Teacher Talking Time : Part Two

In the first part of this article I looked at the reasons why teacher talking time (TTT) can be counterproductive if used to excess and unthinkingly. But there’s another side to the coin : used intelligently TTT can also be a useful aid to learning. How?

Firstly, several of the things we mentioned previously as being positive aids to learning, involve TTT. Elicitation, for example, which can be used effectively to lead students to make their own discoveries about the language.

TTT may also be the most efficient way, in terms of time, to get a point across. Instructions and set-ups for activities are an obvious example, but also language explanations. If a new word comes up during an activity, it may be quicker for the teacher to explain than for students to use their dictionaries.

Students, especially at the beginning of a course, may expect lessons to be entirely teacher-led. The teacher then has to decide the best approach : to throw them in at the deep end of a student-centred classroom – which may create negative reactions – or to ease them in gently?

If the students are learning outside an English-speaking country, the teacher is the probably their best source of what Stephen Krashen (1) has called “roughly tuned input”. The idea behind “roughly-tuned input” is that language is acquired by exposure to discourse which is comprehensible to the learner but one step above his/her current productive competence – it contains elements which can be understood from the context but which the learner cannot yet produce accurately. It is by encountering and processing this new language in a context which ensures that it is comprehensible that the item will be assimilated.

The teacher may be the only person who can provide this type of “caretaker speech” for the students. Even if the students are in contact with other native speakers, “ordinary” English-speakers often have great difficulty speaking to non-native speakers in a simple, yet natural way. An example I noticed recently was of a native speaker talking to an Italian elementary level learner. In an attempt to speak “simply” the native-speaker conscientiously knocked out of her speech all the Latin based verbs in favour of phrasal verbs. At one point, for instance, she had clearly intended to say arrive but hesitated, thought about it, and replaced it with turn up.

The concept of the “silent period” – the idea that learners need a certain amount of receptive exposure to the language before they are ready to produce it – also stems from Krashen’s work. One methodology which uses this idea is TPR, which I discussed briefly in the article Receptive Practice Activities. TPR activities are perhaps a good example of the conscious use of TTT to provide the learner with both a silent period and comprehensible input.

Whether or not you wish to take Krashen’s ideas fully on board, teacher talk can be an excellent source of listening comprehension practice. I argued in Part One of the article that too much TTT, or TTT of the wrong type, can be counter-productive for the development of the speaking skill. On the other hand, used intentionally, it can be a very useful aid to developing listening ability.

The development of the listening skill is usually thought of as involving listening to taped texts, whether on audio-tape, CD, DVD or video. This type of listening is obviously necessary. It is often the easiest way that students can be exposed to different voices and accents, interaction between native speakers, and fully authentic speech. But recordings also have a number of disadvantages. Firstly, it is ironic that the main medium we have for presenting interaction is the very one which precludes the student from interacting – a tape recorder won't reply if you interrupt it. In real life, we rarely sit and listen to other people’s conversations. We participate - if we don’t understand we ask for repetition or clarification, if we get bored we change the subject, and so on. Even when watching TV, if something isn’t clear we will frequently turn to another person in the room and ask, and if the programme isn’t interesting we’ll simply turn off.

Secondly, acoustic problems, and poor equipment quality or recording quality may make listening to the recording more difficult than the real life experience. Unless video/DVD is used, the difficulty is heightened by the lack of visual clues – the listener can’t see where the conversation is taking place, what the speakers are looking at, their facial expressions and gestures, and so on. All of these, in the real situation, will aid comprehension.

Another factor adding to the level difficulty of the taped text may be that the conversation is distanced from the personal concerns of the students. They don’t know (or care) about the speakers, and very often have no real interest in the things they are talking about.

These factors won’t all be problematic all the time of course. But the additional challenge they create, and their potential for demotivating the student, needs to be taken into consideration.

Teacher-talk listenings (TTLs) can get round a lot of these problems. Examples of activities which can be used include story and anecdote telling, dictations, interactive activities, and games like Describe and Identify, Describe and Draw, and Describe and Arrange, all of which I will talk about in more detail in the next and final part of the article.


1. For a more detailed though critical account of Krashen’s work, see
this article by Peter Cullip.

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Susan NYC via flickr

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