Increasing Student Talking Time

by Sean Dailey

How do people learn to speak in another language? Listening to the teacher talk in the target language is only one small but necessary part of how our students learn. Moreover, teacher talk is not always the most authentic sample of speech. We often times slow our speech for students, enunciate every word as clearly as possible, and we probably talk more in class than we’d really care to admit.

The Problem

Recently a memo was handed down to the professors in the English department at the university where I work in South Korea. It read,

“It has been mentioned that students are requesting more talk time in class. This means we should try to lecture less and have them practice speaking more. Please try your best to cut down Teacher Talk Time (TTT) and allow students more opportunities to speak (STT).”

Now I’m sure that the students in our language department are not the only ones who’ve become fatigued or lost interest in a professor who speaks enthusiastically about the differences between the noun and the verb forms of a new vocabulary word. So why is too much TTT a bad thing? Well to put it bluntly, it’s boring. In a language class we need our students to be the center of attention, not the teacher. We all know that the banking model of education has been traded in for the new and improved student-centered model, and with this new model, we need our students to do most of the talking!

The Rationale

It seems completely counterintuitive to run a language course where the teacher does all the work. If we want our students to become better speakers, there is really only one way to accomplish that: they actually need more speaking practice. A colleague who I have a great deal of respect for once told me something that really stuck with me. She said that if we are really doing our jobs correctly, then the students should be the ones who are tired at the end of the lesson, not the teachers. Besides if you are the one doing all the talking, then where is the lesson going? Possibly not in the direction that students find the most useful. As rightful shareholders in the classroom community, students should also have a say in what they choose to learn in class.

The Solution

So what are some ways that we cut down on our teacher talking time?

The following is a list of suggestions for teachers who are interested in making their classes more student centered through increasing STT.

Time yourself. One way to become aware of how much we talk is to time ourselves. You might be surprised at how much of the time in class is spent on students listening to your voice. You can gradually try to cut down on the time that you spend each class period chewing your students’ ears off.

Plan effectively. Effective planning of classroom activities can go a long way towards creating an environment where students are doing all the work. If you have a roughly planned lesson, then you might find yourself taking more time to explain how to do an activity or frantically searching for ways to challenge the advanced students who finished the task quickly.    

Group work.  Have students partner up in pairs or in small groups. I have found that my students are much more inclined to speak when the spotlight is not on them. You can also try Think-Pair-Share to get students to organize and rehearse the thoughts in their heads to increase their confidence before they share with the class. When you want the entire class to practice something together, then choral speaking can also work well and minimize the burden on individual students.   

Body language. Use your arms and hands rather than your voice to elicit speaking from your students. Put your hands behind your ears, wave, beckon, motion, gesture. Whatever you do, don’t talk!

Give students more reaction time. Listening in a foreign language is difficult and it requires a much greater cognitive effort than listening in your native language. Therefore, students need to be given an increase in their reaction time in the classroom. If you ask a question to a student and they don’t answer immediately, what should you do? Wait. Students need more time to process the question and formulate a response in the target language. Just because students aren’t answering does not mean that your question bombed. Tolerate the silence and give students a little time to gather their thoughts.

Not So Fast

You might have some potential problems with less TTT in your classroom. Fret not! The following suggestions can calm your fears.

When I set my students to a task and they are reluctant to speak. I tell my students all the time that I’m not the one who needs to practice speaking English. I need to practice speaking another foreign language. If students in your class are reluctant to speak, maybe they just don’t like the topic. Allowing them to speak freely about what they want or what they are passionate about can be a very motivating and liberating activity.  

My students are afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are friends in the language classroom and in life. Without mistakes then we don’t have any feedback on how we’re doing. At the beginning of the semester I show all of my students a video of a popular YouTube channel where one fluent non-native Korean speaker tries to teach his friend Korean through the popular online game called Scream Go. As he hilariously struggles to form sentences and vocabulary in the target language, students can see that the mistakes he makes are a natural part of the learning process. If students set a goal to make 200 mistakes in a day, then they will be learning because they can be assured that they are actually using the language.   

Final Thoughts

By all means do not try to implement all of these ideas in your classroom on the same day. Start slowly and adjust your technique as necessary because teaching is a marathon not a sprint. We should constantly and consistently be reflecting on and evaluating our delivery methods so that our students get the highest quality of education because that is what they deserve. Do you have some ideas for cutting down on TTT in your classroom? Please share them in the comments below!