Does teacher talking time matter?
If you’ve been in the profession long enough, chances are that you’ve either been told that your teacher talking time (TTT) was way too high or that you’ve told another teacher (perhaps during peer observation, for example) that his or her teacher talking time was too high.
The Communicative era has, for both the right and the wrong reasons, promoted the teacher to the role of “facilitator of learning.” This new (?) role has, in turn, given prominence to the concept of “learner centeredness”, which, perhaps ironically, has the potential to both enhance and hinder classroom language learning, depending on how it is interpreted or misinterpreted by teachers and teacher educators.
Now, what does that have to do with teacher talking time?
From a “communicative”, “learner centered” standpoint, it’s probably the learners who ought to be doing most of the talking, not the teacher. In other words, if we believe that ss-ss interaction leads to learning (and that’s plausible thing to believe in), it’s only natural that teacher talking time should be kept to a minimum, right?
Well, right and wrong. There’s more to teacher talking time than meets the eye.
While some students’ interlanguage will develop primarily through interaction (output), others will learn by reading and listening (input) and a third group (perhaps the largest one?) will need a mix of all ingredients. This makes things far more complicated.
If we agree that the teacher’s English is a bona fide source of input (=raw material for acquisition), and that some learners will actually pick up a lot of English while listening to their teacher, then we can’t be dogmatic about teacher talking time.
In other words, telling someone that his or her teacher talking time is “too high” doesn’t always tell the whole story, nor does it produce any significant change in the teacher’s verbal behavior in class. And I am saying this drawing on nearly fifteen years of classroom observation.
True, there are teachers who actually do speak too much in class, but I believe we ought to help teachers look critically at their own verbal behavior as a whole, rather than keep our observations confined to the realm of teacher talking time. In other words, I believe we ought to break down the concept of “teacher talk” into smaller, more meaningful conceptual chunks and look at the teacher’s verbal behavior in its entirety, namely:
1. Wait time
This is the period of silence between the time a question is asked and the student’s reply or response. Students need to time to think, pull their thoughts together and search for the right grammar and lexis to convey their meanings. So, to a large extent, silence is, indeed, golden. The problem is that silence can be a little scary, especially when we realize that the overall pace of the lesson is starting to plunge. Fair enough. But automatically throwing another question at the students just because they didn’t answer the first one immediately will increase your teacher talking time without necessarily generating better learning.
Echoing is a surefire way of increasing your teacher talking time. It means repeating what learners have just said. Look:
Teacher: So, what’s the difference between A and B?
Student 1: A is bigger than B.
Teacher: Yes, A is bigger than B, that’s right.
Teacher: How was your weekend?
Student 2: I went to the beach.
Teacher: You went to the beach? Great!
So what’s the big deal?
Two things. One, echoing, as I said, will increase teacher talking time, without necessarily enhancing students’ learning. Two, if students realize that you echo nearly everything that is said in class, why will they bother to pay attention to what their peers are saying?
Having said that, I do find myself echoing the less confident students from time to time, just to signal that their contributions are “echo-worthy” – even if this means increasing my teacher talking time. Also, echoing inaccurate sentences correctly is a valid and still widely-used correction technique, though, in my experience, relatively few students notice the correction that way.
3. Yes/No questions vs. open-ended questions
A teacher who has good wait time and does not echo students unnecessarily may still increase his or her teacher talking time because of the kinds of questions she asks. Compare:
Teacher 1: Did you like the movie?
Student 1: No.
Teacher 1: Why? You thought it was boring?
Student 1: Yes.
Teacher 2: How did you like the movie?
Student 2: I didn’t like it. I thought it was boring.
Open-ended questions tend to (and I say tend to) generate longer turns and, consequently, more student speaking time, which often means less need for unnecessary teacher intervention.
The good news is that if you get into the habit of audio / video taping some of your lessons, you’ll be able to pinpoint certain aspects of your verbal behavior that might be increasing your teacher talking time and perhaps hindering student learning. You’ll also be better equipped to spot moments in your lessons when you could, conversely, use teacher talking time to enhance learning – for example, through input flooding, as I suggested a few posts ago.