Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Ways of increasing student talking time

Ideas by Laura Woodward

A few simple tips can help us to reduce TTT (teacher talking time) and increase STT (student talking time).

Here are a few simple guidelines:

  • Elicit more
  • Concept check more
  • Drill more
  • Try to use as much pair and groupwork as possible.

This is nothing new. We have all encountered these techniques on our teacher training courses at some stage in our careers, but teacher-centred classes still tend to be in the majority. So, let's exhume a few 'oldies but goodies' techniques.


What is eliciting? It's just another way of saying 'ask your students'. Rather than assuming they don't know, ask them. What's this? What's that? Have you got one? Where is it? etc. Eliciting involves your students rather than being passive observers. After all, which would you prefer, a class of actively participating students or a group of stuffed vegetables! It also functions as a useful classroom management tool because if the whole class is involved, there are fewer opportunities for misbehaviour.

Most importantly, this does not need to take too much valuable lesson time. It's one of the easiest and most effective teaching techniques to apply:

  • Pictures or flashcards - perfect for eliciting concrete nouns. What's this? What are these/those? Is it big/small?
  • Video clips - also ideal for eliciting concrete nouns, but also useful for eliciting emotions. Is she happy/sad/delighted/disappointed? What kind of place is this? What do you think they are going to do next? etc
  • Miming - often the simplest way to elicit verbs or phrases
  • An unfinished sentence. For example: "When people tell me I look nice, I feel ________." You can do the same with an unfinished word. For example: It means very happy and it starts with d_________
  • Fill in the sentence - verbal gap fill. "Yesterday I bleep/whistle/squeak to the cinema." The students have to guess which word the funny sound represents.
  • Definition. "It's word that means something you sit on."

And there are many, many more.

Now you have elicited the words, phrases or sentences, but how can you be 100% sure that the class has really understood? Yes, you can translate, but this technique should be used sparingly otherwise the students become overly dependent on the teacher. It might also slow the learning process. So now we move to the next 'oldie but goodie', concept checking.

Concept Checking

This is just a simple way of finding out whether your students have really understood what you have just taught them. You could ask: "Do you understand?" and your students will dutifully answer: Yes, teacher (Ne diyor?)The brackets indicate what they usually say, or think, so rather than let students flail about in the dark, try these:

  • YES/NO questions. You have just taught the phrase: 'get well soon' but in the case of Turkish students this can be easily misinterpreted. See the following below:

Teacher: Can we say this after a car accident? Class: No.

Teacher: Can we say this when someone is ill? Class: Yes.

Teacher: Can we say this after a haircut? Class: No

You can use this same simple technique to check tenses. The present perfect tenses are a nightmare for students all over the world. For example, you have taught the sentence: 'She's been to London.' We all know that we teachers can explain the grammatical structure of this tense until the cows come home, but it tends to have a limited impact, especially as the concept of this tense does not exist in many languages. Please see below:

Teacher: Did she go to London? Class: Yes.

Teacher: Is she in Turkey now? Class: Yes.

Teacher: Do we know when she went to London? Class: No.

Teacher: Is it important? Class: No.

The students' answers are the desired answers, but if they answer differently, it will show you that something is wrong.

  • Local/Cultural Examples. For example, you have just taught 'department store'. So in Turkey we could ask:

Teacher: Is Boyner a department store? Class: Yes.

Teacher: Is Akmerkez a department store? Class: No.

Teacher: Is YKM a department store? Class: No.

Teacher: Why/How do you know Boyner is a department store? Class: Because it has lots of


  • Register - formal/informal. When you are teaching types of greetings.

Teacher: Can we say 'Hi' to friends? Class: Yes.

Teacher: Can we say 'Hi' to the principal? Class: No.

And so on.

The students are not doing a lot of talking here, but they are at least involved, and one of the great things about concept checking is that nearly everyone can answer the questions, so this is useful for weak and strong students.

  • Drilling. Very, very old-fashioned, but it's a very simple and effective way to increase STT. If drilling is carried out quickly and effectively, it does not have to be boring, and very importantly, when the whole class is saying the same thing at the same time, weaker or shier students can 'hide' behind everyone else, so it can be very motivating. So here are a few simple techniques:

Chain Drill. Good for practising simple and challenging question and answer forms around the class. Have the students ask each other:

Student A: What's your name? Student B: Ahmet. What's your name? Student C: Ceren. What's your name? Student D: Banu, and so on. It's also a great way to practise contrastive stress: What's your name? Jane. What's your name?

Half and half. This is also useful for practising simple question and answer forms. Divide the class. One side is the 'question' side, the other, the 'answer' side.

Do you like chocolate? Yes, we do!

Do you live in Istanbul? Yes, we do! then change over.

A note of caution, it's important to try and use questions and answers that are as 'true' to the class as possible, otherwise we're asking the students to repeat nonsensical phrases that have no meaning for them.

  • Chants. The most famous of these are the 'Jazz Chants' series, published by Oxford University Press. There are versions for children and adults. They are usually in American English as well, which is a nice change as most coursebooks are British English.

  • Transformation. A very, very old technique, but still very useful for practising grammatical forms. For example:

Teacher: I get up at 7 o' clock. Emine.

Class: Emine gets up at 7 o' clock.

Teacher: I have a shower. She.

Class: She has a shower.

And so on.

  • Find someone who.... This is a more interactive technique if you don't mind the students moving around the class. All you need is a simple list. For example:

Find someone who...

* went to bed late last night.

* finished his/her homework before dinner.

* watched a good film last night.

* added some new pictures to her/his Facebook page

To complete this task, students need to ask a simple question: Did you...? To make it more communicative you can ask your class to ask two follow-up questions for each item as well: Why (did you go to bed late last night)? How often do you go to bed late? You can use this activity to practise any tense.

  • Pair/group work. Many teachers around the world know that pair/group work is a good idea but are worried that they might lose control of the class. However, students don't need to move out of their seats; all they need to do is turn around and work with the students next to them, behind them, in front of them and so on....

As every teacher knows, there are no magic solutions, and there is no guarantee that these techniques will always work perfectly. However, they do generally increase opportunities for students to practise the language.

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