Am I Talking When Students Could Be Talking (or Thinking, Brainstorming, Reading or Writing)?
Minimizing teacher (or tutor) talk is a best practice, but why does it matter so much?
English learners have a limited capacity for listening comprehension. Think of it as a language jar. Once the jar is full, they can’t take in any new information. Even in an advanced class where students have deep jars, if students spend more time being passive, they are missing out on a learning opportunity. The more students interact and use the language, the better they get at it.
When does a teacher (or tutor) need to talk?
Of course a teacher (or tutor) needs to say some things or not much will happen in class that day. What types of information does a teacher need to convey?
Explanations of new content
Instructions for practice activities
Asking questions to check for understanding or encourage deeper thinking
Answering students’ questions
The challenge is to accomplish these tasks without getting carried away. What does it actually look like when the class discusses how to inquire about a rental, for example? Who does most of the discussing?
What are alternatives to monologues and explanations?
Model it: As that shoe manufacturer says: Just do it! Show students multiple examples of what you’d like them to do or think about. The goal is to communicate through actions instead of words. When one student is ready, but others aren’t, call on that student to provide another model for others to observe. For example, you might ask that student to role play calling you about an apartment for rent, or you might elicit ideas from the whole class about what they could say.
Elicit ideas from the class: Ask students to share questions they have about the topic. A beginning class can shout out words they already know about a topic.
Ask questions of small groups or pairs: Rather than giving students information directly, ask them a thought provoking question and have them turn to a neighbor to discuss possible answers. In the rental example, you might ask: What information do you need before you rent a new apartment? Or you might ask students to answer a series of true-false questions such as:
You should ask the apartment manager how much the utilities cost.
The apartment manager will always tell you how much the security deposit is.
You can ask the apartment manager for a shorter lease.
But what if the students aren’t saying anything?
Wait time: How much time did you give the students to respond? Thinking in another language takes time. Count to eight before jumping in to help, and consider giving a sentence starter rather than providing a full answer for a student.
Thinking time: If the question or problem is challenging, build in some thinking time for all the students. They might use this time to write their ideas or to list out ideas with a partner or in small groups. In a small class students can shout out ideas and record them on the board.
Modeling: If the students aren’t sure yet how to do the conversation activity, model if for them again (maybe several times). Or, ask a student to model it for others.
Jar full?: If a lot happened leading up to this point where you asked student to speak, they may not have comprehended the question you just asked because their “language jars” were already full. Consider a quick stretch break with students remaining at their desks and/or back up and ask them to do an easier task first.