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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

November 2009

Topic: What Are Some Ways to Maximize Student Talk Time?

Dorothy Zemach

Modeling Student Talk



If I use the dictionary function on MS Word, I get these definitions for “maximize”: enlarge; and then also make the most of.

I don’t always want students to talk more. Sometimes, I want them to listen, or to summarize briefly, or to respond in writing. However, I do want to “make the most of” their talking time; in essence, to talk better.

These days, many textbooks are set up to give students “communicative tasks,” where they speak English to exchange information. Often, there is some sort of deed to be done—A has the information that B needs, and B has the information that A needs, and they speak to exchange their information and fill in their charts or solve the puzzle or whatever end goal there is.

Those can be enjoyable tasks, but the downside of overdoing them is that students get used to seeing every speaking task as a sort of info gap: That is, there is information that must be exchanged, and so once it is exchanged, the task is over. It’s a fine method for completing one’s “Find Someone Who” worksheet, but it fails miserably for a discussion. Discussion questions look like they’re asking for information (that is, students’ opinions on a topic, or answers to some questions), but so much more goes on in a good discussion. Participants might make or respond to jokes, show off, show understanding or sympathy, address new topics, search for new vocabulary, let off steam, learn and teach information about the topic, express frustration, and so on.

Students get used to seeing every speaking task as a sort of info gap: That is, there is information that must be exchanged, and so once it is exchanged, the task is over.

I remember one lesson in particular with a small group of trainees at Sumitomo Electric Industries (SEI) whom I’d had in class for about six months. They had a good command of vocabulary and grammar, they were lively and engaged, and of course they were happy to be in English class instead of back at their desks.

We had a unit in the textbook on receiving visitors, leading up to office and factory tours; quite relevant for these trainees, since they used English primarily for receiving overseas visitors and then showing them around. There was vocabulary to be learned and dialogues to practice and functions to employ, but first there were (as there often are in textbooks) some warm-up questions. In my mind, they’d spend about 15 minutes on these warm-up questions (though I was prepared to go longer), during which they’d bring up the necessary vocabulary that they knew, as well as signal to me what they didn’t know. Also, I’d get a feel for their past experiences and needs.

There were two questions, more or less like this:

1) Have you ever received a visitor at your company? Who?
2) Where did you meet him or her?
As it turned out that day, I had four trainees in class, so I put them in pairs. And in each pair, the “discussion” went like this:

A: Ah … B-san, “Have you ever received a visitor at your company? Who?”
B: Ah … yes. Sato-san.
A: OK. “Where did you meet him or her?”
B: At … Kansai Kuukou.
A: Airport.
B: Airport. OK, switch. A-san, “Have you ever received a visitor at your company? Who?”
A: No.
B: “Where did you…” Ah, so ka. “No.” (both laugh)

They looked at me expectantly. Time for the listening! Epic fail, as the gamers would say. I sighed. The students were perplexed. They asked if they’d done something wrong. “It wasn’t what I was expecting,” I said.

A nodded in understanding. “ ‘No, I haven’t,’ right?”

No, I said, it wasn’t the grammar, it was the information. True confusion now. “But … I only met Sato,” said B, a bit apologetically. And I laughed. Naturally, they wanted to know what was so funny. Well, we had time, so I thought, why not talk about it?

“What is the purpose of these questions?” I asked.

They had the look of students expecting some sort of trick. “To know what visitors we met?” asked A. No! Here was our problem. I explained that I actually didn’t care how many people they’d met, or who, or where. The purpose of the questions was to bring up vocabulary and functions and grammar necessary to talk about receiving visitors, and to talk about issues concerning visitors, particularly international visitors, and to practice meeting visitors in English over and over again until they could do it comfortably on their own.

Then, I modeled what I had been hoping for. I went over and sat with the students and role-played the discussion myself, taking the part of both students, like this:

A: Hi, B-san. Receiving visitors. I don’t have much experience with that topic.
B: Really? I do.
A: Oh? Have you ever received any visitors?
B: Yes, only one time. But I think I’ll meet more in the future, because it’s part of my job now.
A: Who did you meet?
B: Mr. Sato from the Head Office.
A: Did you already know him?
B: A little. I hadn’t met him before, but I speak to him on the phone almost every week.
A: How did you know who he was, then? Did you make a sign with his name?
B: No, I knew his picture from (checks with imaginary teacher for vocabulary help, and gets it) the Intranet.
A: Did he look like his picture?
B: Actually, not really. His hair was longer. But you know, he was carrying a blue SEI shopping bag. So I knew it was him.

