A busy few weeks have meant an unavoidable hiatus on the blog, and unfortunately also meant that I missed this year’s IATEFL conference in Glasgow. However, I’ve been trying to catch up on what I missed, and one of the talks that grabbed my attention was this one by the great Jamie Keddie, on the subject of Developing Teacher Talk.
This is something I’ve also been thinking about for a while now, particularly as I’ve considered alternatives to the old PPP model and tried to integrate different kinds of tasks into my lessons.
TTT is something that causes controversy in the EFL industry, I think for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve painted ourselves into the “communicative” corner, and it’s hard to reconcile long periods of teacher talk with the idea of student communication. Of course, it’s also impossible to say precisely how much teacher talk is “too much”, and so the mantra always has to be “reduce”.
Another reason could be that the “typical” EFL teacher is relatively inexperienced, and only has a one-month CELTA or CertTESOL qualification. For many people, talking a lot – babbling, rambling, waffling – is a natural response to nervousness or being unsure of yourself. So again, “reduce” becomes a mantra to help teachers put together more successful lessons.
However, this puts us in the absurd position that as teachers we are always trying to minimise ourselves, scrub ourselves out of the lesson. And this does indeed seem strange. For how else are we to teach except using our voices? In his conference talk, Keddie equates this to asking a hairdresser to cut customers’ hair while reducing their use of scissors.
This is something that resonates with me, as it strikes at something existential about the teaching profession, and in EFL teaching especially.
Basically, what does a teacher do? Are we there to impart our knowledge to the students? Are we facilitators, aassisting students to their own conclusions? Should the teacher answer a student’s question fully, knowing that it may involve a lot of teacher talk? Surely a teacher has more influence on language learning than simply instruction-giving and feedback-taking?
We live in a golden age of self-study, yet the demand for English language teaching has arguably never been higher. So we need to ask ourselves why students seek to take classes with a teacher rather than going their own way. I would say it’s because they trust in a teacher to positively enhance their learning. I don’t mean an individual teacher, but in the idea of a teacher, as a profession.
Would it therefore be fair to say that a students expects a teacher to be an active presence in the classroom? I would say that it is. So this means that teacher talk is necessary.
Does this mean that it’s ok for students to come into class, sit back and listen to a teacher, and assume that language learning is taking place? Of course not, and accepting the need and importance of teacher talk does not invalidate the idea of a student-centred course or lesson. The onus is always on students to apply the study skills they have to the material in order to learn.
Where I have a problem is in the continual mantra of “reduce”. Yes, we should stop teachers from irrelevantly wittering on, but it shouldn’t be a question of quantity but of quality: not “reduce”, but “improve” or “develop”. In every other aspect of teacher training, we don’t just skirt around the issue and the solution is not simply, “do it less”. This is such a missed opportunity for professional development.
Take for example one of my favourite tasks, the dictogloss. It involves the teacher reading a piece of text, usually more than once. So that’s a chunk of time, hopefully not excessive, that is totally given over to teacher talk. But I would argue that this could be a good thing, since the task that it leads to is very communicative and student-centred. A teacher overly-worried by TTT might decide against using such a text, and find something less suitable from a textbook where they don’t need to do much more than give instructions then take feedback. Consequently, the students would miss out on the valuable exposure that listening to the teacher speak would have presented.
Classes shouldn’t be allowed to descend into stand-up comedy routines or aimless chatter, but as Keddie says, it’s all about awareness, of yourself and your class. Teachers should be allowed to teach, however they assess that to be done best.