The development of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) brought with it a methodology which emphasised communication in the classroom, pair and group activities and student involvement in the learning process. A consequence of this was the belief that the teacher’s presence in the classroom should be reduced, while many training courses based on CLT insisted that teacher talking time (TTT) was counterproductive and that teachers should reduce TTT for a number of reasons:
- Excessive TTT limits the amount of STT (student talking time). If the teacher talks for half the time in a 60 minute lesson with 15 students, each student gets only 2 minutes to speak.
- A large amount of TTT results in long stretches of time in teacher-to-class (T/class) mode and a monotonous pace. Student underinvolvement inevitably leads to loss of concentration, boredom and reduced learning.
- TTT often means that the teacher is giving the students information that they could be finding out for themselves, such as grammar rules, the meanings of vocabulary items and corrections. Teacher explanations alone are often tedious, full of terminology and difficult to follow. There may be no indication of whether the students have understood.
- If the teacher takes the dominant role in classroom discourse in terms of initiating the topic, allocating turns and evaluating comments, the student’s role is only that of respondent. Opportunities for developing the speaking skill are therefore severely limited.
- If the teacher is constantly dominant and controlling, the learners take no responsibility for their own learning but learn what the teacher decides and when. Student autonomy is thus limited.
The over-use of TTT is often the product of the under-use of communicative techniques in the classroom. Many activities do not need to be teacher led – pair work (PW) or group work (GW) can be used instead. An activity might be set up in T/class mode, demonstrated in open pairs (students doing the activity across the class), and done in closed pairs (all the students working at the same time). Some mechanical activities need to be done individually (IW) but can be checked in pairs. What is most important is that activities and interaction patterns (T/class, PW, GW, IW) need to be varied. The amount of time spent in T/class mode will depend on factors such as the students and how much they know, the stage of the lesson, the time of day and what is being taught, but a useful guideline is a limit of 30% of a lesson, and no more than 10 minutes at one time.
Other common strategies for reducing TTT include:
- Using elicitation rather than explanation. If students are presented with clear examples and guiding questions, they often do not need to be “told”. This kind of guided discovery leads to better understanding and more successful learning. Organising activities as pair work also means that all the students have the chance to work on the new language.
- The use of body language, mime, gestures and facial expressions rather than words. The position of the teacher in the classroom can also indicate to the students what is expected of them at a particular stage of the lesson.
- Getting students to give feedback on tasks to each other rather than to the teacher. This is often done in pairs, but answers can also be checked against a key. Student nomination, whereby one student nominates another to answer a question, is also a useful technique. Feedback involving the teacher is therefore limited to problematic questions rather than every question in an exercise.
- Eliminating unnecessary TTT. Grading language is important, but over-simplification can lead to unnatural models from the teacher. Instructions should be kept simple, while explanations need to be carefully worded and repeated if necessary rather than paraphrased. Simple concept questions should be asked to check understanding. If explanations are clear and concept checking is effective, there should be no need for re-explanation or interrupting an activity to reteach or reinstruct.
- Tolerating silence. Inexperienced teachers in particular tend to fill silences by unnecessary talking. Silence is important not only when students are working individually, but also provides ‘processing time’ between instructions, during explanations, while waiting for a student to respond, and during monitoring of activities. Prompting, providing clues and rephrasing the question are often counterproductive when the student merely needs time to answer.
Positive uses of TTT
In recent years, approaches other than CLT have suggested that TTT may not always be counterproductive and can be used to good effect. The teacher provides good listening practice which is not inhibited by the sound quality of a tape or CD player and which is accompanied by visual clues to aid comprehension. In a monolingual teaching context overseas, the teacher may provide a valuable source of authentic listening, exposing learners to a limited amount of new language, and ‘roughly tuning’ input to assist comprehension. In some circumstances, the teacher may be the only source of models of good, natural language. Some forms of TTT are clearly beneficial:
- Personalised presentations. Language should be presented in context, and this can be provided by the teacher rather than through a reading or listening. Listening to the teacher talking about real issues is more motivating than listening to or reading about complete strangers talking about people, places or events which, for the students, have no personal interest. Students are also more likely to pick up knowledge which is content rather than language based by listening to the teacher introducing a topic.
- Questioning. Every teacher question asked during a lesson demands a student response. Questions need not be language related, and are often the basis of ‘brainstorming’ a topic with the class. Frequent questioning holds students’ attention and increases learner involvement in the class.
- Natural conversation. Conversations taking place during pair and group work are often loaded towards certain language items or based on an imposed theme. Natural conversation initiated by the teacher encourages questioning, asking for clarification, commenting and changing the subject as well as introducing functional and everyday language which is often overlooked in course materials. Chats outside the classroom are also valuable and often more memorable to students than lessons. In these circumstances, teachers should remember to continue to use graded but natural language rather than to use simplified language to ensure understanding.
- Anecdotes. These can be the basis of a presentation, but can also be used at the start of a lesson, rather than using a ‘warmer’ activity, as a natural way of engaging the students. Anecdotes and jokes may also be used to stimulate interest during a lesson. Anecdotes do not need to be monologues, and students can be encouraged to interrupt and ask questions.
- Storytelling. This can be the basis of a lesson or an ongoing theme throughout a course and is as appropriate to adult classes as it is to young learners. There is a whole methodology surrounding storytelling, which is often a stimulating alternative to the use of a graded reader in the classroom.
Conclusion There are advantages and disadvantages to TTT. It is not easy to reduce TTT when talking to the students is a natural thing to do and when there is inevitably a theatrical side to language teaching. In certain cultures, there is also a tradition of ‘chalk and talk’ which influences the expectations and behaviour of both teachers and students. However, bearing in mind the nature of the communicative classroom, teachers should perhaps be aware of the quality of their TTT and how it is used rather than trying to reduce it to a bare minimum.
References Dellar, H. Rethinking Teacher Talking Time, TESOL Spain Newsletter, 2004 http://www.tesolspain.org/newsletter/hughdellar.html Lynch, T. Communication in the Language Classroom, OUP, 1996
Scrivener, J. Learning Teaching (2nd Edition), Macmillan, 2005
Zaro, J. & Salaberri, S. Storytelling, Macmillan, 1995first published 15 August 2007 http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/teacher-talking-time