How to plan your teacher talk for more focused language teaching
Teacher talk has something of a bad name in ESOL. On initial training courses we are warned about avoiding high levels of Teacher Talk Time (TTT), and that teacher talk can prevent more student-centred activity from happening. However, teacher talk is a necessary part of language education, so it is important to maximise what you do with your words. This means planning what you will say at key moments of your lessons, and how you will say it. So what are the most ‘plannable’ examples of teacher talk, and how can you make the most of these key teaching moments?
Presentation of language
If you are teaching a vocabulary or grammar class, you should think about the first contact that the students have with any new language that you are teaching. This will usually be early in a lesson, during a presentation stage. This is where you gather any new words that students will need in the lesson, and teach them from scratch one by one, to enable the learners to understand and use them in later stages when they need them.
When teaching a new word, there is a best way of presenting that concept to your learners. If you try to make this up on the spot, you will almost definitely not come up with the clearest way in to the concept behind the word, and could even cause confusion among students from the beginning of the lesson. For this reason, you should plan how you will introduce each new word, and what kinds of resources are appropriate to do this. Ask yourself:
Is this concept abstract or concrete?
Can this concept be taught through a picture (as most concrete ideas can), or will you need a different approach (as with many abstract concepts)?
What other ways are there to present this concept? Through a video? A short anecdote? A common situation? A short story? If so, this will need planning out.
What questions will you ask to engage the learners in the concept you are presenting? How many questions will you need, and how challenging are these questions?
Will the learners (at their level of ability) understand the questions and other language that you are preparing? If not, how can you simplify these prompts?
If you don’t plan out your presentation of language, it is easy to get sucked into long, complicated explanations of the forms you are teaching. This only increases the quantity and decreases the quality of your teacher talk, so works against you in the classroom.
Another point where there is a ‘best’ way of using your teacher talk is shortly after presenting the words or grammar you are teaching, when you will need to check if the group understands the concepts correctly. For this, use Concept Checking Questions (CCQs) - short, simple and binary questions to quickly confirm understanding from learners.
Any word or grammatical structure, no matter how simple or complex, has a core set of concepts which define its meaning, for example: It’s a very big animal, it lives in Africa and India, it’s grey and has a very long nose - these concepts combine to form the overall meaning of ‘elephant’.
Change these basic concept points into yes/no questions, and you have a good set of CCQs. Again, making up CCQs on the spot will never get the same efficient result as a set of planned questions based on a concept you are teaching.
Another reason that we use CCQs is to define word and grammar meanings as different from other, similar meanings. This is the tricky part - what if a student understands the word or phrase we teach as something different? How do we know what meanings our learners understand from our teaching? Are they the same meanings that we intend to teach? That is where CCQs come in - they clarify the concept of what we teach through students’ demonstration of whether they understand. The student responses to CCQs tell us directly whether they understand correctly.
Try making CCQs for the following concepts, for example, and you will find that they don’t just come to you - they need some thought and planning to be precise enough for teaching purposes.
They met at their friends’ wedding reception (not their wedding, or their marriage, or their honeymoon, but the reception)
He’s going to Cuba next week (not ‘he will be going’, not ‘he is going to go’, but ‘he is going’)
Without CCQs planned before the lesson, these concepts are difficult to confirm on a first meeting.
Giving task instructions
A final point where a ‘best version’ of teacher talk is required is when instructing students on how to complete a task. Task instructions can get very complex and very wordy very quickly, so for clarity, plan out your instructions carefully, and in a staged way, to keep them as simple as possible, prevent misunderstandings, and to allow the students to get on with the activity in a focused way without confusion.
The clearer your instructions, the quicker students will engage with tasks, so the more time you will have to get on with the important business of teaching and learning.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL over 12 weeks, part-time 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.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.