By Declan Cooley

03 December 2014 - 07:16

'The first step to reducing teacher talking time is simply to be aware of it.' Photo (c) Mateus Lunardi Dutra, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'The first step to reducing teacher talking time is simply to be aware of it.' Photo ©

Mateus Lunardi Dutra, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original (link no longer available). 

In what ways do English teachers talk too much in the classroom and how can they 'unlearn' this tendency? Declan Cooley, teacher trainer on the CELTA course at the British Council in Poland, explains.

Reducing the amount teachers talk in the classroom is one of the most frequent issues teachers deal with throughout a training course. The tendency new teachers have to 'lecture' students probably comes from their own experience of learning at school. One of the tasks of a teacher trainer is therefore to help new teachers ‘unlearn’ the idea that teachers are people whose job it is to talk a lot.

Of course, there is teacher talking time (TTT) that can benefit students in the form of teacher demonstrations, conveying meaning and telling anecdotes. Still, the thing with unhelpful teacher talk is that it can leak out in many small, often unnoticed, ways. When added up, these leaks can diminish the quality of the learning experience, giving students less breathing space to practise the language in the classroom. And it’s not only new teachers who have this tendency. All language teachers can get into the habit of talking too much in lessons, particularly in the following four ways.

1. Repeating instructions

There are naturally very good intentions behind repeating instructions but students can get used to teachers repeating themselves and may start switching off. For example:

'Read out the cards , don’t show each other and then, if they go together, sit down. So these cards belong together, so this person needs to find this person and they need to sit down together ... . I’d like you to read it to other people in the class. Remember: no showing,  and when you think you’ve found your new partner, sit down together, OK?'

A way to counter this is in the form of instruction-checking questions:

- 'Do you show your partner your card?' (No).
- 'What happens when you find your partner?' (Sit down together).

Here’s another example of unnecessary repetition:

'Stand up. If you could all stand up ... Yes, stand up'

Probably the more times the teacher says this, the less impact it has. Wouldn’t one ‘stand up everyone’ and some gesturing carry more weight?

2. Saying much more than the students when receiving a contribution

Here is an example of teacher getting an answer to a question and then saying too much:

Student: (quietly) 'Ten years ago'

Teacher: 'Would you like to tell everyone the answer you were thinking of again because I don’t think they heard it when you spoke so quietly and I’m sure we’d all be interested in hearing it if you could, please?'

In the following example, the teacher is at the board and trying to clarify some language:

Student: 'I’ve lived here for ten years.'

Teacher: 'Well, that wasn’t really what I was hoping you’d say when I asked that question. I was actually looking for the name of the verb tense, not an example sentence. But what you gave me was fine. Only, does anyone, I wonder, have the answer I’m looking for?'

In this first case, the word ‘louder’ with a smile and a gesture will work well. In the second, you can probably think of a way to say less. A good rule of thumb might be to say half as much as the students, at a maximum.

3. Asking lengthy questions

This is an example from an open class discussion:

Teacher: 'If I were to ask you for your opinion on the topic of genetically modified food, what do you think you might say to me in reply to that?'

Again, this may be a well-intentioned way to appear tentative and thus polite. However, the possible benefit of this approach is outweighed by the confusion it may cause the student. A shorter, more direct version of this question probably comes to mind.

4. Echoing what students have just said in answer to a question

In this case, the teacher is getting contributions in open class after students have talked about favourite holiday activities in pairs:

Student: (giving their opinion) 'I like going to the beach, because it is fun.'

Teacher: 'OK, so you like going to the beach, because it is fun. Right, good.'

And here's another example of open-class feedback, but on this occasion, the answers to a reading task are being checked.

Student: 'The answer is 'False'.'

Teacher: 'False. That’s right. False. Good.'

In both these cases, there is little reason to echo the student's answer if everyone in the class has clearly heard it. If they haven’t heard it, try ‘louder’. If you are not sure if another student has heard the answer, you can say ‘Tim, did you hear that?’ All of these prompts will send the message that it is not just for the teacher to hear, but for everyone.

There are times when other types of repetition do make sense, such as when reformulating an answer. An example of this is if the student says ‘I like go to the beach because is fun’. Repeating a correct version of this could be a gentle form of correction. Reformulation is conversational without breaking the flow -- you can lean on certain parts of the sentence with your voice and use meaningful facial expressions to signal that you are making corrections in a subtle yet clear way.

Summing up

Each of these four examples of unnecessary TTT turn up even in the best of lessons from time to time. Occasionally we can feel ourselves justifying our need for TTT as we return (unconsciously perhaps) to the belief that ‘the teacher who talks a lot is teaching a lot’. But on reflection, we can see that much of it may be motivated by the reassuring sound of our own voice, or clinging to the spotlight of attention. We may even justify TTT as a way of exposing students to useful language, forgetting what a deluge of words it often sounds like to students.

The first step to reducing TTT is simply to be aware of it. But once you become more aware, don't be too self-critical. Simply noticing the tendency and stopping it in its tracks earlier and earlier without self-reproach is a sensible path to follow. The result will be a classroom with more silent space in which students’ voices can flourish.

Find out more about the CELTA in Poland, including dates and how to apply.

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