Maximizing Student Talking Time
ELT News, 2009
Twenty-five years ago I was at a conference in Frankfurt in Germany. I was speaking, and one of my fellow speakers was something of an ELT guru, who shall be nameless. Those were the days when any lesson observation notes in teacher training kicked off with STT v TTT (Student Talking Time v Teacher talking Time). This particular guru was a great advocate of paired and group activities, and on minimizing the intervention of the teacher into all that communication in English which would naturally be taking place (in his dreams). About three hundred people attended his talk. Three minutes in, we were told to get into groups of four. Seven or eight minutes later, we’d assembled our group of four amidst much confusion. We couldn’t agree which handout we’d been told to work our way through, because we’d all forgotten during the fuss of assembling a group and shifting metal chairs noisily. So we argued about that for a few minutes. It was too noisy for us to be able to ask. We argued in English, but we were, after all, teachers of English. After fifteen minutes we were stopped, and the guru spoke for two minutes. Incredibly, given the size of the audience we were told to assemble new groups. Five minutes more of shuffling chairs and negotiating ensued. New handouts were distributed. Slowly. We then went through a list of questions about maximizing student talking time. Five minutes before the end of the talk, we were told to assess what we had learned today … in groups, of course.
My group of German high school teachers were furious. They had paid to come to the conference, and had travelled a long way. They all taught at the same school, and had travelled together in the same mini-bus. They had not come, they said, to talk to each other, but to listen to native speakers and hopefully to glean some ideas from so-called experts. They had taken the trouble to read the guru’s book in advance, and had discussed it. They wanted to hear him talk. They were kind enough to say they were lucky to have been in a group with one of the very few native speakers in the room. They dismissed the guru as “a really, really bad teacher” and “he would not have a job in our school.”
The most appropriate medium of communication between one and three hundred is the lecture. It is not impossible to do pair work with three hundred, though group work is too complex to set up unless you have a “cabaret” seating arrangement where people are already seated around tables for three or four. When I was teaching in Britain in the 70s and 80s, my students had four lessons a day in classes of fifteen, plus two supplementary “lectures” a day. These lectures would be with ten classes assembled together, and took place in a lecture room. We didn’t actually do “lectures” but we used to have short acted out dialogues with two teachers; listening to and then singing English pop songs; or the BBC “On We Go” video series. We did repetition, drills, questions and pair work with one hundred and fifty. The proportion of pair work to teacher-centred work is the important factor. My ELT guru was around 10 to 1. With very large numbers, I’d reverse that.
Maximizing Student Talking Time (MSTT) has become a mantra, often repeated without analyzing the content. It is a given that MSTT is a “good thing.” You should question all received wisdom.
Does it mean Student Talking Time, or Student Vocalizing Time? I’ve seen very teacher controlled classes with lots of student vocalization (repetition and drilling) but I wouldn’t call it “conversation” though it is “talking.” Teacher controlled interaction questions are Student Talking Time. (Do you like tea? Ask him. Ask me. Ask her about coffee. Ask him about coca-cola etc). More often, it means pair work and group work.
The main question though is “talk about what?” Students won’t hold forth in a foreign language without a model, a clear task and motivation. This seems self-evident. At one point, I had to watch twenty or thirty people teaching every summer, of whom two or three would be offered a permanent job. I still laugh at the memory of the most highly-qualified candidate of all, fresh from an Applied Linguistics doctorate. Confronted with a class of Arab beginners, his task was to introduce adverbs of frequency for the first time with material of his own choice. Among the things he said in the first ten minutes were “Let’s brainstorm some adverbs of frequency! Get in pairs and make a list” and “Ali, What do you think about adverbs of frequency?” He then asked them to underline the adverbs of frequency in an authentic piece from The Guardian newspaper. He didn’t have a clue, and was singularly insensitive to their looks of total incomprehension. At the end of one of the few lessons where I had to fight the urge to just stand up and take over, he asked, “Any questions?” With remarkably good inflection (revealing bitterness) one student just said “Are you a teacher?” Well, I added the indefinite article, he actually said “Are you teacher?” The candidate was perplexed when I said I’d been introducing adverbs of frequency to beginners for years, and had only used the words “adverbs of frequency” a very few times in initial lessons.
Talking won’t ‘just happen’ and it is one factor in lessons that should involve listening, reading, moving about, doing things, writing a few words, getting involved in the content of a text, listening to grammar explanations, looking at pictures and diagrams, watching things acted out, watching things demonstrated, singing, maybe yawning a bit, and laughing sometimes too.
As a postscript, Total Physical Response (TPR) suggests that beginner students benefit from a silent period of comprehending, and responding to instructions, before being exposed to potential ridicule and embarrassment while getting your tongue around those weird foreign noises. It has been said (by me) that TPR is akin to becoming an expert on football by sitting on a couch in front of the TV rather than playing it. Even so, some TPR activities will boost confidence, and learning will be taking place without vocalizing.