Signposts Show the Way to Good Communication

image source:

Fluency is a critical element of communication and is often a basis for how language levels are judged.  Signposting is a technique which makes speech more fluent.  Words or phrases that link speech together to make it coherent, and give the listener an indication of where our verbal communication is headed, are considered signposts.

Does receiving an indication of the direction that a conversation will take make a difference to the listener?  Absolutely!  When we have a good idea about what we will hear, we can process the meaning faster.  Hearing something contrary to what we are expecting causes our brain waves to spike.  The spike causes a diversion of energy which can contribute to longer processing time.  Considering how fast a brain processes language, a matter of milliseconds can slow down comprehension.  The delay in comprehending could cause a listener to completely misunderstand what was said.

Small words and phrases placed at the beginning of an utterance or sentence such as ‘well’, ‘actually’, ‘as a matter of fact’ etc., give a listener good indications of what they are about to hear.  These indicators act as “warnings”, allowing the listener to prepare for what will come next.

Consider the following spoken exchange:

Harpreet:  English is the most widely spoken language in the world.

  Chinese is.

More than likely, Harpreet would respond “what” or “pardon me” to Svetlana, because he is not expecting Svetlana to disagree, and he doesn’t understand what she said.  To Harpreet, it is an indisputable fact that English is the most widely spoken language, or else he probably wouldn’t have made the declaration.  He might take Svetlana’s contrary statement as argumentative.  In turn, Svetlana could feel that his response was condescending.

Now consider the revised exchange:

Harpreet:  English is the most widely spoken language in the world.
Svetlana:  Actually, Chinese is.

In the short time that Svetlana declares “actually”, Harpreet can reset his path in the continued conversation.  He knows Svetlana is not going to agree that English is the most widely spoken language in the world.  He now has an opportunity to retrieve facts or develop an explanation to support his idea.  Language processing in the brain happens THAT FAST.

Signposts such as well, frankly, actually, as a matter of fact, I’m sorry, yes but, etc. have a calming effect on our interactions.  They help us to follow, process, and understand what someone is saying.  These indicators are useful when we are agreeing, but they are especially useful when we would like to disagree while maintaining a positive interaction.  Although they seem almost superfluous, signpost words and phrases impact how we are perceived in terms of our command of language and our ability to communicate well.

Have you ever taught signposting?  Now that you know the important role that signposts play in language development, would you consider it now?

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


10 thoughts on “Signposts Show the Way to Good Communication”

  1. Great insight! Using a signpost is a great way to setting the expectation of the person you are having a conversation with. This will be very useful to learners in practising participating in conversations. Thanks!

    1. Hi Arra,
      Yes signposting goes a long way in developing conversation. Not only do these words help listeners to understand, they also make a big impact on how fluent the speaker is perceived to be.

  2. I find this very interesting. I haven’t really thought about signposts before, however, I think now I will look at implementing them in the classroom. It is interesting how adding one word or not adding it can change the speech pattern so much.

    1. Hi Ivan,
      Sometimes small things have the biggest impact, relatively speaking, on speech. I find that signposting words or connecting words can affect the scores students receive on standardized English tests as well. Teaching these concepts are definitely worth the investment.

  3. Would signposts be the same as discourse markers? I’ve taught those, but it’s been a while. You’ve helped me realize that it’s time to revisit them since one of my classes is starting up a Listening Boot Camp. Knowing where the next speaker’s turn is headed is very important for the listener’s brain to ready itself for what’s coming. Knowing what to expect is a huge part of listening comprehension. Thanks for this.

    1. Hi Kelly,
      Yes signpost words are discourse markers. I absolutely agree that they help ESL students with listening. These words also help native English speakers with listening too! Listening Boot Camp sounds like an awesome class!

  4. There is no such thing as a language called „Chinese“. Many languages are spoken in China. The official language is Mandarin.

    1. Actually, Chinese IS a language. It’s the language of Han people, which is the majority of Chinese. Mandarin is the official version of Chinese, with all sorts of dialects, which are actually different versions of Chinese. There are other languages in China, of course, like tibetan language, spoken by the tibetans. Next time, try to do some research before you make such a ignorant statement.

  5. This is very exciting information. I haven’t really thought about signposts before, however, but from now onward I will try to implement it in my daily routine life.

Comments are closed.