Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Note to Self: Just Zip It! Let Students Conduct the Conversation

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Like many teachers, I am an extrovert. I love to be the center of attention, surrounded by rapt listeners hanging on my every word. This characteristic can be useful in education. After all, no one likes a teacher who mumbles, head down, while hiding shyly behind a podium.  However, in language teaching, most experts agree that too much teacher talk time (TTT) can be detrimental to students’ learning. As an English instructor, an observer of other teachers, and a French student, I know this to be true, but I still have to work really, really hard to remember to zip it. 

The Dreaded Semi-Circle Conversation

When I first started teaching many years ago, my idea of the perfect conversation lesson involved the students sitting in a semi-circle with me in the center directing the discussion. When I thought about it, though, I came to realize that conversations didn’t actually happen like this in real life. I don’t tend to line my friends up in a semi-circle and ask them questions one by one, do you? Therefore, this kind of teacher-led conversation does nothing to prepare students to participate in the messy, conversationalist-driven interactions of the real world. 

Small Groups Work

I realized that I needed to step back, zip it, and let the students negotiate the interaction by themselves. Small groups of 3 or 4 (research suggests this is the optimal size for conversation groups) can conduct natural conversations without having a moderator present. In my classes, I have only 2 rules:

  1. They can never be “done” talking — they have to keep the conversation going (they can change the topic) until the time allotted for the activity is reached, and 
  2. They can’t allow an excessively long silence (for native speakers the max is 3 seconds) to sneak into the discussion.  

Tips and Tricks

Keith Folse has written a fantastic book (The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press) that is just bursting with suggestions for instructors. Some of my favorite tips include having students write about what they are going to say the night before, remembering to teach the language for the task as well as the language in the task, and including a number of closed tasks that require students to work toward an answer rather than just talk about a subject.

I also try to remember never to plan a whole-class activity that could be done just as well in small groups, and I tend to avoid the “summarize your conversation for the class” wrap-up that often bookends a lesson. In my experience, students are much less interested in what other people talked about and much more interested in talking themselves.

Skill of Making Conversation

Making conversation involves a set of culturally specific skills that should be taught in class to help students better maintain a discussion without teacher guidance. Students, especially those living in a native English speaking community, need to learn strategies like active listening, holding the floor, jumping in without being asked a direct question, latching on to the previous speaker’s sentence, recognizing when a speaker is releasing the floor, disagreeing, changing the subject, sharing talking time, etc. Not only will covering these skills arm students with strategies for success in the real world, but they also get the added bonus of walking out of the class having learned something new, rather than just “practiced their conversation.”

Loosening the Zipper (a Little)

However, although I come down firmly on the side of less TTT, especially in my own classes, I don’t think the teacher should disappear from the interaction completely. As a French student, I greatly enjoy listening to the anecdotes and personal stories of my teacher. When she wanders the room listening in on our conversations, I occasionally pull her into the discussion. Likewise, when I move from group to group, I allow myself to participate in my students’ conversations from time to time. I try not to direct the conversation myself, but I offer my opinion and show enthusiasm for or disagreement with what others say — just like I would in a social discussion. Involvement in a conversation is very different from domination, so I advocate for loosening the zipper just a little.


Comment from Anonymous
March 25, 2010 at 7:19 am

I need to know in detail about teachers talk so i would be really glad to get some materials on teachers' talk so that i can strengthen my Knowledge my id is diaadi_sharma@ yahoo.com

Comment from Kairii
July 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Wow, that’s a really clever way of thkiinng about it!

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 20, 2011 at 4:03 am

Glad you think so! It’s a conscious effort every class for me to “zip it”, but I think it’s worth it.

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