Who Talks When?

Wise men* talk because they have something to say; fools talk because they have to say something.

usually accredited to Plato
(* or women)

As Hugh Dellar writes, the abbreviation in ELT that has attracted ‘the most hatred and vitriol is undoubtedly the dreaded TTT’. As you will no doubt be aware if you are reading this, TTT stands for Teacher Talking Time. Indeed, the instructions regarding minimal TTT he quotes from his CELTA course from 1993 are verbatim what I was told in 2015.

I find myself thinking about TTT a lot when I’m observing lessons. Teachers want their students to understand their instructions for a task so that they can immediately get to work rather than needing to clarify with the teacher, often in an exhaustingly individual way. Thus, I sometimes see laboriously lengthy explanations of tasks that result in exactly the confusion and questioning that the teacher had wanted to avoid in the first place. If the task can’t be explained simply with a few words and gestures, and with students locating the page number and task together before the task time begins, a model of what is being sought is probably desirable. Alternatively, the task might be too complicated or consists of too many individual sub-tasks which should be treated as individual tasks. This is often the case with less experienced teachers who want their students to do some group project work. I’ve seen teachers explain all of the constituent tasks at once at the beginning and then give students an uninterrupted half-lesson with the aim of “giving them room to speak”. That half-lesson is frequently interrupted by questions, doubts and clarifications.

So, simply making room for students to speak isn’t the answer either. Moreover, as Dellar notes in the aforehyperlinked post, some of us are naturally quiet people, who don’t always feel comfortable talking. Even when there’s a discrete and specific task for them to do, students diligently practising and learning an error, in paired conversation, isn’t a great use of classroom time. Shutting up to “let students talk” isn’t helpful, if they don’t know what to talk about or are yet to acquire the language they need in order to have the discussion the teacher wants them to have. They first need some comprehensible input (see Krashen).

Let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages of student talk and teacher talk.

Student TalkTeacher Talk
+ practising the target language
+ answering questions asked by the teacher or a classmate
+ asking questions to gain deeper understanding of concepts or ideas
+ expressing themselves and their ideas
+ developing relationships with peers and teacher
+ explaining ideas, vocabulary and concepts
+ issuing instructions
+ personalising the lesson and/or material
+ modelling the pronunciation (including tone and intonation)
+ appearing as a real human being; developing professional relationships with students
– practising imperfectly and learning mistakes
– distracting off task chatter
– can put unhelpful pressure on quieter individuals
– taking up time when students could be practising language
– being boring
– lecturing
Pros and cons of different types of talk

In short, teachers talking when they are explaining something important, giving crucial instructions or making the lesson more enjoyable, more human and real is something that should be encouraged. Students talking in order to practise target language and to express their ideas, should likewise be encouraged. However, students talking without purpose or without the necessary language is unlikely to be helpful and unnecessary teacher talk should be avoided. I acknowledge that ‘unnecessary’ is a contested term.

We should also be as aware as we can be of those quieter, more introverted students who may be less inclined to talk and who might find their affective filters raised if put under too much pressure to produce language. I know from my own language learning experience, and as a person with a more introverted character, how it feels to have a teacher looking at me waiting for me to express an opinion that I don’t have.

Returning to the topic of lesson observation, I have found that when I have post-observation reflective conversations, some teachers almost reflexively suggest that they had been talking too much. Sometimes, arguably, they would be right; but I was left wondering if they knew why they were right. Other times, though, I would find myself disagreeing because either there had been neither too much nor too little talk, or that while the quantity of talk was about right, there was a different problem: its quality. In other words, in these situations, teachers observed and reflected correctly that something went wrong with their instructions, for example, but suggested that they should have spoken less and let their students “get on with it”. What would have been more effective, on these occasions, would be better prepared instructions that left less room for doubt. The quantity of instructions was less relevant; their quality, however, was of paramount importance.

Thus, my researcher brain had questions about TTT and specifically about what teachers felt about the issue. During Spring 2022, I saw a CFP for a special issue of the CALR Linguistic Journal on the topic of TTT and during Summer 2022, I collaborated with Victor Hugo Medina Soares to gather data which might begin to address my questions. We used a Google Form survey and then followed up by interviewing survey respondents who had volunteered for the secondary data collection. We analysed our data and published our findings last December.

Overall, we found that our participants ‘feel a pressure to speak less, citing training courses such as CELTA and DELTA, as formative in promoting the view that less TTT is better’ (16). We argued that we should perhaps be more concerned with QTT (Quality Teacher TalK). Many participants communicated a sense of guilt about the amount they perceive to be talking during lessons and we are concerned about this finding. We concluded that CPD on these issues and especially promoting QTT over simply reduced TTT is essential. If you are interested, you can read our whole paper here.

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