @ProfeCochran said, “My intermediate students are so sick of circumlocution they could scream. They are FRUSTRATED and ready to be fluent! They are genuinely mad that they can’t say EXACTLY what they think!”

This level of frustration can make it difficult to continue learning. In order to combat this reaction, it is vital to teach students appropriate expectations for their learning level. @FrauJago said, “I tell students to talk like a preschooler, not a high schooler. Stick with what they know and phrase.”

4. Use Categories to Scaffold Learning: @tiesamgraf shared, “For novices, circumlocution is tough. But categories can help to ‘train’ for future development.” By teaching students categories of words, they have more than one way of saying a particular thing already embedded in their lexicon. @tiesamgraf suggested categories such as colors, school subjects, seasons and summer activities as good places to start. @alenord added, “Categories could differ depending on unit of study. As they get better they have to give more info.”

5. Discuss High Interest Topics: As with any other part of the world language classroom, having information and subjects that are vitally interesting to students is preferable. When the circumlocution exercise is based around things that the students are inherently interested in, it is more likely to catch on aand keep them trying new ways to say things. @sonrisadelcampo said, “My students need circumlocution tasks when talking about their weekend; naturally find words to “work around”.”

6. Build In Conversation Time: A simple way to ensure that students are doing small bits of circumlocution is to set up a monitored conversation time for a segment of every week. Several teachers explained the benefits of this tactic, including @FrauJago who suggested that it is a good way to get students talking “off script.” @MmeCarbonneau said, “Set timer. Students talk aloud at the same time babbling fashion. Talk nonstop on a topic, even if repeat same word a few times. Then, pair up!”

Still, this can be a little stressful. @SraSpanglish said, “I just had to do a timed babble in @tsoth1’s session last Saturday. It was high-stress in L1! How to reduce?” Some ideas included direct instruction of language structures and providing sentence starters in places where students could easily access them.

7. Create a Word Wall: An easy way to make options available while circumlocuting is by making a word wall of high-frequency phrases and words. You can fill your walls with key phrases, thematic vocabulary or sentence starters. @placido said, “[Include] helpful words: thing, looks like, something, object, used for, you need it when, etc…” Some teachers, like @FrauJago even include word walls that have both permanent language structures and ones that connect with the current unit. She said, “I have an erasable set in one place and a more permanent set in another.”

You can even make these word walls interactive. @RhulsHuls said, “My colleague covered her walls with paper, then put questions scattered on them. Students are replying on “graffiti wall”.”

8. Use Cognates: Novice language learners are still much more comfortable in their native language than the second language. You can use this to your advantage by encouraging cognate exploration when attempting to circumlocute. @SraSpanglish said, “I like when students realize they can come up with reasonable/feasible cognates using English synonyms.” @SrtaJohnsonEBHS said, “I tell my students that foreign language is 50% knowing what they said and 50% educated guessing in context.”

9. Set a Good Example: @sonrisadelcampo said, “Ss learn circumlocution by teacher example. What do YOU do when you don’t know a word? Lead by example.” Often, teachers are forced to circumlocute when they don’t remember the right phrase or are not sure of the specific vocabulary. By “talking through” this process with students, as suggested by @placido, they are able to see that circumlocution is a necessary and natural part of world language acquisition. @SraSpanglish said, “There’s also when I can’t think of the English word–they see it in action!”

10. Include Graphic Organizers and Pictures: Incorporating other media is a great way to engage students in the process of thinking outside of their scope of language. @tiesamgraf said, “For novices, it’s all about connecting ideas with themes and categories – graphic organizers can help and pictures – lists!” Through images and videos, students can get ideas about how to define a particular word or idea in context to the things around it, which helps them learn circumlocution and hones the skill of observation and communication.

Other Lesson Ideas for Cicumlocution

  • @RhulsHuls said, “With upper level classes you can grab random pictures from media and have them give as much info about the pic as they can.”
  • @SraSpanglish said, “I took pictures from #SOSVenezuela we’d discussed, had them talk for 30 seconds.”
  • @profesorM said, “Pechu kucha? Powerpoint show of 20 pictures, 20 seconds each. Students talk nonstop about images. Le fruit, furniture, etc.”
  • @RhulsHuls said, “Did directions and commands in S3-had them make their own towns and give directions on the fly in Spanish. Used hot wheels to drive.”
  • @FrauJago said, “Put picture in background of #Padlet, have students write sentences describing it not repeating peers’ ideas.”
  • @sonrisadelcampo said, “At times I project wordless book from A-Z reading; Ss create story; circumlocution needed.”
  • @alenord said, “What if as novices they have to read circumlocuted statements and then they have to match terms, unscramble them, etc.?”
  • @tiesamgraf said, “This DOES work for novices – we say a definition – they draw/write/say the word/concept – model it!”
    • @FrauJago said, “I also think writing improves speaking. Build continuous stories (from pictures or thin air) and have students keep adding sentences.”


Even though circumlocution is a higher-order thinking skill for language learners, there is no reason why is should not be introduced at the novice level. As with toddlers gaining mastery over their first language, circumlocution is a natural device that increases the cognitive connections developed with language acquisition. It also helps students to learn to think quickly and creatively, and encourages a classroom where risk and exploration are a natural part of the learning process.

Thank You

Thanks so much to @placido and @msfrenchteach for helping us think of new ways to incorporate specific circumlocution activities into the world language classroom. As usual, there were some interesting side conversations that we did not include in the general summary. For a complete transcript of the chat, you can check out the full tweet archive.

We love meeting with you each week and sharing ideas about how to provide the best possible language instruction. You are the most important part of our PLN! If you have questions, comments or ideas about what we should be discussing, we’d love to hear them. Please share your ideas with us so that we can help each other be successful! We truly enjoy hearing from you and sharing your amazing tips and tricks for language teaching.

Additional Resources

Facilitating Student Speaking and Writing in a Foreign Language (Circumlocution)
Interpersonal Playbook
Video Analysis: What’s happening in Venezuela?
The Questions Workshop
Taller de conversación
Ellen’s New Game, ‘Heads Up!’
Singing for their Supper: Specialization and Group Interaction
Interpersonal Blitz!

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

One comment

  • Ok, so I am HUGE supporter of teaching circumlocution to my elementary students, but I need to point out how I arrived at this fantastic article! While trying to type the word “circumlocute” into a message to one of my online students, I noticed it was underlined as misspelled! When I typed it into an online dictionary, it did not appear. In fact, circumlocute appears in zero mainstream dictionaries! WHAT?! When I had the thought that I must have made it up and that I must be the only language teacher using it as a verb, I became distraught that I might have even used this “fake” verb in front of some PhD in linguistics, who, subsequently, dismissed me. Then, when I typed “is circumlocute a real word” into my browser, this article came up, but still no confirmation of a verb spelled C*I*R*C*U*M*L*O*C*U*T*E. My whole world has now collapsed. What ELSE have I been saying that isn’t real?!?! Someone, please rescue me from despair by explaining what is going on with this word!

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