When are questions and teacher talk too much?

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We recently had a query from a reader regarding the kind of language-generating concept questions we advocate. Basically, he had received some criticism after a lesson observation that the class was too teacher-centred, too input heavy and students didn’t have enough time for output (aka – practice or production). There is no doubt that asking concept checks which are more open or divergent can result in more talking between the teacher and students as a whole class as well as some additional input on top of the language in your exercise. If we write up (extended) examples of the language in the exercise on the board, that may also mean more ‘teacher-centredness’ and less time for ‘output’.  This can prove to be a challenge for teachers (usually CELTA or DELTA trained) who may have been educated, firstly, to equate teacher-centredness with teacher talking time or classes delivered in plenary mode and, secondly, to believe that the less teacher talking time there is, the better things will be as it (supposedly) allows more time for student ‘output’. If you are in a situation where such a teacher is observing or evaluating you, it can put more lexically-minded teachers in a difficult situation of either arguing your point of view against someone ‘above’ you or simply conforming. Hopefully, sites such as Lexicallab and other teachers with like-minded views can provide you with some support to your arguments.

Having said all this, I think any observation of teaching is an opportunity for reflection and so in this situation we might want to think about at what point our questioning and input can become too much, how much output we encourage and the ways we might encourage it. There are obviously no clear-cut answers to these issues – it depends almost entirely on the students, the language, the aims and outcomes of the lesson and simply the moment itself. So what I am going to suggest here are some questions and options to reflect on the questions you ask and the amount of feedback you give on vocabulary exercises.

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We may want to cut down a bit sometimes!

 

Have you got feedback from your students on your lessons generally? Do they like the balance between your teaching and them speaking?

  • Are the students answering your questions or are you? If it’s you giving answers or having to reformulate a lot, this might be a sign to ask fewer questions.
  • How many extra new items of language are you writing on the board on top of the ‘new’ language in the exercise? Could you just say this new language instead of presenting it to be learnt?
  • Of the new language items, how many are synonyms and how much extends what students can say in terms of a conversation or text? For example, students may be served better learning to say the reasons they are bored or questions they may ask when it’s hot than learning ‘fed up’ or ‘boiling’. See this post.
  • Of the new language items, how frequent are they? You may want to spend less time and effort on the less frequent items?
  • Are there other opportunities within the lesson to explore the language you’re teaching? There may be more than one controlled exercise in the material. You could ask questions about some language in one and explore other items in the next. If you have freer practice you can correct some of the language students use (because you have thought about the language around the words you are teaching), and you could ask some of your questions as part of that feedback. It may also come up in reading / listening texts in the coursebook material. Re-check meaning and explore the words then too as you go through comp questions and the like.
  • Will you revise the language in a later lesson? Save some of your additional questions till then.
  • Do I have to ask multiple questions about all the items or indeed any question? Most vocab exercises will contain some known words – perhaps you don’t need to ask much about these. If you are new to these kinds of questions focus just on two items first. Build it up. Get a feel for what students like / tolerate.
  • Have you planned your questions? Do they have clear answers? Are there too many possible answers? I personally find it difficult to ask questions on the spot, unless I’ve taught the answers before or have planned the questions before, so writing q’s before the lesson can speed things up. We may have asked the wrong question – try them out on another teacher or friend.

Finally, you could give the checking questions as a task in itself (something we’ve started doing more of in the second edition of Outcomes). We still have these as impersonal, ‘What might …’ type questions seen in this post. We then often follow these with more personalised questions or other traditional ‘output’ tasks –  of which more in our next post.

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  • Anthony Ash

    Another way to reduce Teacher Talking time when it comes to looking at language is by opening up any questions to the class. Whenever my learners say “what does X mean” I always either say :

    (1) Does anyone know what it makes – someone usually pipes up

    or, depending on the group

    (2) I tell them “What do you think it might mean? Tell your partners. If you have absolutely no idea, be creative!”

    What do these ideas actually serve in terms of learning – probably not all that much. However, if your observer is, like the person mentioned in the example in this article, someone who wants to see lots of reduced TTT and increase STT, then this kind of activity will tick their boxes.

    • Lexicallab

      My own feeling is that in the end, it’s the observers who need to change and that the weighing up of TTT versus STT in crude percentage terms is damaging and wrong. In the interim, of course, then yes, it may be necessary to adapt (to survive!).

      I wasn’t sure, Anthony, what you meant by ‘Does anyone know what it MAKES?’ Was MAKES a typo and you really meant MEANS? Or what?

      In terms of asking students what they think things mean, it is, as you say, actually a fairly poor learning task as almost inevitably, you’ll get a basic synonym or something close but not quite right and clarification of actual meaning and use will then require more teaching talking time – or teaching, as I prefer to think of it!

      It’s almost always better to avoid asking ‘What does X mean?’ and instead to ask a more targeted, nuanced question. For example, I recently taught BAR s a verb, as in THE CLUB BARRED SUPPORTERS FROM THE GROUND. Ask what it means and you get back ‘banned’ – which is very close, though which also obviously has a wider collocational range in terms of what can be banned – or a more descriptive thing like ‘prevented them from entering’, which doesn’t capture the more permanent notion of BARRING.

