Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Gift of Gab? – Part 3

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

In my recent posts, I’ve shared some thoughts about ways to make Teacher Talk Time (TTT) count in the classroom. Every time I am yakking during the lesson, the students aren’t, so I really need to make sure that the time I do spend talking is valuable. In the research I did for a professional development session I facilitated, I came across many examples of “bad” teacher talk, which I think provide an interesting jumping off point for a critical evaluation of my own TTT habits.

Scenario 3

Scenario 3

Oh jeez. Reading this conversation is like jumping back about 20 years when I was a brand spanking new teacher in Korea. In one of my first experiences with adult students, I used to teach at a bank in Seoul and my students used to sit in a semi-circle while I asked “conversation questions” to all the students, one at a time. I cringe to think of how much talking I was doing and how little each individual student was doing. And, let’s face it, it wasn’t MY English that needed the practice.

Instead of having such a teacher-controlled conversation, I should have tweaked the activity so the students were doing most of the talking. The teacher in this example could have given each student a different question on an index card and have the class stand up and mingle as they ask and answer their questions. Or, the teacher could have broken the class into groups of no more than 3 or 4 students (Folse, 2006), handed out a list of conversation questions and given students time to discuss them. Or, the teacher could have done a version of speed dating by giving each student a question to ask and creating two circles, an inner circle and an outer circle. The students in the inner circle cycle every minute, so the students can ask discuss the questions with a fresh face several times in the course of the activity. Or, the teacher could have posted the questions around the classrooms and have pairs of students move to a new question every minute. (Thanks to a session participant for this idea!)

“In a good speaking task, the teacher has, for the most part, no speaking role” (Folse, 2006, p. 27) and there are just so many options that allow way more Student Talk Time than the above example. There is simply no excuse for me to do more talking than my students in any kind of warm up or conversation activity.

Scenario 4

Scenario 4

Okay, have you ever had this experience? Your heart is in the right place. You just want to get the students to talk. You’ve even posed an interesting question about a hot button topic that should really get the students fired up, but instead all you can hear are crickets chirping in the background.

The reason for the desperate TTT shown above could be one of many possibilities. The students could find the topic boring or uncomfortable to talk about. I always need to remember that just because I think a topic is interesting (the US presidential campaign, the latest happenings on The Walking Dead, gun control, for instance), it doesn’t mean my students care at all about it. That’s why it’s always safer to provide a list of conversation prompts for them to choose from rather than dictate a single topic I am excited about.

Another problem with the TTT in the above scenario is the instructor might not be waiting long enough for students to actually respond to his questions. Research shows that teachers usually wait 1 second before filling in the silence (Rowe, 1987). 1 second! That’s certainly not long enough for me to (1) understand the question and (2) come up with a relevant and accurate response in French, that’s for sure. According to Nunan (1991), when teachers wait a mere 3 or 4 seconds, more students respond, the average length of the response increases, the complexity of response increases, and student initiated questions increase. That’s worth an extra 2 or 3 seconds to me!

Finally, and, to me at least, most interestingly, the instructor above is playing volleyball when his students may be more accustomed to bowling. Folse (2006) likens conversation between native English speakers to playing volleyball. One speaker serves up a topic and the other conversationalists work together to keep the conversation up in air. However, he says that other cultures have different interactional expectations. Japanese conversation, according to Folse, is more like bowling. “Only one person bowls at one time. Everyone else shuts up. They watch and consider the person as that one person approaches the lane and finally releases the ball. They watch the ball roll toward the pins, and only after the pins have been hit can anyone else bowl” (Folse, 2006, p. 187).

According to Folse, this teacher might have gotten more conversational bang for his buck by providing his students with a task rather than a topic. For instance, he could have had the students work in small groups to rank 5 or 6 crimes from most to least heinous. Or he could have given sentences a handout with real crimes listed in one column and punishments in another and had students work together to match them. Once the answers have been revealed, students could discuss whether or not they agree with them. Tasks like these are more likely to get students talking and allow teachers to reduce their TTT and accomplish their lesson goals than open-ended topics. That sounds like a win win to me!

Stay tuned for more scenarios in the next post!

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Rowe, M.B. (1987). Slowing down may be a way of speeding up. American Educator, Spring, 38-42.
Nunan, D. (1991). Language Teaching Methodology. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.


Comment from Manuel
July 5, 2017 at 9:36 pm

Very good strategies. Thanks for sharing them.

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