Teacher Talking Time : Part One

At one time teacher talking time (TTT) was seen as being inevitably counterproductive and something to be limited as much as possible. Why? There are five main arguments against it :
  • A large amount of TTT necessarily limits the amount of STT (student talking time). For example, in a 60 minute class, if the teacher is talking for a total of 45 minutes, that leaves only fifteen minutes left for the students. If there are ten in the class, they’ll get only 90 seconds each to speak. Many activities, however, do not need to be teacher led – pair work (PW) or group work (PW) can be used instead. A practice activity might be set up in T/class mode, demonstrated in open pairs (students doing the activity in front of the class), and done in closed pairs (all the students working at the same time).
  • A large amount of TTT inevitably means long stretches of time in T/class mode. This is uninvolving for students and is likely to lead to a drop in concentration and in pace. The lesson becomes boring and students “switch off”. To prevent this, activities and interaction patterns (T/class,PW,GW, IW) need to be be varied. How much class time can usefully be spent in T/class mode will depend on factors such as the students, the time of day, and what is being taught, but a useful rule of thumb guide is to set an absolute maximum of 30% of any one lesson, and no more than 10 minutes at a stretch.
  • TTT often means that the teacher is “telling” the students things that they could be working out for themselves - for instance grammar explanations and corrections. Apart from the fact that concentration may well wander half way through the explanation, monologue gives the teacher no real clue as to whether the students have understood. This can be avoided by using elicitation rather than explanation – the teacher asks pointer questions rather than simply telling, allowing the students to formulate the rules for themselves. If students are presented with clear examples and guiding questions, they often do not need to be “told”. Discovering grammar in this way is liable to mean deeper understanding and ultimately more successful learning. Organising the activity as pair work rather than T/class work also means that all the students have the chance to work on the new language, and not just the quicker ones who get the answer immediately and “tell” the others.
  • The work done by researchers such as Coulthard and Brazil on discourse analysis made it clear that T/S discourse is always distorted by the role imbalance of teacher and student – the teacher is expected to take the lead in initiating the topic, allocating turns, evaluating comments etc, while the student merely responds. A typical piece of classroom discourse might go something like : T : Right. (indication of change of topic) Can you turn to page 99 and look at the picture (instructs) What sport is that? (initiates discourse topic) Paola? (allocates speaking turn) S : Tennis (responds) T : Yes, tennis. Good. (evaluates) If students are constantly kept in T/class mode or if the teacher participates in PW or GW, there is a very high probability that the discourse will follow this sort of pattern. But this, as researchers such as Crystal and Davy, and Brown and Yule have shown is very different from the structure of normal conversation, where participants have equal rights and need to be able to carry out all the different moves in the discourse. PW and GW without teacher intervention is therefore essential for developing the speaking skill.
  • If the teacher is constantly dominant and controlling, student autonomy is minimised. Students take no responsibility for their own learning but learn what the teacher decides and when. Several methodologies of the last twenty five years or so (for example, CLL and Dogme, which I will discuss in more detail in future articles) have questioned whether this sort of “imposed syllabus” can produce results and have attempted to turn the situation on its head, giving learners full responsibility for the language produced and analysed in the classroom.

Is TTT always counterproductive however? In the second part of this article we’ll look at when it can be useful, and ways it can be used productively in the class.


1. For a more detailed analysis of classroom discourse, with references for the work of the researchers I have mentioned and many others, see this article by Moritoshi.

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