      I’d argue that if a student asks what BARRED means here, it’s always better to give a BRIEF explanation – “it means the club said officially that the supporters are no longer allowed to enter the stadium” and to then ask something like ANY OTHER PLACES PEOPLE COULD BE BARRED FROM? – or CAN YOU THINK OF THREE REASONS WHY A CLUB MIGHT BAR SUPPORTERS? In terms of time taken, it’d end up almost the same as just asking what the word means and dealing with the comeback, but in terms of teaching, it’s far more focused and concise.

      • Anthony Ash

        Yeah, I’m afraid that was just a type-o: it should have been “means.”

        I agree that the mentality of trainers (observers) needs to be changed. I think here we can talk about two types of trainers:

        (1) Those who run Initial Teacher Training courses, such as CELTA, whose job is to put teachers on the right footing for when they enter the industry. I could easily imagine a huge majority of NQT’s would unnecessarily overdo the TTT if they weren’t told to cut it down, so this negative attitude towards TTT might well be necessary/effective at this stage.

        (2) Trainers who observe lessons for Appraisal Observations, Experimental Observations and Developmental Observations. I think this is where the biggest issue lies and I’ll explain below.

        When I became an observer, I had gone into a Senior Teacher role. I had no Delta, no training in running INSET sessions or conducting feedback. I hadn’t gone far enough down the developmental path to know that teachers talking a lot in the context of teaching English abroad is actually probably the only real and authentic language input the learners get in a week – so the teacher talking has some benefits. There are other benefits too, but the point is I didn’t know these. I should not have been in that role. There are many people who are in such roles while being undertrained.

        I am doing a Teacher Training course at the moment with International House: it’s taught me a lot about INSET sessions, observing and feedback. So much so that I could say that just about every INSET session, observation and feedback session I have done before this course was in essence wrong or not the most effective it could have been.

        So, I think in order to go into any role which involves training teachers to one degree or another, you have to first be trained in this and be suitably qualified, to avoid any situations like the one which caused this initial blog post.

        • Andrew Walkley

          To a large degree, I agree with your points here. The point about becoming an observer is very interesting. I think it probably is often made worse by schools not having a general framework or ‘ethos’ of what they think is good teaching and then not making all teachers aware of it. This means that the teacher and observer may be working within quite different and clashing frames of reference. I also understand your point about TTT and CELTA. I have certainly seen some pretty extensive teacher talking which has taken over the lesson as well as being incomprehensible to the students. However, I still think the instruction to simply ‘reduce TTT’ is wrong. The instruction should be things like: make your explanation shorter / clearer (or translate the collocation/phrase!); shorten your instructions and/or demonstrate the task; highlight some of the new words you’re using in your model on the board; etc. These seem clearer messages to me about teacher talking and while I might not expect them to sink in on a 4-week course, I think they would be better ideas to take away and work on. Would love to hear about your teacher training course that has made such an impact. Maybe you could drop us a line – andrew@lexicallab.com – or send a link to any posts you’ve written about it?

        • Lexicallab

          Hi again Anthony –
          Thanks for this thoughtful response.

          I know that the CELTA trainer argument is one often trotted out, and that the fear of uncontrolled TTT from trainees is very much what feeds into the diktats about percentages of TTT vs. STT.

          Obviously, when you are an inexperienced teacher, there is a very real risk that you’ll waffle on in ways that are not particularly useful. I’d argue that the best way of dealing with this and sowing seeds with potential for better growth is not to ban TTT per se, but rather to start a conversation about what kinds of TTT might work better than others, and why. I’d much rather see teachers leave CELTA courses attempting the kinds of questions we’ve been talking about, but maybe not consistently managing to nail the right ones, than believing the mantra that TTT is by definition bad.

          CELTA courses essentially frame the way teachers subsequently go on to think about their craft, so this has to be where best practice is first fed in.

          The fact that you admit yourself that you ended up in a role you were not ready for shows that you suffered there due to the priming implanted during early training that you’d not yet managed to divest yourself of.

          Why wait so long to get to a stage where you realise what you’re now realising when these ideas could have formed part of your very earliest entry into the profession?

        • Lexicallab

          To a large degree, I agree with your points here. The point about becoming an observer is very interesting. I think it probably is often made worse by schools not having a general framework or ‘ethos’ of what they think is good teaching and then not making all teachers aware of it. This means that the teacher and observer may be working within quite different and clashing frames of reference. I also understand your point about TTT and CELTA. I have certainly seen some pretty extensive teacher talking which has taken over the lesson as well as being incomprehensible to the students. However, I still think the instruction to simply ‘reduce TTT’ is wrong. The instruction should be things like: make your explanation shorter / clearer (or translate the collocation/phrase!); shorten your instructions and/or demonstrate the task; highlight some of the new words you’re using in your model on the board; etc. These seem clearer messages to me about teacher talking and while I might not expect them to sink in on a 4-week course, I think they would be better ideas to take away and work on. Would love to hear about your teacher training course that has made such an impact. Maybe you could drop us a line – andrew@lexicallab.com – or send a link to any posts you’ve written about it?

          Andrew

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