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Concourse 2

Teacher talk


I'm foreign, not deaf.

This guide is about your language and your voice – the most important language input your learners get (probably).


The teacher-talking-time myth

If you are taking or have just taken an initial training course, you will probably have encountered one of English Language Teaching's most durable mythologies:

Teacher Talking Time is always bad.

Even on in-service training courses such as the Cambridge Delta or Trinity Diploma, the myth endures in one form or another and trainees are constantly told to reduce their teacher talk (TTT) to a minimum.
It is undeniable that the more a teacher talks, the less opportunity there is for learners to talk but the reasoning behind the assertion usually stops there and assumes:

  1. all teacher talk is the same
  2. learners learn best by talking

Some teacher talk is poor and it may be vague, disjointed, space-filling chit-chat or lecturing about something the learners should be finding out for themselves.  It may also be long-winded explanation and instruction giving which is difficult to penetrate for meaning.  That is bad teacher talk.
Some learners probably do learn as they talk and the pressure to communicate ideas is a compelling factor in encouraging people to upgrade their language skills and practise what they already know.  To assert, however, that all learners learn best when they are obliged to talk regardless of what they are learning, their cultural backgrounds and personal preferences is, frankly, nonsense.
Many people also learn by listening, thinking, noticing what others say and reading.

Here, we are not concerned with the quantity of teacher talk (that's TTT or Teacher Talking Time), we are concerned with its quality (i.e., TTQ).


Three reasons to speak

Teachers speak in the classroom for three main purposes.

  1. To manage the learners and the classroom.
  2. To teach (not necessarily to tell) and model.
  3. To maintain relationships between the teacher and the learners and between the learners.
    Often this is a question of maintaining engagement and motivation.
think Task 1: Here are 12 examples of things that teachers say in the classroom.
Categorise them into three lists (as above) and then check here.
  1. John, please sit here with Mary.  Thank you.
  2. Now, hate is a regular verb so the past tense is ...
  3. OK.  Listen again and choose the right answers.
  4. Why are you so late?
  5. Please try to help each other with this.
  6. That was excellent.  Well done!
  7. You will present the findings of your survey to the whole class.
  8. I had a terrible day yesterday, listen while I tell you about it.
  9. Now, are you going to work alone or in pairs?
  10. No, that's not quite right.  What time are we talking about?
  11. You spell that with two m's
  12. Good morning.  How are we all today?  Ready to do a little work?  Great!


Good teacher talk is ...

The word CLEAR is a mnemonic to help you remember the characteristics of good lesson aims (Clear, Limited, Explicit, Achievable, Relevant).  You can use the same trick here and the categories are also almost the same.

Good teacher talk is:

Clear not mumbled, spoken facing the board or spoken too quickly.
Limited Too much teacher talk is often criticised and it is true that the more the teacher talks, the less the students can say.  However, the quality of teacher talk is what is really critical.  Limiting teacher talk usually leads it to being precise and understandable.
Explicit Learners need to be aware of the teacher's intentions.  If a learner is thinking (or saying):
    Is this an instruction, some information or just a chat?
then the teacher talk has not been explicit.
Developing tones to make intention clear is a key skill so that your learners become accustomed to recognising your intention by the tone of your voice.
Another skill is not mixing intentions in the same utterance.  Don't say:
    That's really good, isn't it but you need to write it on the board and correct the spelling problem
because that mixes social talk with instruction with teaching and is very confusing.  Prefer then:
   Good! [Pause for student response] Check the spelling of this word, please.
[Pause for student response] Now go and write it on the board, please.
Appropriate Teacher talk to should tell learners what they need to know and no more.  You may know, e.g., that something is an example of an ungradable adjective but your learners may not want or need to be burdened with this knowledge right now because it has nothing to do with the lesson focus.
Relevant This just means maintaining your focus and not using teacher talk to fill silences or go off on tangents.


Teaching talk

When we are teaching, we need to be CLEAR and unambiguous and keep things short.
When it comes to language teaching, lecturing rarely helps.

think Task 2: Think about what kinds of function teachers express when they are teaching.
Click here when you have thought of two.


Using the learner's first language

There are those who will tell you that we should avoid the use of the learners' first language where possible.  We want to establish an English-only environment because:

However ...

think Task 3: There are times when using the learners' first language(s), if you know them or it, can be very helpful.
Think about when and why you might use the learners' first language(s) in a classroom?
Click here when you have thought of something.


Instructional language

Here's a (real) example of management talk in a classroom:

Err, Jaime, no, I don't mean that.  Pedro, yes, Pedro, can you ... err ... please come and .. um ... sit here with ... err Maria, isn't it?  Yes, that's right ... now ... Helena and Miguel ... what I'd like you to do is, perhaps, yes, one of you come and join Jaime.  Oh, yes, bring a pen and paper with you.  Pedro: do you have a pen? No? Oh, would you like to go and get one then, please.  Right now ... OK?

think Task 4: Think about what is wrong with that instruction, what the teacher should have said and why it happened.
Click here when you have two problems and the probable reason.


Getting things in the right order

Instructions need to be carefully ordered.  Repairing means going back to the beginning and explaining again what should have been clear the first time.

If learners are to get on with learning, they need to know exactly what it they have to do.  All of them need to know, all of the time.

think Task 5: Here are the parts of an instruction sequence.
Put them in the right order and then check here.
  1. Repairing if necessary
  2. Getting everyone's attention
  3. Stating the purpose of the activity or task
  4. Stopping the previous activity or task
  5. Giving the necessary instruction to start the task or activity
  6. Stopping the new task or activity
  7. Requiring feedback

The first one in the list above was to do with Repairing.  This can come at any stage and you need to stay alert to the need to do it.


Sequencing teaching talk

So far, we have identified three sorts of teaching talk:

  1. Explaining
  2. Eliciting
  3. Giving feedback
think Task 6: How should these be linked and sequenced?  Think about the question and then click here.

self test

Self-test questions

Try these questions to judge whether you have understood this guide.

Related guides
teacher roles for the guide to the many roles a teacher may need to adopt
grouping learners for a guide which considers how best to arrange the learners to fit the activity stage in the lesson
learner talk for a guide to the other side of the equation: the learners' language
asking good questions questioning is a key teaching skill but there's a bit more to it than just asking for information
being clear for some advice about getting your message across clearly, simply and unambiguously