Student Centred Learning. Buzzword de rigueur. It’s a principle that, of course, I wholeheartedly endorse, and I travel around the country talking about how best to achieve it.
When I first started talking about student-centred learning at workshop events, it was completely unheard of by many of my audiences here in Indonesia. Certainly it could not be seen in practice in classrooms almost anywhere but the most progressive schools. Wherever I went, I opened eyes, pushed novice teachers in the right direction and revitalised the veterans.
Then, there came a point when I realised that teachers were growing more familiar with the term. I was no longer the first person they had heard talking about student-centred learning. Naturally, I panicked. Was I going to have to put my materials on the shelf and find something new to talk about?
But it wasn’t long before I realised that the term had fallen victim to the great plague of the Buzzword. Everybody had heard of it, but the more I probed, the clearer it became that very few of them actually knew what it really meant. They could all give a well rehearsed sentence or two to summarise the idea, but rarely could they fully explain the purpose and values and how to fully and effectively implement it.
Too Much Focus on Time
One of the things (I will talk about others in future posts) that most teachers seemed to see as a primary feature of student centred learning was minimal Teacher Talk Time (appointed the now ubiquitous acronym TTT). If you want to make your lessons more student centred, it’s easy: just reduce your TTT and increase your STT (that’s right, Student Talk Time). It was that simple, they believed.
This seems problematic to me. It is emblematic of the failings of poorly delivered seminars that try too hard to create a buzz and generate hashtags and not hard enough to trigger real change. It ignores the complexities of the matter, and by doing so ensures that none of the audience members ever really achieve the thing that they are supposed to be learning about.
First things first: I do agree that prioritising student interaction over teacher interaction is essential. However, this oversimplified juxtaposition between TTT and STT doesn’t give teachers the right tools to achieve something effective. I am frequently asked to offer percentages of how much time should be given to the teacher and how much to the students. Indeed, the general consensus among the proponents of the notion is somewhere between 30/70% and 25/75%. But I feel quite strongly that this is not an effective way to talk about it. It is not actionable for teachers who are learning about these principles for the first time. It merely provides them with arbitrary and abstract targets that they don’t know how to reach.
That is why I do not talk about Teacher Talk Time. Instead, I like to talk about Teacher Talk Acts.
What are Teacher Talk Acts?
Rather than trying to calculate how much time we as teachers spend talking and balancing it with a given ratio of time for our students to talk, I think we should be thinking about what it is we are saying when we talk. Rather than timing how long you talk for, assess what you are achieving each time you talk. I don’t really mind what your share is, as long as you can assure me that every time you talk, it is of value to your students.
A Teacher Talk Act is the thing that you are “doing” when you speak to your students. For example, if you say, “Do you mean went to the beach?” the Teacher Talk Act (TTA) you are performing is correction. If you say, “Good morning everybody, how are you doing today?”, then your Teacher Talk Act is greeting. Other Teacher Talk Acts include eliciting, congratulating and instructing.
There are numerous Teacher Talk Acts that add value to the lesson, and as long as you are performing valuable acts and your students are benefitting every time you talk, it doesn’t matter so much what percentage your TTT and STT each take. If you find yourself talking at length and you cannot identify what the students are getting out of it, then you need to make some cuts.
Below are some examples of valuable Teacher Talk Acts and what they might sound like in the classroom:
Great job! Have a go at the next one.
Sally has already finished—give her a round of applause!
Get into groups of three and decide which topic you are going to research.
Talk to three different people and find out what they hope to learn on the course.
Correcting & Prompting
Are you sure that’s right?
Can anybody help him?
Why do we use the -ed ending here?
Who knows another word we can use for this?
Which of these things happened first?
Why didn’t she go to see the doctor?
Go on, I know you can do this!
Just one more example and you’re done!
Developing Your Teacher Talk Acts
You can start thinking about Teacher Talk Acts right from your planning stages. As you’re putting together your lesson plan and laying out your activities, you can make a note of the teacher’s role at each stage based on Teacher Talk Acts. For example, when you’re presenting new Target Language, you’ll likely use Teacher Talk Acts to Exemplify and to Elicit.
As you move into practice activities, you’ll need to give Instructions to tell your students what you want them to do and you’ll probably do some Concept Checking to make sure they understand the Target Language and are following the lesson successfully.
When you’re running role-plays or Task Based activities, you’ll limit your Teacher Talk Acts to Congratulating and perhaps Prompting as you circulate the classroom monitoring the students and assessing their application of the target language.
If you’re not sure how effective your Teacher Talk is, you can add notes to your lesson plan to get started. Along with your step-by-step instructions, duration, materials and other details, also jot down some TTA Prompts.
As with most things, once you’ve been doing this for a while, it will start to come naturally to you, and you can stop writing your TTA into the lesson plan.
Teacher Talk Acts in Action
A good way to start your lesson is with some greetings. The important thing to remember about Teacher Talk Acts is that they’re not just empty words, but Acts, meaning that they represent genuine communication. When you greet your students at the start of the lesson, it should be authentic, not just some robotic sentence you say the same way every time.
Where I teach, in Indonesia, school children are taught to start every lesson by reciting, in chorus, “Good morning, Mr. [name]; Good morning, everybody.”, which is anything but authentic. One of the things I find myself sharing with teachers the most is ways to replace this with a meaningful greeting. Try asking your students how their day is going, and give them the chance to actually respond—just like you’re having a conversation.
Eliciting is another valuable Teacher Talk Act that is often underused. I like to find out what my students know about a topic before I start teaching them something. If we’re about to encounter some new Target Language, I’ll start by eliciting examples from the students; if we’re about to read something, I’ll elicit from the students what they’re expecting to find in the text; if students want to know the definition of a word, I’ll see if they can work it out for themselves first with a combination of eliciting and prompting.
T: Can you tell me what kinds of things you might find in an office?
T: The story is based in a hospital; what people do you think we will read about?
T: What do you think it might mean? Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing?
Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
The examples above are far from exhaustive, and I’m sure you can think of other Teacher Talk Acts that add value to the lesson. It could even be that you tell a story about a personal experience because it provides an example of something you’re trying to help your students understand or simply because it helps establish rapport.
The important thing is that every time you speak in class, you realise that you’re taking away from time the students could be talking, so you must be certain that it’s worth it. Think carefully about what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. If you feel a need to cut down on your teacher talk time, make sure that you focus on the right things.
What valuable Teacher Talk Acts can you think of? Are there ways you spend your time talking that you think might not be adding value to the lesson?