And so on. The students looked amazed. Truly. They’d had no idea, no idea at all, that this was what I might want; just as I’d had no idea that they didn’t know. They weren’t being uncooperative; they didn’t lack vocabulary or grammar or energy; they weren’t bored. They just didn’t know what my expectations were, or even the purpose of the exercise. Once they knew what to do, they put the books down and had a good 20-minute discussion on the topic, and ended energized for the rest of the lesson.

I’m a huge modeler now, and I don’t wait for things to go wrong first.

I’m a huge modeler now, and I don’t wait for things to go wrong first. Whether I want brief, focused answers or a meandering discussion, I never want to turn students loose on a task if they don’t know what its purpose is or how to do it.










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Chuck Sandy

It's Not About Technique



Although I do have a variety of techniques that help maximize talk time for everyone in my classes, those techniques really are not very important. They’re just little tricks I’ve developed over the years and are hardly worth mentioning. I’ll share one of them with you, but I want to tell you right now: it’s not about technique.

In my bag there’s always a small ball made of fabric. It’s colorful and soft and could never hurt anyone. Whenever I ask a question in class I wait a few seconds and then toss it out to whomever I see making eye contact with me. That person catches the little ball, answers the question, and then tosses the ball on to someone else. It’s then that person’s turn. Sometimes I gently clap my hands and gesture that I’d like the ball back for a moment to clarify something or make a comment or redirect the flow of the work. The key here is playfulness and a spirit of fun.

The key here is playfulness and a spirit of fun.

I do this in small classes where students sit in a circle and in very large lecture classes where students sit at desks arranged in long rows. Whatever the class size or situation, I usually find that after awhile the physical ball becomes unnecessary. Until it does, I teach little strategies such as having the thrower make eye contact with the person he or she wishes to toss the ball to and say that person’s name with a rising intonation before throwing it.

As the catcher catches the ball, he or she holds the eye contact and says uh huh. Then the thrower goes on to ask the question. In classes in which the focus is on oral communication this almost always involves some sort of personalized language practice. In lecture classes it usually involves a response to some sort of discussion question and so the strategy taught might be having the thrower say something like What do you think about that? after making eye contact and saying the person’s name. Then of course the catcher is going to need some hesitation device to use while figuring our just what it is he or she thinks about that, so I teach students how to use Hmmm, let me think about that or well.

Now, just imagine you’ve thrown me the ball:

You: Chuck?
Chuck: Uh huh?
You: Do you think it's enough to just get students talking in English?
Chuck: Well ...

... to tell you the truth, no I don’t. I’ve been to plenty of classrooms where there’s a lot of talk going on, but nothing much being said. In these classrooms the focus is on language rather than on people. Lessons are built around the dialogue, the meaningful drill, the little role-play, and the fun game. There’s a lot going on and it looks like communication -- but it really isn’t. It’s just craft and practice. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to work at maximizing this kind of thing. Too often language teachers see themselves as practitioners of a craft or facilitators of practice, armed with activities and tasks, exercises and games all designed to maximize talk time. Too often, though, these very things designed to maximize output, become a wall that blocks real communication.

In a recent study conducted by Anne Burns it was shown that output actually increased when students were off task and communicating freely with the teacher.

I’ve been to plenty of classrooms where there’s a lot of talk going on, but nothing much being said.

This is not to suggest in any way that teachers should dispense with activities, games, and tasks, but to point out that it’s often the less structured moments of a class which prove to be the most fruitful and that teachers should be aware of them and ready to follow such moments to where they lead. It’s also to say that a good language teacher is no different than a good teacher of any other subject, for as any good teacher does, a good language teacher creates a comfortable classroom with positive group dynamics where spontaneity is valued and everyone has a chance to be heard.

In addition, like all effective teachers, the effective language teacher uses relevant, intriguing materials as a springboard and not as a means to a particular end. Such materials allow for digressions and leave room for spontaneity and allow both teacher and students to ask real questions of value which go as far as possible beyond the simple comprehension questions most of us rely upon.

Therefore, the effective language teacher, like all effective teachers, thinks about the types of questions he or she asks and realizes that it’s not the teacher’s voice in the classroom that’s central, but the voices of students.

