Teacher talking time – it’s complicated

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.

2. Echoing

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.

Thanks for reading. By the way, click here and here for more on teacher talking time – slightly different perspectives, though.

8 thoughts on “Teacher talking time – it’s complicated”

  1. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Thank you, Dave. I've just checked your post and it's full of good, sound advice. I hope my readers access your blog, too!

  2. Why is it that we teachers tend to become so unnatural when we're in a classroom situation? Is it because the classroom environment is artificial in essence, or is it the baby/pet talk syndrome, whereby for some reason I fail to grasp we just feel compelled to communicate in a very strange way? When in real like does anyone echo the person they're talking to to the extent we do?
    On a different note, I once taught Portuguese as a foreign language to a group of English students for a few months. A year later I bumped into one of them, who thanked me for the fact that he had thrived under my tuition (his words, not mine)… When I asked him what had helped him the best, he told me it was my blank stare every time he tried to say something in English. Has anyone ever thought of putting together the terroristic approach? lol

  3. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Eli, in all honesty, I don't know. I read your post at 4pm, went out for a drink, went dancing and kept thinking about your question all this time, while Lady Gaga blared through the loudspeakers.
    Different teachers speak more or less "artificially" in class, that's for sure, but I can't find a pattern underlying the differences. It's definitely not age (I've trained very young teachers who sounded extremely patronizing in class) nor is it gender. Teaching style does have some bearing on the issue, I think – teachers who are very fond of grammar and of "explaining" things tend to have a slightly more artificial sort of classroom discourse – "teacherese" if you will.
    Of all the teachers I've trained recently, it was probably the native speakers that tended to speak more naturally in class, but I'm talking about a fairly limited sample and I don't want to generalize beyond that.

  4. Hey Luiz,

    Echoing first: I agree with you that echoing is one of the easiest ways to make unnecessary TTT even longer, and I also agree that it’s a poor correction technique, but for different reasons. I think students tend to notice they’re being corrected, but it’s a very teacher-centered correction technique, which doesn’t give students a chance to self-correct. Also, because I think most students notice they’re being corrected when you echo them, they can also think they’re being corrected when they aren’t.

    E.g. (real life example!)

    A: So my mom told me I should look for a job,
    B (me!): Oh, your mom told you you should look for a job? That’s interesting.
    A thinks: Did I say something wrong? (I could see it in his puzzled face, and I had to say: “it was correct what you said, don’t worry).

    I say this based on experience. Much as I’ve been trying to not use echoing as a correction technique (or at all for that matter), when it does slip, many students ask me, “but isn’t that what I just said?”.

    I had never thought of this as a morale booster. It’s an interesting idea…


  5. Luiz Otávio says:

    You’re absolutely right. This sort of thing does happen. This is why I’m also not too keen on the idea of saying “sorry?” whenever students make a silly mistake, for example.
    Thanks for your readership, my friend.

  6. Nice post
    I didn’t know you keep track on how much teachers
    talk in class. I’m definitely an imput student.

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Oh, yes, Paula. Teacher talking time is one of the key issues in teacher education.

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