Teacher-talk in the language class

The Myth of the Silent Teacher [Robert O'Neill - IATEFL April 1994]

Some kinds of teacher-talk are bad. Other kinds of teacher-talk are 'good; and even essential

For at least twenty years, teacher-trainers have taught their trainees that a good lesson is a lesson in which the class do as much of the talking as possible. It has been an article of faith that teacher-talk is bad because it gets in the way of this goal. The less the teacher talks, and the more the students talk, the better.

I suspect that many teachers today would feel very uncomfortable if the director of studies walked into their class and caught them saying more than a few sentences to their students. Many, perhaps most teachers, I believe, would stop talking and shift as quickly as possible to an allegedly 'student-centred' mode. This, in practice, usually means some kind of group-work or pair-work, or perhaps some kind of technique through which the teacher 'elicits' comment from the class.

I, personally, have grown more and more suspicious of the assumption that teacher-talk is automatically bad. I accept that some, perhaps many teachers talk too much, but I also believe that many teachers do not talk enough. I believe it is wrong to judge or assess teacher-talk only by reference to its quantity. It is just as important to assess its quality.

The question is not 'how much teacher-talk is there in a lesson?' but 'what kind of teacher-talk is there?'

I can put it a slightly different way. The question should not be 'how much time do teachers spend talking?' but rather 'How do teachers talk?' 'What do they do while they are talking to their classes?' 'When they talk, do they engage the attention of the class, present them with comprehensible input and also allow them to interrupt, comment, ask for clarification, and so on?' 'Is the teacher checking on comprehension as she or he talks?' 'If so, what kinds of comprehension-checks are they using?'

I am not saying that teachers should always talk, that good teaching consists only of talking interactively with the class or individual students. I think that students learn not only through 'comprehensible input' but also their own output. But I don't believe at all that a 'good lesson' is one in which students do all or even most of the talking. Some lessons may be good if they are carefully structured in such a way that students do a good deal of the talking and at the same time get a lot of feedback, both formally and informally, from the teacher about their performance. But this is by no means true of all lessons.

There are stages of language- development in which good teacher-talk is probably the single most important kind of input.

I am using the term 'teacher-talk' here rather broadly. Of course, there are 'learners' who are not students - that is, 'learners that have no formal teachers', and I personally believe that it is often better to have no teacher at all rather than a bad or foolish one. However, there is a lot of evidence that strongly suggests that all learners need 'input' and that 'negotiated input' is always essential. 'Negotiated input' means the kind of conversation, talk or formal teaching in which the teacher and the student or students together 'negotiate' both what they are talking about and the language that is used to talk about it. Students or learners 'negotiate' by showing whether they understand or not, by asking questions, by showing through body-language, facial expression and verbal means whether they are interested or not, whether they want to hear more, whether or not they are getting tired or find the input too difficult. The person providing the input - the parent, the native-speaker friend or companion talking to the non-native speaker who is struggling with the L2 - or whoever happens to be the 'input-provider' at the time negotiates by being sensitive to these signals and adjusting the input accordingly. That, at least is one way in which we as teachers can 'negotiate meaning' - to use a phrase I have always suspected of concealing more than it reveals - with our students.

Learners typically go through 'silent periods' while they are learning. It is especially during these 'silent periods' that 'good teacher-talk' of the kind I have in mind is especially useful.

I believe James R. Nord was one of the first to point out and make us aware of the importance of these 'silent periods'. He also pointed out, among other things, that forcing students to speak in the L2 before they were ready to do was very counter-productive. It could even have the effect of de-motivating students. We seem to have forgotten this. What should we do, for example, if we are teaching real zero-beginners? They still exist, you know, even here in the UK. I have a class every Thursday evening in London of these zero-beginners; real zero-beginners. They are adults from Bosnia. Some of them are in their fifties or even older. They have fled from Mostar and other parts of Bosnia to this country. They are trying to begin new lives and even to forget the shattered lives they left behind them; they have little or no English. They are only now beginning to understand questions like 'What time is it?' 'What kind of sandwich is that?' 'How much is it?' and find it difficult to respond properly to questions like 'How are you?'. What good is a methodology that insists that teachers should 'elicit' information from the class, get them talking in pairs or groups, etc. These are students struggling with the simplest elements of the language. Where are they supposed to get the English to express themselves? Does anyone here or anyone reading this article seriously suppose that they discover or invent the language they need through some kind of magic? Or do we perhaps suppose that the process of learning a language is analogous to what charismatic Christians, I believe, refer to as 'speaking in tongues'?

Comprehensible input is essential. The teacher is usually the best and sometimes the only person who can provide comprehensible input.

