Teacher Talking Time : Part Three

In the first part of this article we looked at some of the disadvantages of too much “traditional” teacher talk in the classroom, and in particular the way that it will inevitably distort natural discourse patterns. Classroom discourse has rules of its own, which are not those of normal conversation.

In the second part we looked at listening, and some of the disadvantages of using recorded materials. I also suggested that Teacher Talk Listenings (TTLs) can be a way of overcoming these problems. The main reasons were :
  • TTLs overcome the additional difficulties encountered by students when trying to listen to tapes which may be of inadequate acoustic quality and provide no visual contextual clues to aid comprehension.

  • TTLs allow the listener (the students) to interact in a manner natural to conversation, asking for clarification, commenting on what has been said, even changing the subject. This is in complete contrast to “traditional” classroom discourse, and suggests that rather than throwing teacher talk out of the window, we simply have to change the way it is used.

  • TTLs allow the teacher to “roughly-tune” the input the students are receiving – if s/he sees that they have not understood a new expression s/he can rephrase, define, indicate a contextual clue (eg point to an object) etc to ensure the input is comprehensible.

  • Because the students know (and are hopefully interested in) the teacher, listening to him/her talking about real issues may be more motivating than “eavesdropping” on complete strangers talking about people, places or events which have no personal interest for the students.
Below there is a list of various TTL activities, suitable for or adaptable to various levels and types of student.
  • Anecdote telling has already been discussed in a previous article, and I won’t repeat it here except to point out that the anecdote doesn’t have to be an uninterrupted monologue. Students can be encouraged to interact in the following ways :

    Tell the students that there will be at least five words in your story which they don’t understand. When one of those words comes up you expect them to interrupt and ask for clarification. Teach them how to do this using phrases like What does XXX mean? What do you mean by XXXX? Sorry, I didn’t catch that Sorry – you’ve lost me. What did you say about XXXX? This in fact can be done even if you are using a recorded conversation. When the student interrupts, the teacher pauses the recording  and then acts as the speaker, rephrasing or otherwise clarifying what was said.

    To encourage participation in the development of the conversation, tell students that you’re going to tell them a story – which can be an anecdote or simply an account of what you did at the weekend - a line at a time. After every line you’re going to pause and won’t go on until they’ve asked a question. For example, you start I wasn’t in (your town) this weekend and then pause. Once one of the students has asked Why not? Or Where were you? you answer and continue, pausing every time there is a question which can be asked. Once the students have done this on several occasions and have understood that you want them to punctuate your stories with questions, you can stop pausing and just tell them that you expect to be interrupted at least five times during the story.

    With more advanced classes, you can use the same technique to teach topic changing. Start telling your story but at certain points pause. Don’t go on until one of the students has said something like That reminds me of a time when I …… or My husband did that too when …. Again, once the students are used to the technique, stop pausing and tell them you expect at least five interruptions. As with the phrases asking for clarification, these topic change phrases need to be taught first. This can be done by analysing a recorded conversation which models them, or you can include them in the conversation if you…

    ..... Invite another teacher into your classroom and have a conversation in front of the students. This allows them to see native speakers interacting naturally but talking about issues which have some personal relevance for them.

  • Storytelling. I usually use short stories, but if you wanted to and had the time you could also tell your students the story of a whole novel, in instalments as the course progressed. You can incorporate any of the interactive activities I described above into your story telling listenings (as in fact you can in any of the activity types that follow), or you can also allow the students to help create the story.This works in the following way: the teacher divides the students into pairs and tells them that she’s going to tell them a story. At certain points in the story s/he pauses and asks them to discuss something with their partner – to decide what a character who has just been introduced looks like (a good activity if you’ve just been working on describing people) or what the place where the story takes place is like, to decide what a character is thinking about, what is going to happen next etc. After the students have had time to discuss in pairs, the teacher asks for their ideas, chooses the version which fits the story (or if there isn’t one that’s suitable says, No, none of you have guessed. In fact … and then provides another version before continuing. I often use adapted and updated Sufi stories (1) for this. Here’s one of my favourites, The Mexican and the Bicycle :
    A policeman was working on the border between Mexico and the United States (Describe the policeman) when, one day, a Mexican arrived on a bicycle. (Describe the Mexican) The man had a large bag on his back (Describe the bag), and the policeman was sure that he was smuggling something, so he asked him to open the bag. (What do you think was inside?)

    But inside the bag there was only sand. The policeman poured all the sand onto the ground, but there was nothing else in the bag, (So what did he do?) and so he let the man go.

    For the next few years this happened two or three times a week. The Mexican arrived on a bicycle and was always carrying a bag of sand. The policeman became more and more convinced that the man was smuggling something, but he could never find out what it was. (Why do you think the man was always carrying the bag of sand?)

    Years later, after the policeman retired, he was drinking in a bar one evening (Describe the bar) when the Mexican came in. The policeman bought him a drink (What were they drinking?) and, while they were sitting and chatting together, said “Come on, you can tell me now. I’m retired and it doesn’t matter any more. I know that for all those years you were smuggling something. What was it?”

    The Mexican looked at him, smiled, and said (What did he say?) “Bicycles.”
  • Describe and … games can also be used as TTLs. In Describe and Identify the teacher shows the students about ten similar pictures – see those in the article Five Picture Games for an example. The teacher describes one of them, starting with the features common to most of the pictures and gradually narrowing it down until only one is possible. For example for the same pictures illustrating the game Why are they the same? in the previous article the teacher might say : OK, this is a scene at a lake. There’s a man in the picture. He’s fishing. But he isn’t alone. His little boy is with him and he’s teaching him how to fish. The little boy is about five. He’s got red hair, and he’s wearing sunglasses, a blue T-shirt and a lifejacket. The students have to listen and identify the picture being described.
    In Describe and Draw on the other hand, the teacher describes a picture which the students can’t see. They have to listen to the description and draw what they hear. At the end they compare their versions with the original picture. Both these activities can be done either as TTLs in their own right, or as a warm-up to a pair or group work activity in which the students each take a turn in describing a picture while the others complete the comprehension task.

  • If the teacher understands the students’ language, bi-lingual conversations are another possibility. The teacher starts a conversation, for example What did you do at the weekend? and continues with related questions Did you have a good time? What was the weather like? Was there much traffic on the roads? etc. The student’s task is to understand the questions, but s/he replies in his/her own language. This can be very useful at elementary level, where the students are able to understand or to speak – but not yet to do both at the same time. And it’s not an unnatural activity – the same thing happens frequently in business and professional contexts. I once attended a conference attended by about twenty French, German and British participants. The first thing we had to decide on the first morning was what language we were going to operate in. On discovering that we all understood the three languages but all felt happier at the idea of speaking our own, we decided to do just that. We spent three days in trilingual discussions, and it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. I’ve heard of the same thing happening frequently at meetings concerned with European Community projects.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of TTL activities. There are many, many more and if you use one which you feel works particularly well please leave a comment describing it. But the list should serve to show that listening in the classroom does not have to depend on the use of the tape recorder. There are other types of listening activity which can equally well be used.

1. For a collection of folktales and Sufi stories of this type, see www.storyarts.org. This site, intended for mother-tongue teachers, provides not only a library of stories (my favourites include The Boatman and The Purse of Gold) but also a rationale for using storytelling in education and suggestions for lessons and activities which can often be adapted to the ESL/EFL classroom.

Photo provided under Creative Commons License by Lydia Mann via flickr

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