TTT: the good, the bad and the ugly!

Gone are the days when teachers were the sole source of knowledge. The Internet has revolutionised society by granting everyone access to the information, meaning that listening to a teacher talking on and on about a topic is not only unnecessary but actually rather boring. It is therefore inevitable that teachers reflect upon their role in the learning process, and one of the aspects that have to be considered is how much time is actually devoted to Teacher Talking Time (TTT) and Student Talking Time (STT).

Last year, Dominic Walter posted here on RichmondShare some interesting ideas about TTT, disputing the concept that all TTT is bad and claiming that there is Productive TTT and Unproductive TTT. I’d like to take this opportunity to borrow his terms and definitions to illustrate my own conclusions on good teaching practice, based on lessons I’ve observed recently.

Unproductive TTT (UTTT or ‘Bad’ TTT)

…is unnatural.

Indeed, a number of traditional teacher-talk involves types of communication that are exclusive the classroom environment, (can you imagine on-the-spot correction, CCQs and ICQs in real life?). That doesn’t have to mean that teacher-student interaction has to be artificial. Here are the most common examples of unnatural interactions I see in lessons I observe:

  • Echoing, or repeating students’ words verbatim with no clear purpose (such as checking if you understood the message or providing the accurate pronunciation of a word);
  • Narrating, or describing the procedures  (e.g. “Now, we’re going to do an activity”, “Now we’re going to do a reading”).;
  • Irrelevant instructions-checking questions (e.g. “Now we are going to read a text. I’d like you to identify the three main points mentioned. So, do you have to read or listen?”

…does the work for the students

We all must devote time to studying and practicing use of the language we teach, but classroom time (when we’re wearing our teacher hat rather than our learner hat) is hardly the appropriate moment to do that. It is not uncommon to see lessons, however, in which most of the work is done by the teacher. Providing (or spoon-feeding) definitions, explanations answers and all sorts of input are actions that have been traditionally associated with the role of the teacher as the knowledge provider. But given that our main task in EFL contexts is to help learners be users of the language rather than linguists, should we reconsider our role?

…is teaching-oriented

A lot of what is unnecessary in teacher-talk probably arises from a well-intentioned urge to deliver the best lesson imaginable. We plan lessons, analyse the target language, plan CCQs and examples, create activities and so on. We can be so enthralled by the task of teaching that we may forget that the stars of a lesson should not the hand-outs, not the activities, and neither the perfectly delivered instructions, but students themselves.

 

Productive TTT (PTTT or ‘Good’ TTT)

…is natural

Some of the simplest and yet most effective instances of use of positive use TTT I see in lessons happens when teachers react to students’ contributions in a natural way, showing genuine interest not only in the language used, but also in the content produced. Reactions like “Really? That’s awesome!” “I’m not sure I agree with that.” and “No way!”, to name but a few, are an integral part of everyday communication and much more spontaneous acknowledgments of someone’s ideas than simply repeating what the person said, aren’t they? So why not provide our learners with such opportunities of exposure to authentic uses of the language?

…helps rapport be established

Learners have different affective needs and the EFL theory and research are full of arguments and evidence that corroborate the importance of positive atmosphere and an environment conducive to learning. TTT can be a powerful tool to make sure that rapport is established. After all, it is also through TTT that the teacher interacts with learners, praises them, encourages peer-help, among a number of other actions.

…promotes even participation and student-student interaction

Teachers often make use of nomination in order to encourage students to participate, but why does it so frequently sound more like the teacher is testing students rather than inviting them to participate? Maybe because students’ names are routinely followed by “What is the answer to exercise 3?” rather than “What’s your opinion?”, “Would you like to add anything?” or “Do you agree with Pedro?”. Traditional education tends to overuse teacher-student interaction, so this is usually what students initially expect from us. Acting more as the chairman of a round-table discussion rather than the sole interlocutor allows teachers to step back from the discussion and create optimal conditions for learners to talk to and learn from each other.

…is learning-oriented

As I mentioned above, I don’t believe learners come to the classroom because they do not have access to information or exercises to practice grammar and use of vocabulary. There are numerous websites and books that provide just that. The way I see it, students come to the classroom because they count on the experience of a person who underwent the same process and succeeded. In other words, they seek assistance from a specialist, a professional. This is, to my eyes, the most valuable instance of productive TTT.

By talking to students, teachers can communicate the aim of the activity they are about to do, as well as the real-life situations the student can use the language systems or skills at hand, therefore transforming a predictable, decontextualized and  meaningless gap-fill exercise into an opportunity to develop the ability to ask for directions when travelling, impressing a prospective boss in a job interview  or asking someone out on a date and getting a resounding ‘yes’.

So here’s a challenge (not really challenging, though): the two interactions below are inspired by two different moments of lessons I’ve recently observed. Can you identify the characteristics of productive TTT I mentioned above?

 

Interaction 1

T:  “Now let’s do a listening. It’s the automated answering service of an airline. I want you to listen and make notes on the departure time and gate of the flight to London. Do you understand?”

All students: Yes!

 

Interaction 2

T: Have you ever had to use one of those automated answering services, you know, those recordings when we call the phone company or something?

Chris: Yes. I hate them!

T: What about you, Carlos? Do you share the same opinion?

Carlos: Not really. They don’t really bother me.

T: I sometimes get distracted and end up missing the information or the number I have to press. Has this ever happened to you, Luiza?

Luiza: Of course not. I pay attention (laughs)

T: (laughs) I see, please teach me how to do that! (laughs). But seriously, what do you think would be the most difficult thing when dealing with automated answering services in English.

Carlos: It’s too fast, I think.

Luiza: Yes, probably.

T: And what strategies can we use to make sure we get the right information, Chris?

Chris: I’m not sure. Making notes of the important information?

T: Great idea, Chris! Let’s all try to use Chris’s idea  to get the departure time of a flight to London from an automated answering system?

Rubens Heredia

I'm a co-founder of the blog whatiselt.com and an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, where I'm responsible for course design, teacher training and e-learning initiatives. Having transitioned from a BA in Law to becoming a DELTA holder and a CELTA and ICELT tutor, I'm currently taking an MA in TESOL at NILE (University of Chichister). I'm also the proud owner of a whippet, a cat a fish and a rabbit!

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