When Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd ) sent me a DM asking if accepted guest posts I jumped at the chance. I appreciate him taking the time to share the post! I was quite familiar with his writing from places like the New School’s Uncharted TESOL blog, TESOL International’s blog and TEFL Equity Advocates I knew about Rob’s work as founder of Ginseng English . I’ve since learned that Rob is co-chair of the Adult Ed Interest Section at TESOL. I think Rob really needs to get his own blog but for the meantime I am happy to share this thought-provoking post. Over to Rob…
There’s a brilliant scene in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which, after eons of computation, a city-sized supercomputer spits out the answer to Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That answer is 42. This is a comedy joke.
Well, ELT is a microcosm of the galaxy itself, so it’s only fitting that we have our own answer to the Ultimate Question of ELT. Turns out it’s, eh, roughly an 80:20 ratio. Yeah, you can go ahead and cancel those conferences and call off the research studies, cuz we got it figured now. It’s, uh, roundabout 80:20.
“Is this not the most important question in ELT?” asks Geoffrey Jordan.
Y’all don’t worry: I can field this one: No. Fuck no.
No, this is most the fuck certainly not the most important question in the field of English language teaching. If the answer to the most important question in the field of English language teaching were a number, then Christ Almighty have we been doing it wrong.
End of blog post.
Oh, you want I should elaborate? No worries, I got you.
Firstly of all, this question of a specific ratio of student talking time to explicit instruction is entirely meaningless until you specify the learners and the context. Let me share a few learner profiles from my experience to illustrate.
Profile 1: Me. I spent a year in Taiwan, surrounded by Mandarin. My motivation was high. I had plenty of free time to study and a background in languages. I read a grammar textbook, talked with my coworkers every day, paid careful attention to text in subway signs and advertisements. By the end of a year, I could use the language to meet all my daily needs and could make complex sentences, though my vocabulary was limited. If you’ve got a classroom full of students like me, in an ideal context like that, the proportion of explicit instruction that the classroom full of mes need is asymptotically approaching 0. What students like that need is as much interaction and comprehensible input as you can give them.
Profile 2: In a recent job, I ran a program serving adult immigrants, most of whom fit a very different (but much more common) profile. They mostly came from rural areas and had on average a 6th grade education. They worked 50+ hours per week, had kids, and our program was only 7.5 hours per week. Most had been in the US for several years before finally being admitted to our program (see The ESL Logjam) and in the interim most had learned enough English to easily meet their daily needs. They field your questions without trouble. They can tell you about their plans for this weekend or the problems they had with the clerk at the DMV two weeks ago, yet the English they use to express these ideas is riddled with errors, many of which are fossilized. When describing complex scenarios, they still manage to be highly communicative, using pidginization strategies to get their point across. These are talkative students. Give them the entire period to talk, and they’ll do so enthusiastically. In fact, when they have the chance, many to the free conversation sessions at the local library. Do these students—whose English already meets their communicative needs, who have ample access to CI outside of the class, who because of their shared linguistic backgrounds and learning contexts share mostly the same fossilized errors—do they need the same proportion of student talking time to explicit instruction as students with different backgrounds and learning contexts?
Profile 3: How about highly educated, low-motivation multilingual students in a 30-hour-per-week, target language-embedded academic IEP?
The conclusion that the Perspicacious Reader will no doubt come to is that, no, students of different backgrounds, in different learning contexts, do not have the same needs, and this most certainly applies also to the ratio of student language use to explicit instruction. Students with more L1 education, metalinguistic awareness, motivation, and study time outside of the classroom need less explicit instruction. Those with limited literacy, time, motivation, with lots of fossilized errors, need more explicit instruction. If those students have access to a teacher for only a few hours per week and access to comprehensible input every waking hour, that ratio might be dramatically different.
Now let me be clear: My beef is not with The Big Important Question itself. I’m familiar with the Question, as well as the proposed big important 80:20 answer. In fact, I have recommended this ratio to my teachers at times and used it as a benchmark for objective classroom observations. It’s not a bad question. But treating it as though it has some grand importance is just silly. A reasonable re-framing is this: the amount of student talking time should generally far exceed the amount of explicit instruction. The main import of this precept is that it can have a corrective effect on the novice teacher who fancies himself a lecturer.
The ratio itself is meaningless. A 10% difference in what you do during your teacher talking time or how you structure student talking time can be far more consequential than a 10% variance in the ratio of teacher talking time to student talking time. All other things being equal, a student in an 80:20 class 9 hours per week is still going to progress slower than a student in a 60:40 class 30 hours per week.
I’m not interested in positing my own Biggest Importantest Question; I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots. But I’m guessing most of the big questions will be qualitative and situated: What should we be doing, how should we be doing it, how is it getting these learners from where they are to where they want to be?