Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Gift of Gab? – Part 2

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

In a recent post, I talked about my struggle with keeping my Teacher Talk Time (TTT) in check. I had the pleasure of facilitating a professional development session on the topic for Montgomery County Coalition for Adult English Literacy (MCAEL), and I wanted to share some of the research I came across.

In Part 1 of this series, I outlined the debate that has dominated the discussion about TTT. After doing a fair amount of background reading, I have arrived at the conclusion that while excessive TTT does reduce students’ chances to practice the language themselves, good TTT can provide a valuable model and can take the positive format of explicit instruction. As Harmer (2007) points out, “We should not talk simply about the difference between STT [Student Talk Time] and TTT, but also consider TTQ (Teacher Talking Quality)” (Harmer, 2007, p. 38).

In the literature there are many examples of “bad” TTT. Rather than simply list a bunch of suggestions, it might be fun to examine several less-than-exemplary excerpts of teacher talk. With each one, I think it’s helpful to identify how the TTT can be improved. I have to admit that many of these samples are startlingly familiar to me. I wonder if any of them will ring true to you, too.

Scenario 1

Scenario 1

Oh my goodness, does this ever sound like me! I was recently observed by a colleague and she laughingly refers to this as, “I must be having a thought because my mouth is moving” syndrome. The problem with saying aloud all of what is streaming through my brain is that it presents L2 students with way too much extraneous talk to sift through. They may find it hard to identify what is important and what is superfluous. To combat this, the experts suggest limiting this kind of “tour guiding” talk. (It’s been much easier said than done for me, I am sad to report.) We need to speak primarily to highlight important information; the teacher’s voice then acts as a signal for students to listen attentively.

Also, Corwin (2004) recommends that we become comfortable with silence. While this suggestion makes sense, it also makes me nervous. Silence? In the classroom? It’s hard not to want to speak just to fill the void. But, she points out that silence gives students time to think about what they are learning and to process new input. Corwin, who struggles with reducing her own TTT, thinks consciously about how she speaks in her lessons. “What language enlightens and what words muddy the waters of instruction must be continuously monitored both when I prepare lessons and when I am with students.” (Corwin, 2004, p. 156). Now, whenever I catch myself voicing every thought aloud, I try to keep that great image — of my words muddying the water for my students — in my mind. It still happens far more often than I am proud to admit, but even after more than 20 years, my teaching is still a work in progress.

Scenario 2

Scenario 2If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might remember this scenario from an earlier post in which I ranted about when teachers say “It just sounds right” in response to a tough grammar question. Anyway, this TTT also hit close to home for me, and not just because I pulled this example directly from a question I got from a TOEFL Prep student once when I used Sting’s Fields of Gold as a verb tense gap fill. The good news is that the explanation the teacher gives in this situation is accurate. Of course, the bad news is that it is way too long and complicated for the students. Also, she hasn’t thought her response through carefully, so she is speaking in a stream of consciousness fashion, which is not helpful for the students.

The instructors who participated in the MCAEL workshop had an interesting discussion about this slide. While several suggested simply telling the students that that particular grammar topic would be covered at a higher level, others felt that any student question deserved to be treated seriously. One participant proposed that the teacher respond to the student’s question after the class. That way the other students wouldn’t be distracted by a nonessential grammar point and the teacher would have enough time to formulate a concise, clear, accurate response. Giving ourselves time to think about the best way to answer a question, also called Teacher Pause Time, benefits everyone. “Teacher pause time, which occurs at a variety of places during a class period, is characterized by a three or more second period of uninterrupted silence that teachers deliberately take to consider what just took place, what the present situation is and what their next statements or behaviors could and should be.” (Stahl, 1994). Pausing for three or more seconds feels like an eternity to me, but I have found that it does result in a more comprehensible response in the long run.

Stay posted for more examples of TTT and suggestions that can help us all make better use of it in the classroom.

Corwin, L. (2004). We Talk too Much: Quantitative and Qualitative Aspects of Teacher Talk. Retrieved from: http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/ipp_collection/.
Harmer, J. (2007). How to Teach English. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.
Stahl R.J. (1994). Using “Think Time” and “Wait Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. Retrieved from: http://www.ericdigests.org/1995-1/think.htm.


Comment from Tamara Jones
January 28, 2016 at 3:09 pm

A reader emailed with the following comment:

Many thanks for your mail, which, as usual, is very useful.

Trying to keep the TTT under control has never been easy for me because I’m kind of talkative.

However, I was glad to hear about the Quality factor because it makes me feel a lot better since I always try to use in my classes the language that I feel will most benefit my students (according to their level).
I try to use complete sentences, avoid unusual expressions, etc.

In other words, although I might not succeed in limiting my TTT, I can always try to achieve Quality.

I was delighted to receive this email because I think many of us are in the same boat. It’s nice to hear I am not alone!

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