Reducing Teacher Talking Time
[A version of this originally appeared in KOTESOL’s “The English Connection” and was co-written with Manpal Sahota]
The famous American educator John Holt wrote, “The greatest enemy to student learning is the talking teacher.” This quote is probably more accurate in EFL classrooms, and especially here in South Korea. In this column, we will offer suggestions for reducing teacher talking time (TTT) and increasing student talking time (STT).
Many Korean English teachers have spent so much time and energy trying to develop their English ability. It seems natural that they should use their English speaking ability in class. But at what cost to the students’ development? Class time is the wrong time for the teacher to practice their English. Similarly, many native teachers feel that they have been brought to Korea primarily because of their native tongue. It seems natural that they should model natural and correct English in their classes. Again, if the teachers talk too much they don’t leave any time for the students to do so. Every moment that the teacher is talking is a missed opportunity for students to speak.
We certainly don’t want to say that all teacher talk is bad. Nor do we want to say that teachers should never talk in class, as this is impossible. What we do want to say is that teachers should try to reduce their talking time as much as possible. Below we have four suggestions for limiting teacher talk that we would like to share with you.
Don’t explain, don’t tell
Michael has worked with some teacher trainers who refer to and think of “explain” as a bad word. This is for good reason. Explaining means that students are not talking and it is likely to mean that they are not really listening or taking in the information. For example, rather than telling students how the present perfect is formed, instead give them examples of sentences that use the present perfect and give them a chance to “discover” the information that you want them to learn. Through this type of inductive learning students have chances to interact with each other as they search for rules and meaning as opposed to just listening to the teacher dictate the grammar rules to them.
One great way to limit explaining is to have the students do it. This way they can practice their English while gaining a better understanding of the material. “Jigsawing” material into smaller parts and having students work with a new group that is not familiar with their part is one way to do this. A classic jigsaw involves dividing reading material into different parts and then having students become “experts” on their own part of the reading before sharing what they know with other students who have looked carefully at a different section. Jigsawing is a great technique that lowers TTT, increases STT and gives students a better chance of retaining information.
It can be very easy for the teacher to talk excessively when the teacher didn’t plan for the students to do anything in the class. It is very easy to slip into “default mode” which, for many teachers, is lecturing. One way to combat this is to always think about ways for the students to interact with each other which will certainly relieve the need for the teacher to talk endlessly.
Modeling activities and using written instructions
Teachers often waste a lot of time explaining activities and the procedures and steps of activities. In our column, “Effective Activity Delivery,” in last fall’s TEC we mentioned the benefits of modeling and displaying written instructions. These two techniques are certainly much easier for students to grasp what they need to do than a big explosion of TTT. Modeling and displaying written instructions are very effective ways of lowering, and possibly eliminating, excessive TTT. Giving instructions is probably not the best time to practice or display English ability. Rather, giving instructions is the time to let students know what the teacher wants them to do as clearly and efficiently as possible. To that end, excessive teacher talk when giving instructions is definitely something you want to avoid.
Plan your teacher talk and put it in your lesson plan
Michael has worked with Korean teachers that planned every single word of their teacher talk before class. While this might strike some people as excessive it seemed to help the teachers increase their confidence. At the same time it decreased their teacher talk. Since they had to carefully think about what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it they chose their teacher talk more carefully. The result was less TTT and more STT.
Teacher talk is something that can and often should be placed right in a lesson plan. We realize that it sounds like a lot of extra time but we think it is time well spent. When teachers plan their teacher talk they invariably talk less and give more time to the students.By planning your teacher talk you allow yourself to be conscious of slang, colloquialism and off the cuff divergence that are not likely to help your students learn new language.
Most teachers have probably experienced the sensation of being at the front of the room re-explaining something and strongly wanting to move on. Manpal recalls teaching a class a couple of years ago where he knew he was using to much teacher talk but he kept on fumbling through what he wanted to say. Manpal then took a few minutes to plan his teacher talk before he taught the same lesson to a different group of students later that day. The second class went much more smoothly as Manpal kept his TTT short and succinct which allowed his students to both understand the task more clearly as well as give them more time to complete it. Writing out teacher talk beforehand is often a good way to limit teacher talk because it really forces us to make decisions about what we will say in class.
Set Goals and Reflect on Your Teacher Talk
Think about how much time you want to spend talking in class. Choose a percentage that you think would be reasonable for your class and try to measure it against what actually happens in class. The most effective way to measure is by recording your lesson with either a voice recorder or a camcorder. While reviewing your voice recordings or videos may seem time consuming, it can be very enlightening as many teachers are sometimes unaware of the teacher talk they are using when they teach. Of course, another option is to ask a peer to observe your class and measure your TTT (we look more closely at peer observations in a future column). Teacher talk is another aspect of teaching that teachers can reflect on before, after, and during their lessons.
We strongly feel that if you put the above suggestions into use both you and your students will benefit from a more productive language class. We encourage you to try these ideas out. Most of all, we encourage you to be aware of your teacher talk and to own the choices that you make when using it. This will likely not result in completely eliminating talking from your lessons but might help you find more time for students to speak in class.