Teacher talk is an important part of the language learning environment. However, it often gets a bad name. A common issue among training and early career teachers is high TTT - Teacher Talk Time, meaning that the teacher talks too much, and doesn’t leave room for students to get involved. This is an issue, but your focus on teacher talk shouldn’t stop there - don’t just think about the quantity of your teacher talk, but focus on the quality of how you speak to students. Here are some tips on how to speak to students clearly and effectively.
Don’t be too polite!
Instructing students effectively involves telling them what to do and correcting them when they make a mistake, while also working together with them to achieve their goals with language. Not everyone finds this balance easy to draw. If we are too direct, we can come across as rude, though if we don’t instruct effectively, it can take up too much valuable lesson time.
Being overly polite can also cause problems with student understanding. In English, the language of politeness tends to be indirect and often contains grammatically complex forms, compared to a more direct equivalent. Think about the following instruction:
‘If you could just read the introduction for me, please, and then you will need to answer the first three questions under the text’
This sounds very nice and polite, and is intended to reach the students in a friendly way, which is admirable. However, the level of grammar in this instruction is a lot higher than it needs to be. Is it a conditional sentence? Is it a polite request? Until relatively high levels of study, second-language learners are unlikely to be able to unpick this amount of ‘if’s, ’could’s and ‘just’s, and will probably not process these words as ‘polite’ in any case. Keep it simple, direct and to the point:
‘Now, read the introduction and answer the first three questions’
There is nothing rude or inappropriate about this instruction, and it will lead to much less confusion and discussion of the instruction itself, which takes time away from the planned reading activity. Simple, direct language is always more effective than long-winded, indirect and polite forms.
Avoid idiomatic language
English (as are most languages) is full of idiom - cultural references which have meanings which go beyond the word being used. For example, if someone is sick as a parrot about an exam result, they are not unwell and there isn’t a parrot anywhere. The meaning of this phrase is understood through shared understanding of its idiomatic meaning.
It is easy to slip into idiomatic language without realising it. If a student gets something right, it may be ‘spot on’, but unless the student knows that this means ‘just right’, it is absolutely pointless using this as praise in the classroom. Similarly, at the end of class, time may be nearly ‘up’, but that means nothing unless that meaning of ‘up’ has been taught already.
One common area where idiom is a problem is in phrasal verbs and prepositions. We use phrasal verbs all the time in informal speech, but they are often confusing for students, as they do not mean the same as the words which they contain. Some phrasal verbs to avoid:
‘Look through your answers’
‘Talk it over between you’
‘You don’t need to start over’
‘See if you can work out the answer’
‘Yumi, what did you make of Steven’s paragraph?’
‘We’ll go over it together in a minute’
Thinking about these phrases, they bear very little relation to the most general meanings of ‘through’, ‘over’, work’, ‘out’, ’make’ or ‘go’, so are more likely to lead to confusion than action.
Find simple, single-word verbs to interact with learners, and talk in a direct way, and they will be much less distracted by your language, and much more focused on theirs.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.