Finally, like all the best teachers, the effective language teacher is approachable outside of class as well as in. I’ve found that one of the most effective ways of increasing communication and maximizing talk time has been to arrive in my classroom early and to stay late -- then later to leave my office door open.

If you want to maximize talk time, just remember this: it’s not about technique. Now, would you please toss someone else the ball?




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Curtis Kelly

From Task Analysis To Reward Analysis



This month’s question, “How do you maximize student talk time?” is an interesting one. I am going to make a few assumptions. I’ll assume a) the talking is done in pairs or groups (otherwise a choral reading is the best answer) b) the talking is interactive (otherwise speech-giving will suffice), and c) the talking is communicative, meaning that the listener does not know beforehand what the speaker will say (otherwise, the best answer is dialog reading). In short, we need to think about how to keep students talking in conversation or discussion activities.

The traditional answer for this question, and still a good one, is to do a task analysis. Task analysis means analyzing what the students are instructed to do by breaking it down into its parts and examining each. For example, how many steps or actions are needed to complete the overall task? Are the instructions clear enough for the learners to know exactly what to do? Is the task comprehensible in their culture? Are the graphics relevant? Do students have the language needed to complete the task? Is the environment conducive for doing so, such as the seating arrangement, noise level, etc.? Are there any other factors that might interfere with task completion, such as a task that embarrasses a learner, or problems with partners?

Usually, when an activity fails, the cause can be explained by one of the reasons above. The students might not know what to do because the instructions are vague, or because they never did anything like this before. They might start in English but slip into Japanese because the activity is poorly scaffolded, or because they can’t see what the teacher wrote on the board.

There are dozens of possible flaws that can bring an activity to a halt, and in my experience they are hard to predict. That is why I insist on testing each activity in class before putting it into a textbook. I remember trying an activity once where students were supposed to discuss which of their classmates they thought was the “smartest.” Most of them tried to find the “thinnest” member of the class. More recently, I asked students to talk about their favorite foods with a partner. I modeled the activity and wrote a few of my own examples on the board. I later noticed that about a third of the students were just using the phrases I had written on the board, thinking that this was the task, presumably because they almost never talked about themselves in high school English classes.

However, there are other times when the mechanics, instructions, and all the other task bits are good, but the activity still fizzles out. The students just do the minimum and quit. At times like these, it is easy to blame the students for not engaging, but the real reason for the halt is that the activity doesn’t have enough “pull.” They just comply with the “push,” and do the minimum necessary to get it over with. In this regard, task analysis is a bit weak at determining the level of engagement an activity will engender. It occurred to me recently, while studying the neuroscience of learning, that we need another means of evaluation as well, which I like to call “reward analysis.” Because of the way our brains work, the inherent reward of the activity not only “maximizes student talk time,” it also maximizes acquisition.

Consider. The brain evolved as a tool for survival. As a result, our brains are highly selective in what they pay attention to and retain.

Consider. The brain evolved as a tool for survival. As a result, our brains are highly selective in what they pay attention to and retain. In fact, we have great difficulty paying attention to or retaining anything that is not personally relevant, either directly, or metaphorically. As neuroscientist Read Montague says, and as advertisers know, the things that really catch our attention are death, sex, and food. (The first two are taboo, so that is why many textbook activities deal with eating.) Well, we can expand this list to include other areas, but the trick is to make sure that the topic is relevant to the learner, not just to the teacher or institution. How many times, for example, have you heard a teacher complain: “They don’t study. Don’t they realize how important English is for their future?” Of course not, at least not at the gut level, because they haven’t experienced that future yet, even if we have.

So, how can we use reward analysis with Japanese high school and college students to maximize talking? Assuming the level, instructions, graphics, and all the other task components are right on, what kinds of topics will keep students engaged?

Knowing that our learners like sports, shopping, movies, etc, is a good start, but these topics alone are not the end. You can just as easily put a class to sleep by having them discuss the French movie John bought for his hockey player friend. Instead, knowing why they like sports, shopping, and movies, etc. is the crux. And the reason is that they are going through what developmental psychologists call “moral development.” As I have discussed in other Think Tank articles, moral development is the greatest sociological/psychological task all teens face. It means finding themselves, establishing their identities, by determining what they think is right, who they like, finding goals, etc. It is driven by their intense biologically-based need at this age to gain autonomy. We can do better than just saying they like sports, shopping, and movies; we can say they like these activities because they have a need show their competence, to express themselves, and to figure out the rights and wrongs of the world. This is also why many of them are so attracted to English, because it represents a counter-culture of independence. (… and classes taught by native speakers, not because they are non-Japanese, but because of the types of activities they tend to use lets students interact.)

