Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Gift of Gab? – Part 1

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

I feel like I should start this post with a disclaimer. I love to talk. I love telling a funny story to a rapt group of listeners. I love the feeling of being the center of attention. For this very reason, I struggle with reigning in my Teacher Talk Time (TTT) in the classroom. After all, there is almost nothing more enticing to a gabber like me than a captive audience of students who laugh appreciatively in (mostly) the right places and appear to hang on my every word. So, because I can really get carried away, I have to work hard to avoid turning every lesson into “The Tamara Show.” That’s why, when I was given the opportunity to facilitate a professional development session for the Montgomery County Coalition for Adult English Literacy, I leapt at the opportunity to learn a bit more about strategies for keeping TTT in check.

A Bit of Background

In the literature I encountered, there seemed to be two camps when it comes to TTT. Opponents of TTT rightly point out that too much TTT discourages authentic communication. Teachers “speak more, more often, control the topic of conversation, rarely ask questions for which they do not have the answers, and appear to understand absolutely everything the students say, sometimes before they even say it” (Musumeci, 1996, p. 314). Does that sound familiar? It does to me. In fact, it’s so common that researchers have come up with a name to describe the typical classroom exchange (teacher asks, student answers, teacher evaluates) – the Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) Sequence. Anti-TTTers argue that this kind of communication is not “genuine.” This lack of “real” communication is problematic in a CLT context for pretty obvious reasons. I mean, it’s hard for students to communicate if the teacher is blabbing all the time rather than facilitating the conversation. And, really, that’s the crux of the problem.

According to some experts, if student aren’t talking, they aren’t learning. Swain (1985) refers to this as Pushed Output. She says that learners need to be “pushed towards the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed, but that is conveyed precisely, coherently and appropriately” (Swain, 1985, p. 248). When they are pushed to produce language, learners notice the ‘gaps’ in their language knowledge, and this noticing prompts them to learn more. Quite simply put, “[o]ne of the teacher’s main jobs is to ensure students are talking.” (Folse, 2006, 27)

Okay, but does that really mean that we should all float silently around the classroom like a bunch of wraiths? Some experts would caution us against cutting out all TTT from our classrooms. First of all, TTT can provide valuable input for students. Now, this is in no way an unqualified endorsement of Krashen’s (1985) Input Hypothesis (i+1), which contends that all students need is comprehensible input to acquire language. After all, we’ve been trying that in various forms since the 1980s and there has not been a “cataclysmic change in learning outcomes or results” (Folse, 2006, p. 11) yet.

But, there is something to the idea that TTT can provide a beneficial model of language for students, as long as the model is comprehensible, which means it has to be 75% to 95% comprehensible (O’Neill, 1994). That means TTT has to be appropriately paced, ennunciated, and void of unknown grammar structures and vocabulary.

In addition to providing a good model of language use, TTT can come in the form of explicit instruction. There’s all sorts of research that suggests certain aspects of ELT are taught more efficiently through explicit instruction rather than consciousness raising, specifically Writing (Norris & Ortega, 2002), Pragmatics (Nguyen, Pham & Pham, 2012), Pronunciation (Couper, 2006), and Grammar (Ellis, 2001).

Finally, proponents of a measured approach to TTT point out that, in fact, the IRF Sequence may have a legitimate place in the ESL/EFL classroom. What is “authentic” communication anyway? “Would it be true to say, for example, that in genuine communication, decisions about who says what to whom are ‘up for grabs’? It might generally be true of informal gatherings of groups of friends, but certainly not of more formal gatherings, such as staff or board-room meetings” (Cullen, 1998, p. 181). In other words, classroom talk IS genuine communication in that particular context.

So, perhaps rather than spending a lot of energy trying to keep as silent as possible, we would be better off focusing on making our TTT as comprehensible and helpful as possible. Rather than thinking in terms of cutting out TTT, we can think about the difference between bad and good TTT. “’Good teacher talk’ should be judged by how effectively it is able to facilitate learning and promote communicative interaction in the classroom” (Lei, 2009, 75). So, how can we do that? Stay tuned for some practical suggestions for making the most of TTT in a variety of teaching contexts.

Couper, G. (2006). The short and long-term effects of pronunciation instruction. Prospect, 21(1), 46-66.
Ellis, R. (2001). Form-focused instruction and second language learning. A supplement to Language Learning, 51, 1-.
Cullen, R. (1998). Teacher talk and the classroom context. ELT Journal, 52(3), 179-187.
Folse, K. (2006). The Art of Teaching Speaking. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Krashen, S.D. (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.
Lei, X. (2009). Communicative teacher talk in the English classroom. English Language Teaching, 2(1), 75-79.
Musumeci, D. (1996). Teacher-learner negotiation in content-based instruction: communication at cross purpose? Applied Linguistics, 17(3), 286-325.
Nguyen, T.T.M., Pham, T.H, & Pham, M.T. (2012). The relative effects of explicit and implicit form-focused instruction on the development of L2 pragmatic competence. Journal of Pragmatics, 44(4), 416-434.
Norris, J.M. & Ortega, L. (2002). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50(3), 417-528.
O’Neill, R. (1994). The Myth of the Silent Teacher. Retrieved from http://www.tedpower.co.uk/esl0420.html.
Swain, M. (1985) Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.) Input in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.


Pingback from Teacher Talk » The Gift of Gab? – Part 2
January 19, 2016 at 1:13 pm

[…] a recent post, I talked about my struggle with keeping my Teacher Talk Time (TTT) in check. I had the pleasure of […]

Pingback from Teacher Talk » The Gift of Gab? – Part 5
March 7, 2016 at 12:33 pm

[…] asking genuine questions and listening to the student’s talk. There is not an IRF sequence (see The Gift of Gab? – Part 1) to be found. So, what’s the problem? According to Walsh (2002), this instructor is doing […]

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