Teacher Talk

By Cathy Sunshine

I confess I sometimes think of the expression “deer in the headlights” when my students stare at me blankly, trying to grasp what I say. But increasingly I wonder: how does it look from their vantage point? That is, how does our talking seem to them?

Possibly something like traffic on the Beltway. It goes round and round at dizzying speed, and never seems to stop.

Understanding teacher talk demands a lot of mental energy from students. Photo © Elsie Hull.

I asked my 3B students the other day how teachers could make their speech more understandable. Here were the responses:

  • Talk more slowly! They all agreed on this.
  • Talk less.
  • Write new or important words on the board as well as speaking them. They like to both see and hear the language.

I’ve been listening to myself in the classroom lately, and it’s true. We talk too much, we talk too fast, and we say things in unnecessarily complicated ways. Students struggle to take in every word and process the meaning, but the sheer quantity of our speech overwhelms and exhausts them. And as long as students are listening to us, they aren’t producing language themselves.

Students learn more when they produce language actively than when they are passive listeners.            Photo © Elsie Hull.

As it turns out, “teacher talk” is a hot topic in ESL. Kathleen S. Weddel at the Northern Colorado Professional Development Center has prepared a useful independent study course on the subject. She notes that teachers often start class with a warm-up chat, something like this:

Teacher: How is everybody on this fine day? Okay. Well, uh . . . well, Marta, would you mind telling the rest of the class about something you did over the weekend. Maybe something that happened while you were babysitting your grandchildren. You did babysit your grandchildren, as usual, yesterday afternoon, right?
Marta: ¿Que dice?

Weddel suggests that teachers simplify warm-up language. Instead of asking, “Can anyone tell me about the weather this past weekend?” ask, “How was the weather Saturday?” Of course, one simplifies more for lower-level students, and less for those who are advanced.

Giving instructions for a task is another pitfall for teachers. This example seemed uncomfortably familiar:

Teacher: Okay, now… I’d like you to work with a partner, two people together for this activity. One person in the activity points to the picture and says, “Who is this?” and the partner, the other person responds to the question. Two people working together in a pair. Do you understand?
Student: Yes.
Teacher: Let’s try it.
Student: Let’s try it.
Teacher: Any questions? Do you understand? This person points and this person answers. Who is this?
Students: (translation, confusion, silence)
Teacher: Everybody practice, okay? Okay, I’ll help you find a partner.
Students: (silence)

Almost always, Weddel says, it’s better to model the task, perhaps demonstrating with one student, than to simply issue a stream of verbal instructions.

Students like it when teachers write new vocabulary on the board as well as speaking it. Photo © Elsie Hull.

I asked our program director, Ann-Lloyd Hufstader, about teacher talk. She confirmed that it’s important—and that it’s often a problem. She has this advice for us:

  • Talk less, so that students can talk more. Use the minimum number of words necessary. Stick to what’s important and resist the temptation to go off on tangents.
  • Speak slowly and clearly, especially for lower-level classes.
  • Break teacher speech into short chunks, so students have a chance to process each thought. When necessary, pause and repeat, giving students a second chance to grasp the meaning.
  • Look for ways to elicit student speech instead of teacher speech. If a student asks what a word means, invite other students to explain rather than providing a definition yourself.
  • Use lots of nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, gestures, and body language.
  • Use simple language, especially for lower-level classes. Incorporate vocabulary they already know.
  • Write new vocabulary on the board. If one teacher is talking, the other can be writing, so the teacher who is speaking does not have to turn away from the class.
  • Model tasks with your co-teacher, or with a student, rather than giving lengthy oral instructions. Show, don’t just tell.
  • Smile at your students often. They appreciate the encouragement!

Nonverbal communication is important. Photo © Elsie Hull.

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