So, with reward analysis, we can identify the topics that sustain student interest: those that let them share what is personally meaningful. However, even more important than “topics” for satisfying their deeper psychological needs – the need to bond, to gain self-esteem, to discover, and others – are the activities themselves. In my 30 years of teaching Japanese learners, I have found that having students make something, solve a problem, figure something out about life, and most importantly, share something meaningful with peers, gets the most mileage. In concrete terms, that might mean having them discuss something that changed their life, explain a childhood experience, propose a class party, discuss the kind of partner they want, solve an information gap mystery, negotiate a fashion remake, and so on.

Making students feel creative, smart, cared about, or self-aware, is the basis for every activity I write.

Indeed, making students feel creative, smart, cared about, or self-aware, is the basis for every activity I write, whether for a textbook or for just my own use in class.




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Peter Viney

Maximizing Student Talking Time



Twenty-five years ago I was at a conference in Germany. I was speaking, and one of my fellow speakers was something of an ELT guru, who shall be nameless. Then any lesson observation notes in teacher training kicked off with Student Talking Time vs. Teacher talking Time. Now this particular guru was a great advocate of paired and group activities, and on minimizing the intervention of the teacher into all that communication in English which was naturally taking place in his imagination. About three hundred people attended his talk and three minutes in, we were told to get into groups of four. Seven or eight minutes later, we’d assembled our groups of four amidst much confusion. We couldn’t agree which handout we’d been told to work our way through, because we’d all forgotten it during the fuss of assembling a group and noisily shifting our metal chairs. So we argued about that for a few minutes. It was too noisy for us to be able to ask our guru. We argued in English, we were, after all teachers of English. Handout settled, we worked ten minutes before we were stopped, and the guru spoke for two minutes. Incredibly, given the size of the audience we were told to assemble in new groups. Five minutes more of shuffling chairs and negotiating ensued. We then went through a list of questions about maximizing student talking time. Five minutes before the end of the talk, we were told to assess what we had learned today … in the groups, of course.

My group of German high school teachers were furious. They had paid to come to the conference, and they had travelled a long way. They had not come to talk to each other, like they said, but to listen to native speakers and hopefully to glean ideas from the experts. They had taken the trouble to read the guru’s book in advance, and had discussed it. They all taught at the same school and had travelled together in the same mini-bus. They wanted to hear him talk. They were kind enough to say they were lucky to have been in a group with one of the very few native speakers in the room (me), but they dismissed the guru as “a really bad teacher.” I admired their confidence. So often in similar situations, I’ve watched teachers being perplexed, worried, and finally dismissive of the experts, but still feeling glad to have basked in the light of the guru’s presence. The German teachers simply saw that the Emperor was wearing no clothes.

The most appropriate medium for communication between one and three hundred is a lecture. It’s not impossible to do pair work with three hundred, though group work is really too complex to set up unless you have a “cabaret” seating arrangement where people are already seated around tables in small groups. When I was teaching in Britain in the 70s and 80s, my students had four lessons a day in classes of fifteen, plus two supplementary “lectures” a day. These lectures would be with ten classes assembled together, and they took place in a lecture room. We didn’t actually do “lectures” but we used to have short acted out dialogues with two teachers; students listening to and then singing English pop songs; or the BBC “On We Go” video series. We did repetition, drills, questions and pair work with one hundred and fifty. The proportion of pair work to teacher-centred work is the important factor. My ELT guru had it around 10 to 1. With very large numbers, I’d reverse that.

Maximizing Student Talking Time (MSTT) has become a mantra, often repeated without analyzing the content.

Maximizing Student Talking Time (MSTT) has become a mantra, often repeated without analyzing the content. It is a given that MSTT is a “good thing.” But, as usual, you should question all received wisdom. Does it mean Student Talking Time, or Student Vocalizing Time? I’ve seen very teacher controlled classes with lots of student vocalization (repetition and drilling) but I wouldn’t call that “conversation” though it is “talking.” Teacher controlled interaction questions are Student Talking Time. (Do you like tea? Ask him. Ask me. Ask her about coffee. Ask him about hot chocolate, etc). More often, it means pair work and group work.

