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Talking Teachers

This is a video-article by David Overton about Carefully Controlled Teacher Talking Time. David Overton teaches general and company classes in the center and north of Madrid (he lives in Sanchinarro).

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Talking Teachers:

How can we get away from the “tyranny of the textbook”? It’s not easy. Most of them are carefully thought out and tightly knit. So busy teachers are mainly limited to adapting them a bit, taking the activity out of the book, for example by dictating the discussion questions or having students brainstorm vocabulary. In addition, teachers can supplement them using songs, DVDs, games, articles, or maybe a favourite activity from another textbook. Actually this is so commonplace that many textbooks now come with their own supplementary activities book. Thoughtful authors are making our jobs easier, but more difficult if we wish to escape the “tyranny of the textbook” and inject more life into the classroom and respond more directly to our students’ needs.

One good way to stop this over-domination of the textbook is to increase Teacher Talking Time (TTT). I’m not talking about rambling on in front of your class or lecturing at them, but about choosing your language carefully to give the students the input they most need at that moment. In the Lexical Approach this is known as Carefully Controlled Teacher Talking Time (CCTTT). No matter how good a textbook is, we can’t forget that it’s just printed words on a page: it can never be as immediate and responsive as a good teacher. We’re going to be looking at four modes of CCTTT: 1) the teacher’s anecdote, 2) modelling, 3) the language expert and 4) on-going revision.

The teacher’s anecdote

This basically is telling a story to your class. I suppose it could be The Three Little Pigs but it’s normally better if it’s a true story about yourself or perhaps someone you know, and you should use “natural” language. I never write the story down and read it to my students because you lose all spontaneity that way. In fact, I like it when they interrupt and ask questions because it shows involvement and that they’re actively listening and interested.

While I don’t recommend writing it all out, you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to say beforehand because later you’re going to encourage your students to notice the target language you’ve used. I like to write out beforehand the lexis or phrases which I intend to highlight.

For example, let’s imagine you have an upper-intermediate class and today there’s a listening where people discuss past experiences where they’ve had to get used to something, this is followed by a language focus on “used to” and “to be used to”. Undoubtedly the students would much rather hear about your past experiences and what you’ve had to get used to; though if the listening is good you can always come back to it later and revise the language point while you’re at it. So here’s an example of an anecdote:

“Have I ever told you about my first impressions of Spain? I really loved it. I guess that’s why I’m still here. I really love the food, though I have to admit mealtimes were strange for me. Lunch at 2:00 wasn’t really a problem, I got used to that right away, but dinner at 10:00 or even 11:00 was frankly strange. To be honest, I’ve never got used to having dinner that late. The problem is that if you have dinner late then you go to bed late, which Spaniards normally do. Actually that’s not a problem for me: I used to go to bed really late when I was in the university, but a friend of mine has never got used to that. She goes to bed at 10.00 or 11:00. At least she’s rested in the morning.”

After your anecdote and some questions and discussion (Be careful! It’s easy to turn this into a long conversation), I often have them retell my anecdote is pairs. Then I try to elicit target language and get it up on the white board. I say “try” because students notice (ask about) different things, and you should be receptive to spending time on other language points they may have noticed.

If the students are lexically aware, they may have noticed lexical chunks such as “first impression”, “mealtimes”, “to be honest”, “it was frankly strange”, “a friend of mine” or even “I guess that’s why…”. If your students are noticing lexis like this, I’d say it’s time to set off the fireworks. But get your target language on the board too: if eliciting doesn’t work just give it to them. You should give them the entire sentence (the underlined parts of the anecdote) so you don’t lose any more context than necessary.

Once you have the sentences or phrases on the board, I usually put my students in pairs or groups of three and ask them what they know about the language point (“used to”, “be used to” in this case). Then class feedback which usually involves some teacher explanation or clarification.