Dare I mention the name of Krashen here? I ask this because not long ago when I gave a talk at Brighton University and mentioned Krashen's name just once, an MA candidate later complained that I had devoted far too much time to talking about him. Yet only a few years ago, he and his theories were very fashionable. I questioned - and still question - his claim that learners learn only through comprehensible input. I expressed my doubts about this in a talk I gave the last time an IATEFL conference took place here in Brighton. I was and am still very sceptical that we can account for anything as complex and as little understood as second language acquisition through one thing alone. It is not comprehensible input alone by any means that is the 'motor' for second language acquisition. Comprehensible input is the fuel, not the engine of language acquisition. But this still means it is essential - and not just, I believe, in the early stages. Comprehensible input, dare I remind you, is not simply 'input'. It is language that is broadly comprehensible to the learner. How 'broad' you may ask is 'broad'? Well, I suggest that the parameters vary from student to student and also from stage to stage. In the very early stages, it probably means at least 95% comprehensible. In later, more advanced states it may be as low as 75% for certain kinds of input.

Ellis's 'eight conditions favourable to language acquisition

Ellis (1985) has suggested that eight conditions are central or especially favourable for language acquisition. I would like to look at each of them and then discuss their implications.'

Ellis's eight conditions are as follows.

  1. A high quantity of input directed at the learner
  2. The learner's perceived need to communicate in the L2.
  3. Independent control of the propositional content by the learner (e.g. control over the topic choice
  4. Adherence to the 'here and now' principle, at least initially.
  5. The performance of a range of speech acts by both native speaker/teacher and the learner (i.e. the learner needs the opportunity to listen to and to produce language used to perform different language functions).
  6. Exposure to a high quantity of directives.
  7. Exposure to a high quantity of 'extending utterances (e.g. requests for clarification and confirmation, paraphrases and expansions).
  8. Opportunities for uninhibited 'practice' (which may provide opportunities to experiment with using 'new forms')

Questions of degree and interpretation

There are, in my mind at least, a number of questions about these eight elements.

-Are we to assume that is it enough simply to direct a high quantity of input at the learner? If learners don't understand, they switch off. Input, as Pitt Corder pointed out, is not the same as 'Intake'. So, how can we direct a 'high quantity of input' as learners and keep them engaged and involved? (Ellis, by the way, answers the question himself later in his book. The 'high quantity of input' occurs through interaction between teacher and learner or teacher and class.)

-What exactly is a 'perceived need' - or rather, by whom is it supposed to be perceived? Clearly it cannot be simply the way learners perceive their own need to communicate. Is it important, for example, for the teacher to 'perceive' this need and to give clear evidence of this perception in the way people normally indicate If I have a problem I want to communicate to you, and you sit there listening patiently but don't ask questions, don't respond, do nothing but sit there in the classic pose and position of a Freudian analyst, how am I to know that you are interested in what I am communicating? In ordinary life, people give evidence of their desire to listen to 'perceived needs to communicate' not only by listening but also by asking questions, offering advice, consolation or support, and so on. In other words, people indicate interest in other people's talk by talking themselves.

-How can students have 'independent control over the prepositional content of the input 'if, for instance, they are in groups of twelve or even more? How do teachers decide how much, or what kind of input to provide? Is this to be done by some formal means - asking each student and asking them to vote or select certain topics or types of input? How much time is likely to be consumed by this process? How do students know what they want until they experience it?

-If, as Ellis suggests, ' the learner needs the opportunity to listen to and to produce language used to perform different language functions' and if most or many in the class don't know enough English to perform different language functions, where is this language to come from if not from the teacher/ Or let us say that some in the class know enough English to perform certain functions reasonably well, and others do not, but that even those who can perform them are likely to make a number of mistakes, who is to decide on the acceptable level of accuracy? If you say, 'the students, of course', should you not also ask 'what if their own English is defective? What if, in other words, they are not really able to judge what is an acceptable mistake and what is not?' Why should they pay for a teacher to teach them at all if the teacher, because of her or his addiction to the principle of 'learner autonomy' refuses to offer any guidance, refuses even to speak to the class because this would 'diminish the quantity and quality of student taking-time'? Is it really ethical of us, as teachers, to take any money at all from our students or for the schools and organisations that employ us to demand money for lessons in which learners have to rely only on each other's often defective or ill-formed intuitions about what is or is not acceptable English? Why don't we tell them to meet regularly at coffee houses or other places and talk to each other? It would be a lot cheaper, wouldn't it?