The main question though is how to deal with “talk about what?” Students won’t hold forth in a foreign language without a model, a clear task, and motivation. This should be self-evident. At one point, I had to watch and evaluate twenty or thirty people teaching every summer. I still laugh at the memory of the most highly-qualified candidate, fresh from earning an Applied Linguistics doctorate. Confronted with a class of Arab beginners, his task was to introduce adverbs of frequency for the first time in his life, and with material of his own choice. Among the things he said in the first ten minutes were “Let’s brainstorm some adverbs of frequency! Get in pairs and make a list” and “Ali, What do you think about adverbs of frequency?” He then asked them to underline the adverbs of frequency in an authentic piece from The Guardian newspaper. He didn’t have a clue about who he was teaching, and was singularly insensitive to student looks of total incomprehension. At the end of this, one of the few lessons where I had to fight the urge to just stand up and take over, he asked, “Any questions?”

With remarkably good inflection and with a hint of bitterness one student just said “Are you a teacher?” The candidate was even more perplexed when I said I’d been introducing adverbs of frequency to beginners for years, and had only used the words “adverbs of frequency” a few times in initial lessons.

Talking won’t ‘just happen’ and it is but one factor in lessons that should involve listening, reading, moving about, doing things, writing a few words, getting involved in the content of a text, listening to grammar explanations, looking at pictures and diagrams, watching things acted out, watching things demonstrated, singing, maybe yawning a bit, and laughing sometimes too.

As a postscript, Total Physical Response (TPR) suggests that beginner students benefit from a silent period of comprehending, and responding to instructions, before being exposed to potential ridicule and embarrassment while getting your tongue around those weird foreign noises. I’ve often said that TPR is akin to becoming an expert footballer by sitting on a couch watching football on TV rather than playing it. Even so, some TPR activities will boost confidence, and learning will be taking place without vocalizing, but with a classroom we can do better.




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Marc Helgesen

How do we maximize student talk time?



There is a French proverb that I like a lot:

The way to become a blacksmith is to be a blacksmith.

If you want to become a blacksmith, you don’t read about blacksmithing, you do things blacksmiths do. The same holds true for becoming an English speaker – the students need to speak English to learn English. English is not only the goal, it is also the pathway to that goal. Of course, nothing is as simple as it is sometimes made out to be. Students need comprehensible input through reading and listening, including comprehensible input from the teacher. And we know that giving a minute or two of “think time” before a speaking task increases fluency, linguistic complexity, accuracy, and vocabulary variety. And, of course, not every English class is a speaking class. But in conversation classes, the students should be doing most of the talking.

If you want to become a blacksmith, you don’t read about blacksmithing, you do things blacksmiths do. The same holds true for becoming an English speaker.

A couple years ago I was on sabbatical. One of my projects was to observe classes in a range of situations around Japan, Korea, and Thailand. My publisher organized these so, in most cases, the classes were using textbooks I had written. It was fascinating and delightful to see the ways teachers took my materials and made them their own. Well, usually fascinating and delightful. In a very few cases, I observed classes where it was clear the teacher really didn’t know how to organize a speaking class. In most of those classes, there was a constant babble from the teacher – if comprehensible input is i+1 (the learners current level plus a slight increase), this was more like i+50. The students were left clueless about what to do. They also got very little practice actually using English. It was a shame. These were teachers who I know wanted the learners to succeed and, in most cases, were students who did, too.

It made me want to do what writers to: write something. I wrote a couple skill sheets about ways to maximize student speaking time. I wrote them so the publishers rep’s would have something to give to teachers, especially those teachers who were new to teaching English or who may not have had much training. I’ve revised the skill sheets here to make them less tied to any particular textbook.

I’m leaving them in “skill sheet” form, rather than the usual prose of this blog because I thought the “bullet point” approach may be more useful for busy teachers. Have a look at them here:

Maximizing Learner Speaking Time

How to Maximize Learner Speaking Time

The first suggests the basic ideas. The second one (How to maximize…” gives more step-by-step” suggestions. I hope you find them useful. If you do, feel free to copy them to share with colleagues.




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