And now, only now, do they open their textbook. We’ve put it off for quite a while, haven’t we? Now I get them to read the grammar reference and compare their ideas with the author’s. In most books the next step is controlled written practice followed by a freer speaking activity. We’ve skipped the book’s lead-in and text with its language input, which is a shame if it was a good text. But we’ve given them a much more dynamic, interactive class providing our own language input. Anyway, a reading text from the book can always be assigned as homework.

So the benefits of the teacher’s anecdote are:

  • You get away from the “tyranny of the textbook”
  • You get the students’ heads out of the book
  • The students see you more as a human being
  • The class is more personalized
  • The class is more interesting and interactive: students participate and ask questions
  • You pick up the pace and get through material more quickly (if you need to do that)
  • Modelling

    Another valuable mode of CCTTT is modelling speaking activities for the students. This gives them a better idea of what you expect from them and is a way to input language they may find useful. For example, let’s imagine an intermediate group of students have discussion questions about the cinema along the lines of:

  • What kinds of films do you like / dislike?
  • What’s the best film you’ve seen recently?
  • You’ve already exposed them to film vocabulary. So now you answer the discussion questions yourself to the class.

    "Well, let’s see, it’s hard to say. I mean I like all kinds of films, it depends on what kind of mood I’m in. Sometimes I like light films like Love Actually. It’s funny and has a happy ending and it’s not too serious. But having said that, I also like Quentin Tarantino films, which tend to be violent. I especially like Pulp Fiction because it has great dialogue. That’s one of my favourites. John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson are superb in their roles as gangsters. I also loved Saving Private Ryan. It’s an amazing portrayal of the horrors of war."

    The underlined words could be emphasized to encourage students to notice them, or some could be put up on the white board, for example, by asking the students if they tend to prefer light films or violent ones. Then have the students discuss the questions in small groups.

    The benefits of modelling for students are:

  • As with the teacher’s anecdote, you’re out of the book, the students are getting to know you better, it’s interactive, interesting and personal.
  • They have a better idea of what you expect from them.
  • It helps them remember useful lexis for the discussion
  • The language expert

    One of the main roles of the teacher is to give students feedback and correction on their language. For example, imagine you’ve been monitoring the above conversation about the cinema and you’ve heard a student say, “It was a strong film”. You write this down and when they finish you write the sentence on the board and ask them what’s wrong with it. You elicit that “strong” doesn’t collocate with “film”. Then you ask what does.
    They should come up with some guesses which is a good way for them to test what they know. In the end you’ll probably come up with something like, “a powerful / well-hard / heavy film”. You can also look at other adjectives such as “superb, brilliant, fantastic”.

    After pointing out that “strong” doesn’t collocate with “film”, they may want to know what it does collocate with. This is an excellent moment to have a good dictionary on hand. If you have enough for the students, have them look it up and tell you. You’ll probably come up with things such as “strong relationship / economy / wind / language”. Students should definitely write all this down and put it in their lexical notebook for easy revision.

    The benefits of this are:

  • Students learn practical lexis which is immediately relevant to their needs
  • It’s a personalized focus on their lexical needs
  • They increase their communicative power which increases fluency
  • On-going Revision

    Central to the Lexical Approach is the importance of exposure to language. Linguists say that students need to come in contact with a lexical item about seven times before it’s internalised (acquired or learnt). This means exposure to English implies revision when something comes up they’ve seen before. The teacher is obviously in an ideal position to facilitate this. For example, imagine a week or two ago you exposed the students to “used to” and “be used to” and in today’s class you’re talking about what you do at the weekend. So you say, “Actually I teach on Saturdays. Times have really changed. When I first came to Spain nobody used to have English class on Saturdays. Now I’m used to it. It seems normal now.” This is just a passing comment you’ve made, but it’s served to reactivate and reinforce this language point.

    There are many good textbooks out there these days, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of over-relying on them. While adapting them or supplementing them is a good idea, we can escape their “tyranny” more effectively by making careful use of our speaking time. We can express ourselves and our ideas, respond more directly to our students’ needs, encourage noticing, and all the while make our classes more dynamic and interesting.

    More about David Overton:

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