Talking About Death in Class

It’s essential your students talk out loud in their target language. Often, the best subject is for them to discuss what happened during the previous week as this will require the use of vocabulary relevant to the student. However, recounting the previous week’s events  can lead to the disclosure of bad news or sensitive information, so it’s best to know how to handle such situations.

It will probably feel highly insensitive to correct the grammar of someone who has just announced in bad English that a member of their family died or a loved one was involved in a serious accident. It’s human instinct to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry to hear that” rather than, “Actually, it would be better to use the present perfect  form:  ‘John has died’ and not ‘John is die.’ At all costs you should resist adding “ actually the correct form is “is died”, because the intransitive verb form takes  the verb ‘be’. Nevertheless, you should draw the attention away from the subject to the grammar or vocabulary points that have been raised.

The best way to handle these situations is to remember that the student volunteered the information; so will be aware of the context in which it was given and can expect a response accordingly. By all means express your feelings at hearing the news. Make it respectful, but keep it short; don’t dwell on the news. The more you treat it like bad news, the more difficult it will be for everyone to move on from it.

Once you have acknowledged the tragedy of the event, put the focus on the grammar points and vocabulary rather than the specific example. It may be worth opening up the English points with the rest of the class, so the limelight is not on the one grieving.  However, you should not rush to do this. Don’t make it look as if you are trying to avoid the subject. It is very important that you don’t feel uncomfortable or awkward about the disclosure. Acknowledge the seriousness and sadness of the event, gently move the focus onto the English.

Don’t use the name of the person who has died or is seriously injured. Try to resist the temptation to write…



…on the board and certainly don’t write it with a red marker pen!

You may want to spend less time looking at this student’s mistakes on this occasion, but make any shift to another student smooth and natural. Before doing so, it’s polite to, once again, say you are sorry to hear the news  – and then thank them for sharing it with the class.


A change of tone in your voice or a physical gesture like a single clap of your hands before saying something along the lines of “Right, who’s next to speak?” will help the class to move on and the atmosphere to return to normal. Remember, as the teacher, you are responsible to set and orchestrate the tone of the class. Students will look to you to smoothly guide the class through this social event, don’t let them down.

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