Too much Teacher Talking Time

TTT vs STT: easily one of the great CELTA shibboleths, and excessive TTT is by far one of the most common problems for both new and experienced teachers of ESOL, and therefore it’s very easy to say “reduce TTT” as an action point. 

I’ve not written it as an action point for literally years, however, because, when you think about it, it’s really rather useless as an area to develop. 

The trouble is “reduce TTT” completely fails to get to the root of why the excessive teacher talk is happening, and therefore fails to address the actual problem. Far more useful is to think about why excessive, unnecessary or distracting teacher talk happens. 

The obvious one is explanations. This is particularly true of new teachers, or of teachers who have a background in first language medium education. I blame the reductive nature of Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) as well, where the word “presentation” is inevitably interpreted as droning on about auxiliary verbs with some natty graphics via PowerPoint. The trouble is the limiting nature of this kind of “telling people stuff” – more often than not, ESOL classes are conducted in English, and with the exception of particularly high level classes, the students don’t always have the language to process the explanation. Even where students do have the language and the meta-language to cope with explanations, the input needs to be monitored and checked to make sure that the students are actually taking the language on board. Ten minutes of waffle followed by a gap fill is highly likely to be pretty ineffective. Ten minutes of clear presentation engaging students with questions and checking, however, is much more likely to improve the students’ language. Alternatively there might be some sort of carefully constructed guided practice task, allowing students to analyse language in context then make generalisations about that language, forming theories about language and structure and reformulating interlanguage. 

Then there are instructions. Even speaking the same language can make for mistakes in instructions, but again, giving instructions in English to students whose English is developing is far more likely to result in miscommunication. This tends to lead to a polite uncomprehending silence, which novice teachers like to fill with repeated instructions, rephrased usually just in the right way to add to the confusion. This, naturally leads to deep, horrible silence which only grows as the teacher gets frustrated and embarrassed. In the worst examples of this, the teacher gets cross with the students for not understanding, projecting their own frustrations on the students. Instruction checking questions rarely help, I think: a silly idea that does more harm than good. Teachers are usually better off by breaking the task down and explaining one step at a time, rather than explaining the whole task all at once. Even where students do understand the task, there is sometimes a brief pause while students process the instructions, and it takes a bit of skill and experience to resist the urge to fill in the time. And sometimes the silence occurs because the task is simply badly designed, or cognitively unfamiliar or complex: even a simple crossword takes some training, regardless of the simplicity of the vocabulary. 

The other TTT sin is filling gaps in speaking tasks, where the aim of a task is to practise speaking but the students don’t actually speak to each other. You don’t deal with this by reducing your teacher talking time, but rather by asking yourself why they aren’t speaking and making changes accordingly. It’s rarely because of excessive TTT but more often because of the quality of the task. Perhaps, and this is definitely a novice teacher mistake, the task lacks communicative structure and focus: “just talk to each other about [insert topic here]” rather than “find out 3 things about your partner”. The students aren’t talking because “just talk” is a dumb activity. 

The problem, then, is not reducing TTT, but rather lies in where the teacher talk restricts or limits the opportunities for student talk. If we say “reduce TTT” we need to consider what will replace this, and hopefully this is Student Talking Time, and developing opportunities to increase student talk time: instead of a teacher led presentation with individually targetted questioning, what about some sort of peer driven guided discovery task which allows students not only the chance to work out new language for themselves but also to interact using current language, consolidating that language and developing speaking  skills. Use calm clear instructions and, yes, wait a second to give the students chance to get on with the task. Devise practise activities that give students opportunity to speak communicatively, with a purpose to that speaking, and again (I will repeat this til I die) “just talk about X” is not purpose. Even in a dogme-ish unplugged setting, perhaps especially so talk has to have purpose, even if the language coming from the talk is not strictly planned. Include peer checking of practice activities as standard: it should be part of the routine, to the extent that you may not even have to give the instruction. 

“Reduce TTT” in and of itself remains a useless area for development. It suggests that if you shut up a bit, everything else will follow. But TTT is not all bad, and “too much” can be dangerously subjective: it shouldn’t be about the quantity of TTT, but rather the quality. It’s a fun developmental experiment to walk into class, sit down and reduce TTT to zero, and say nothing, but it isn’t going to automatically create lots of student talk (until the complaints start, of course…). We need to think about how our activities increase student talk, improve student talk by maximising those chances. Talk, as they say, is work in the ESOL classroom, and the more and better the students are talking, then the more likely you are to reduce your TTT to what is needed and nothing else. 

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3 comments

  1. Another TTT sin arises from a lack of “wait time”: posing a question to the class or to an individual student, and then not giving them enough time to process the question and compose a response because you need to fill the silence.

    I find that when setting up a controlled practice activity, a lot of unnecessary teacher-talk can be reduced by simply demonstrating the first exercise (eliciting the correct answer from the students) rather than giving a lengthy explanation.

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