Something I’ve been encouraged by observers to work on in my lessons is cutting down on teacher talking time (TTT), particularly the tendency for TTT to increase as the lesson progresses. As Sam Shepherd points out in a great post on TTT, we should strive to minimise TTT not for its own sake but in order to create as many opportunities as possible for our students to speak. Teacher talk, then, is something we ought to use sparingly, skilfully and strategically–to support rather than stifle learning.
Shepherd identifies three main areas where teacher talk gets out of hand–giving explanations, giving instructions, and filling silences in speaking tasks; for each case he suggests why excessive teacher talk is occurring and how we can fix it. (Read his post for the details.) I would add that, were we to think deeply about what we’re doing as teachers throughout a normal lesson, we’d be able to identify many more opportunities where we could yield the floor to students. Here are just a few examples:
- Error correction: rather than correcting on-the-spot during a speaking activity, collect errors (and samples of good usage) that you hear and whiteboard them, then have students work in pairs or groups to correct them.
- Setting up a task: rather than giving step-by-step instructions, demonstrate what to do with the first exercise (and get the class to help you). This works especially well with controlled-practice activities, but you can try using it with just about any task.
- Student-centered feedback on content. This is something I most commonly use with conversation-line or speaking-circle activities: in the last rotation I’ll have the students share with their new partner the information they learned about their previous two speaking partners. That way I only need to deal with errors.
- Grammar presentations: have students in groups work out the positive, negative and question forms of a model sentence, and then present this to the class.
- Wait time: after posing a question to the class or an individual student, give them time to process the question and compose an answer. Let them fill the awkward silences!
Where else would you suggest we can turn TTT into STT in our lessons?
This activity, which has worked wonderfully for me as a GTKY activity with students from Pre-Intermediate upwards, is aimed at helping you and your students learn and remember each others’ names. It also endows each member of the class with an “identity” from day one. All you’ll need is an object that can be tossed among students without causing injury: a ball or plush toy would do the trick, but I usually use a scrunched-up piece of paper.
First, do a whole-class brainstorm of adjectives for describing people, writing them on the board as they are called out. Encourage positive personality adjectives to keep things light, and steer clear of appearance adjectives. You may need to suggest a few items of your own if you are teaching a low-level class. Drill and concept-check where necessary (but remember that this isn’t a vocabulary lesson).
Next, stand in a circle with your students. Demonstrate the activity by pointing to yourself and calling out your first name and an adjective to describe yourself with the same first letter or initial consonant sound, e.g. “Modest Matt.” Get the students to repeat this, then toss the ball to a student; that student then announces their chosen adjective and first name to the circle, the other students repeat what they’ve heard, and the ball is passed to another student, and so on until the ball returns to you.
At this point, pass the ball back to the student who tossed it to you, saying their adjective and first name. That student then tosses the ball to the student who had previously tossed it to them, repeating the latter student’s name and adjective, and so on until the ball finally comes back to you.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about this activity: all I’ve really done is combine two common icebreakers. But it’s a simple technique for building rapport and a sense of community in your classroom, especially if you keep using the adjective-name combinations when addressing students throughout the course. People like to feel acknowledged as more than just a face in the crowd.
No matter how experienced a teacher you may be, there are those classes that are simply going to be a struggle to manage. Here’s what Larry Ferlazzo does when things are getting out of hand:
I will jettison my lesson plan and redirect students into some less intensive learning activity that I know they will want to do (a game, get into their book discussion groups) and then make arrangements with teachers of the most egregious offenders to pull them out for several minutes the next day during my free period so I can have a one-on-one reflective conversation with them. For example, we’ll talk about what their goals are and how their behavior is hurting or helping to achieve them — if they want to be an Ultimate Fighter, not being able to show self-control is going to create problems. We’ll revisit some of the life skill lessons we’ve done and talk about what they think might help them develop more self-control (change seats, take their work outside if they feel they are “losing it,” get a stress ball, etc.).
Working in adult ELT poses different (and doubtless less intense) classroom management challenges than working in a high school. But even adult ELT students find it difficult to maintain focus or self-control at times, and there are days–invariably afternoons in 30+ degree heat with a poorly-functioning air conditioner–when all this lack of focus reaches a critical mass. And at this point, as Ferlazzo notes, teachers are faced with a choice: punish the offenders (and presumably push on with the lesson), or adopt the more effective redirect-and-reflect strategy. With adult learners, those one-on-one discussions are great for drawing connections between their long-term academic/career/migration goals and something like classroom etiquette and homework.
[EDIT: The original post contained a reflection on a lesson gone awry, but I’ve chosen to store that elsewhere and focus in this blog on useful “takeaways.” I may include reflections at a future point when I feel more confident :)]
[Note: I’ll use the second person and imperative in the following and future”Takeaways” sections, but the primary audience is myself.]
- Jettison the plan if it’s not working, and do something more enjoyable/engaging–but still relevant.
- Get students to reflect upon their goals and what they’re doing to achieve them. This means you as a teacher need to know what your students goals are. To add a blended learning component to this, have students share their reflections on a discussion board or blog.
- Anticipate whether your students will find the lesson enjoyable/engaging/useful. Visualising the lesson (a method of planning suggested on the TEFL Show podcast-–I think in this episode) might help here.