Some words/phrases carry a certain connotation. For example, skinny is more negative than slim, frugal is more positive than stingy. I’m sure you can think of a few more similar pairs of words. What about the connotations that teacher talk and student talk carry? Is one more positive than the other? Yes, definitely. In my teaching career, teacher talk has always been considered bad. Student talk is good. The reasons for this are clear; students need to speak in order to develop and the more a teacher talks the less time there is for students. However, the obsession this has created is in itself harmful and hides real issues in class.
Teacher talk is an umbrella term under which all the other issues lie. Teachers sometimes give long, unclear instructions. So why is this a problem? Because it creates high teacher talk? No, it creates confused students who don’t know what to do. A teacher could demonstrate a task to help make it clear and be a model. But that makes instructions longer, and therefore teacher talk is higher.
The language focus stages are ones when teachers are also told not to speak too much. Let them work it out for themselves, while you, the expert, listen sagely and prompt. Fair enough, that’s one way of doing it. But surely, if you can explain something clearly and concisely, that’s also a valid way. Students from many backgrounds have grown up and been educated in a culture that has the teacher in the spotlight. The teacher explains; the students listen. I’m not condoning an hour long lecture but five minutes of teacher-led explanation in a balanced lesson is fine by me. The aim of the stage is to make the language clear for the learners. If we can do that in a short space of time, does it matter how? The focus should be on clarity, not talk time.
Another area highlighted in teacher talk discussions is echoing, when a teacher repeats the student’s words for the class. It might be done to make sure everyone hears the answers. Some teachers get into the habit of doing this. So, does repeating all the students’ answers have a large impact on teacher talk? The extra double dozen words probably don’t make a huge difference over the course of a lesson. The real problem is how natural is it. We don’t do this outside the classroom, so why do it inside? Our students might not know why we’re repeating them. It’s occasionally used as a technique to highlight an error, so it could be confused with that. What do students think when they hear us echoing? Certainly not ‘Oh that’s great, the teacher has just repeated what I said really loudly. I must be doing well in class.’ The issue here is how natural the teacher sounds and the effect it has on the students, not the level of teacher talk.
There are other hidden issues. Using longer sentences might be too complex for the level. So the problem is grading or awareness of level. Feedback stages may drag. The problem is dynamics. There are too many teacher-centred activities. The problem is planning and dynamics. To improve as teachers it is important to know our strengths and weaknesses. It’s impossible to work on teacher talk without working out, and then working on, what the problem really is.
It’s undeniably important to be clear, concise and use language appropriate for the level. But that only paints half the picture. For me, working on teacher talk is about being engaging. What are you saying to help bring the context to life? How are you motivating the learners? How are you modeling tasks to build confidence and help set expectations? Next time you go into class, don’t think about minimising teacher talk, think about maximising student engagement. And speak as much as you need to in order to do it. Give teacher talk a positive connotation. We can’t teach without it!
Over to you. My five minutes is up. Your turn to say something!
Teacher talk acts, not teacher talk time: Karl Millsom in the EFL magazine (April 2016):
Photo taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/boris/2290837838/ by Boris Mann , used under a CC Attribution license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/