Monday, February 15, 2016

The Gift of Gab? – Part 4

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

In my past few posts, I’ve shared some strategies for reducing Teacher Talk Time in the classroom. I know I have a bad habit of talking too much. But, I also know that when I am talking, my students aren’t, and that’s not fair to them. Keeping that in mind, I’ve been presenting a variety of scenarios that contain common examples of TTT gone bad and sharing experts’ suggestions for making TTT count.

Scenario 5

Scenario 5

Ah, the challenge of answer checks! As with previous scenarios in this series of posts, you don’t even have to read the conversation to know the teacher is doing the lion’s share of the talking. First, although the teacher may be trying to rush through the answer check and get on to the meat of the lesson, by allowing the students to get away with simply giving the letter of the answer, he is not giving them the opportunity to repeat the target structures, something that is essential for automatization (Kjellin, 2015).

Also, this kind of answer check does not help students who have incorrect answers to understand what in the world went wrong. Field (2008) suggests a diagnostic approach to answer checks when students grade their listening work, though I think it’s a practice that would serve us well in a variety of contexts. Rather than simply brushing over Aline’s incorrect guess, the teacher in the scenario above could have taken a minute to ask her to think about what went wrong. In other words, why did she choose the answer she did? Or, better yet, the teacher could hand out index cards or small slips of paper at the end of the answer check and have students indicate which questions they had trouble with and why. It can even be helpful to create a checklist, such as this one based on Goh’s (2000) list of common listening problems:

Listening Checklist

This feedback from students can help instructors know what challenges students are still facing and plan the next lesson accordingly. After all, “[w]ithout establishing why the errors occurred, we have no means of assisting learners to get it right next time” (Field, 2008, p. 81). For some other ideas for making answer checks more interactive and less teacher-talky, see a previous post I wrote, Answer Checks Made Clear and Communicative.

Scenario 6

Scenario 6

Have you ever found yourself trying to give instructions and only making the students more confused? Sadly, the “best activity in the world is a waste of time if the students don’t understand what it is they are supposed to do” (Harmer, 2007, p. 37).  This particular example is based on TTT described in Cooley (2014), but it is alarmingly familiar to me.

Basically, the teacher above is trying to get his students to do a card matching activity in which they each receive a card and then walk around the class until they find the person who has the matching card. Simple, right? Until you try to explain this activity for the first time to a group of lower level learners. In an effort to be clear, this teacher is repeating himself, but his instructions are filled with extraneous talk.

Instead, we need to carefully think through our instructions, especially for a new activity. Harmer (2007) suggests, as part of the lesson planning phase, we ask ourselves three questions about the instructions we want to give:

• What is the important information?
• What do the students have to know to do this activity?
• What is the sequence of the information?

Some other tips for simplifying our instructions include:

• using affirmative language (“keep your card secret”), not negative (don’t show your card”);
• using the imperative;
• modelling the instructions;
• avoiding a long chain instructions;
• writing the instructions down on the board or in a PowerPoint; and
• practicing.

Involving the students in the instructions can make a passive listening experience much more active and can reduce TTT. I once observed a teacher who wrote her instructions in a PowerPoint slide and had the students silently read them. Other experts suggest asking a student to repeat or (for higher levels) rephrase the instructions, asking comprehension questions, or using students to model the activity.

The one piece of surprising advice I came across repeatedly as I read about giving instructions was to avoid repeating. I thought my repetition in the class helped students understand me better, but apparently it can actually cause students to stop listening. “There are naturally very good intentions behind repeating instructions, but students can get used to teachers repeating themselves and may start switching off” (Cooley, 2014). I am not entirely sold on this, though. I might try to experiment a little by reducing my repetition occasionally in my intermediate level class to see if it works.

Stay tuned for one more post about reducing TTT.

Cooley, D. (2014) English teachers, are you talking too much in class? Voices, December 2014. Retrieved January 5, 2016 from
Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goh, C. (2000) A cognitive perspective on language learners’ listening comprehension stimuli. Language Testing, 40, p. 133-167.
Harmer, J. (2007). How to Teach English. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.
Kjellin, O. (2015). Choral Practice- the Neurophysiological Opportunist’s Way. Retrieved January 5, 2016 from

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