Monday, March 7, 2016

The Gift of Gab? – Part 5

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

If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you know that the past 4 posts have focused on a struggle that is common to many teachers, reducing the amount of time we talk in the classroom, also known as TTT. This is something I readily admit to struggling with, but I found that by considering several scenarios containing examples of problematic teacher talk, I’ve learned a lot about how I can reduce the amount of class time I spend talking and increase the amount of class time my students spend talking.

Scenario 7

Scenario 7

This scenario, a version of which I found in Walsh (2002), contains an example of TTT that I had never even considered before. Before you read the deconstruction of it, take a minute to see if you can identify what could be improved. I am not (very) ashamed to admit that I couldn’t. After all, the teacher is 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 something called latching. Basically, this term means that one speaking turn immediately follows, or latches on, to the preceding turn.

Many proficient English speakers do this in “real” conversations when we are engaged (Tannen, 1994); however, in the classroom, “it limits the frequency and quality of student contributions, and minimizes learning opportunities as learners are not put in a position where they have to clarify and reformulate their contribution in order to make meaning clear” (Walsh, 2002, p. 18).  In other words, even though I latch a lot when I am talking to my friends, I should avoid doing this with students because it actually limits how much they get to speak. Instead, experts recommend simply letting students finish their utterance or story, even when they are struggling with the grammar or to find a word. Rather than feeding the students lines, as the teacher does above, it’s better to offer limited linguistic support, ask clarification questions, and give them time to formulate their own responses. Because “[n]egotiation of meaning can lead to repair in the language of the conversation” (Folse, 2006, p. 41), it’s better to push students to experiment with and navigate through the language. That’s not to say errors should not be corrected, but I need to remember that giving language support is different from doing it myself.

Further Steps

So, maybe you’ve read some of these scenarios and thought, as I have, that a couple of them really did hit a little too close to home. Sadly, in my experience, it’s one thing to read a bunch of suggestions and quite another to use them to transform one’s long held TTT habits. Sometimes, as I am blabbering away in front of my class, I’ve been simultaneously thinking, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Luckily, some of the same experts have provided us with tips for how to make a lasting reduction in our TTT. Corwin (2004) suggests practicing noticing. She makes a note in her lesson plan about one aspect of TTT she wants to monitor. She says, “[o]ne week I might check for habits of being repetitive or filling in the gaps. Another week an objective might be to look at my use of silence. In this first step the effort is to notice, not change behavior” (Corwin, 2004, p. 44-45).

It can also be helpful, though potentially terrifying, to ask a fellow teacher to observe you in action with an eye to your TTT. Being observed, especially when I know the person is focusing on me every time I open my mouth, is an intimidating experience, but it can also be extremely helpful. For example, I was oblivious to the “tour guiding” I do in class until I was observed by a colleague who gently pointed it out. Videotaping a lesson can also be enlightening. “A videotaped record allows us to make an accurate estimate of how much time is devoted to teacher talk and how much to student speech in our classes. It lets us see how much time we spend on giving information or directions and how much time we allow for students to analyze, reflect or practice. It also allows us to see how visual our teaching is” (Brookfield, 1995, p. 80).  In my case, it also allowed me to see how much I wave my arms around. Excessive gesturing notwithstanding, this might be the best tip of all because research has proven that watching a video of oneself coupled with a critical evaluation of TTT can significantly reduce TTT (Napoles & Vazquez-Ramos, 2013).

I hope parts of this series on reducing Teacher Talk Time was as helpful for you as doing all that reading and assessment of my own TTT has been for me. As I said in Part 1, it’s been an ongoing (and ongoing and ongoing) struggle for me to remember to just zip it when I am standing in front of a captive audience full of eager international students. For years I wrestled with a nagging feeling that, even though I don’t do a lot of traditional lecturing in my classes, I still might be talking too much. And, maybe students don’t mind my little anecdotes and “think alouds,” but they might not be doing much good, either.

“The thing with unhelpful teacher talk is that it can leak out in many small, often unnoticed ways. When added up, these leaks can diminish the quality of the learning experience, giving students less breathing space to practice the language in the classroom” (Cooley, 2014).  I don’t want to be responsible for consuming students’ practice time and I certainly don’t want to diminish the quality of their education. So, I’m going to continue to work on noticing and reducing my TTT. How about you?


Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Cooley, D. (2014) English teachers, are you talking too much in class? Voices, December 2014. Retrieved Janaury 5, 2016 from
Folse, K. (2006). The Art of Teaching Speaking. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Napoles, J. & Vazquez-Ramos, A. M. (2013). Perceptions of time spent in teacher talk: A comparison among self-estimates, peer estimates, and actual time. Journal of Research in Music Education, 60(4), 452-461.
Tannen, D. (1994). Gender and Discourse. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Walsh, S. (2002). Construction or obstruction: Teacher talk and learner involvement in the EFL classroom. Language Teaching Research, 6(1), 3-23.


Comment from Smith
March 12, 2016 at 3:50 am

Reducing the TTT in a language class will considerably benefit the students. What you have been doing is meanignful and great.

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