Teacher talking and listening time

By Nicola Meldrum

Category: ELT Resources

TTT (Teacher Talking Time) and STT (Student Talking Time)

These are familiar terms to English language teachers, I am sure you will agree. From our first classroom observations we have been told to reduce TTT and increase STT. Often, with good reason. Perhaps what is missing from this dichotomy is a closer analysis of what TTT and STT can do to affect learning. In this post I am going to suggest some ways we can make use of these times and how we can start to look at them differently.

In my role as course director on a Trinity Dip TESOL course I manage a mini action research task the teachers complete. They record 20 minutes of their talk from a lesson with their mobiles, at different stages. Extracts of giving instructions, speaking to the whole class, monitoring pair and group work, managing delayed correction and any other moments they feel are relevant. They then listen to the recording, analyse their talk and set some development goals.

This is a very popular task on the course, and the most revealing for many. Teachers often go on to make this a regular reflection task. Here are some comments posted in our online discussion forums:

Image with three quotes from English teachers talking about watching their classroom sessions back.

We can see from these that teacher talk is complex and once we start to listen to ourselves, we start to see areas we can improve. How do we reduce our talk? How do we make it more useful and productive? Perhaps the most common and important reflection from this task, is to focus on the quality of our talk, and how we can make it useful for our learners. This is especially true if we have learners who don’t have an opportunity to practise English outside of class.

Let’s look at some different functions of teacher talk and think about how we can focus and adapt our talk according to what we are doing in class.

Ways we can make our talk count:

1. When managing or giving instructions, limit the number of words and use imperatives at all levels. Cut out commentary such as ‘Now, we are going to … So, what we are going to do next is …’, etc. Be succinct, to the point and use plenty of pauses.

2. When checking understanding we can use CCQs (Concept Checking Questions); ‘Does this mean A or B?’, but this is not the only option. Use more genuine questions to make sure students have understood, and extend their responses. For example, when checking understanding of a particular verb, we can say, ‘Can you tell me about a time when you …?’, or ‘Can you give me an example of …?’ or ‘Do you know anyone who has [done this]?’, instead of ‘What does [verb] mean?’

3. We can use our language to give feedback, model and provide input. I often set myself a little challenge in lessons when new language is taught or emerges by seeing how many times I can weave it into my talk, with examples, questions or simple comments. I make sure this language is on the board and draw attention to my use of it to increase learners’ exposure to it as many times as possible.

Photo of Mark McKinnon standing in front of a whiteboard

 Mark McKinnon at the board

Student Talking Time and Teacher Listening Time

Now, let’s turn to STT – in a recent post on my Teach Pronunciation blog I write with Mark McKinnon, I introduced a new acronym: TLT. I asked teachers to think about times when students are speaking as teacher listening time (TLT), instead of just STT. I observe hundreds of hours of teaching every year and often see teachers set up speaking activities effectively, only to step back and let them get on with it. When I ask about this, they say it was time for fluency and they didn’t want to distract the learners. There is often TLT during speaking tasks, when teachers are listening for errors. This is usually followed by correction, which is good practice if focused on relevant language and not minor slips. However, I often see limited language work, merely correcting the target language or random errors.

We could be making more of these times by listening for:

1. Gaps in learners’ English. Often we see and hear learners struggling to find a word or phrase. Or, our stronger learners who are finding the target language quite easy and we can think of harder alternatives they could learn and try to use. Make a note of some options they could use to fill those gaps and work on this afterwards. We can help them build new language into examples which are meaningful to them – focusing on collocation and colligation. It helps if we anticipate this at the planning stage and think about how we might work on this in terms of our board work. Think of some harder examples and have them up our sleeves to provide extra challenge.

2. Good examples of emergent language relevant to the communicative goals of that lesson. Often the stronger students come out with lovely bits of language we can celebrate and share with other students after the task is finished. Again, think about how you will use your board here to get that star student explaining, exemplifying and exploiting the language with their classmates. Ask them to write some examples on the board and clarify the meaning for others in the lesson. Then, ask the group to make questions using that language. They can ask and answer the questions using all language from the lesson in small groups.

3. Pronunciation issues. This area is often neglected, as grammar tends to get most attention. Often this is due to a lack of confidence, from what teachers have told me over recent years of training. If we start by listening to learners and recording pronunciation problems in a notebook, we can start to see common issues, and if we are not confident to address them on the spot, we can research how to teach that pronunciation point for the next lesson. We can find ways to help students distinguish sounds, learn the physicality of the sounds – where to put their tongue, lips and jaw – and think of practice tasks. We need to go beyond listen and repeat and instead plan a useful sequence of mini pronunciation tasks so students can start to see a difference in their pronunciation.

I hope this has encouraged you to record, analyse and develop your talk.

black and white photo of Nicola Meldrum

About the author

Nicola Meldrum has been in ELT since 1999. She is based in Barcelona and is a freelance teacher trainer and writer. She manages and trains on a Trinity Dip TESOL course as well as writing student materials, teacher’s books and methodology articles. She recently wrote a chapter in 21st Century Skills in the ELT Classroom – A Guide for Teachers by Garnet Education. She also designs and delivers online training courses. Her main areas of interest are teacher development and pronunciation.

Find Nicola on Twitter: @NicolaMeldrum and Facebook: NicolaMeldrumELT

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