-Who is to provide the 'requests for clarification and expansion'? Is it not the teacher's job to do a good deal if not all the time? And if the answer is 'Yes', how do teachers do these things and at the same time engage the interest and attention of the whole class?

-What exactly is meant by 'opportunities for uninhibited practice'? Yes, I know that teachers can be an inhibition if they correct all the time? But does this mean that teachers should in the classroom ignore mistakes that they know could lead to misunderstanding or no understanding at all if they were to occur outside the classroom in the 'real world'? Is all teacher-intervention in this 'uninhibited practice' taboo? Do students really expect teachers to sit by dumbly while they speak and make serious mistakes? Should the teacher do this only at the end of the 'uninhibited practice''? If so, how much time can or should elapse between the point at which serious mistakes are made, and the point at which the learner's attention is drawn to them? Will learners remember the mistake at all, or the corrective teaching that was applied later if twenty or more minutes occur between the mistake and the correction? And how can teachers set up this 'uninhibited practice' without an initial lead-in from the teacher in which the teacher provides models and other language for the class to use later?

When, then, is teacher-talk helpful?

First of all, teacher-talk is useful when the following conditions are met. These conditions all relate to verbal factors.

  1. It is broken into sense groups
  2. It is simplified but not unnatural
  3. It is more redundant than 'ordinary speech' and words and structures are naturally repeated or 're-cycled' at regular intervals
  4. It is broken into 'short paragraph' segments to encourage or invite students to interrupt, comment and ask questions.
  5. When new vocabulary or structure is taught, typical examples are given
  6. The teacher gets regular feedback through questions - especially 'open questions' or 'two-step questions' (closed question + follow-up as below

    T: Do you like English food?

    S: No.

    T: Oh? Why?

    T: Do you ever get angry?

    S: Yes.

    T: When was the last time you got angry?

    And why did you get angry?

  7. Teacher uses other devices to get feedback such as

    -physical response (Touch your left ear)

    - using 'parallels to get examples from the class

    ( I don't like overcooked vegetables. And I never eat rare meat. Tell the person next to you about a kind of food you don't like or never eat.)

  8. Variety of elicitation & explanation techniques are used, including

    -use of context



  9. There is also a variety of correction techniques, including both covert and overt types

  10. It is between 95% and 85% comprehensible

However, I believe there are also certain conditions in regard to the para-verbal features of teacher-talk.

The question of 'authenticity'

There is one last question I would like to raise. - or rather, there are two.

How 'authentic' does teacher-talk have to be? Have we not been told that the only way to prepare students for authentic language is to expose them from the very start to 'authentic language'. Taken literally, this would mean that we should always talk to our students, even if they are real beginners, in exactly the same way we talk to fellow native-speakers. This is what I understand the be the radical 'hard' version of the theory that people learn to engage in authentic discourse outside the classroom only be being engaged in completely 'authentic' language' inside the classroom.

This seems to me also to raise questions about the usefulness of classrooms and formal teaching in any other field as well as about the meaning of the word 'authentic', but I will come to that in a moment.

There is a kind of unwritten rule in all 'normal' discourse - if you accept that something like normal discourse not only exists but is frequently engaged in - that the speaker or speakers make concessions to the people they are speaking to or with. They try, as far as possible, to use language they think the others will understand. They also use various rhetorical devices to focus on information they assume the others may not be aware of. Good writers are supposed to do this, as well. If you are writing an article on about Microsoft Word for Macintosh for people who have not used Microsoft Word before, the language of the article will be significantly different in many ways from the language of an article for experienced users of this word-processing programme. It is not just a question of information but also of language. If you don't know what a style sheet is, you explain the concept first. And in order to do this, you try to use non-technical language first. In other words, authentic language varies considerably in style and content so that the people for whom it is intended will understand it. Parents use a reduced form of language called 'motherese' to speak to their children. The language of a pilot talking to a non-pilot is different from the language a pilot uses to talk to a pilot. And so on.

The implication of this is that any definition of 'authentic' must depend to a considerable extent on the question 'authentic for whom?' This is as true for us as teachers as it is for anybody else. We can and should try to use naturalistic English as far a s possible. But this naturalistic English is bound to be influenced by the obvious fact that we are not using it with possessors of the full native-speaker code.

Classrooms and the uses and limitations of formal teaching.

I cannot help feeling sometimes that classrooms and formal teaching -styles are not very effective vehicles for the learning of languages or anything else. Classrooms suffer from some very obvious limitations. They do not and cannot offer the same natural profusion of daily occurrences that life in the streets outside offer. This is both a limitation and a strength. Because of their apparent sensory monotony, they make it possible to focus on only one or several things at a time. They are, at best 'sheltered environments' and offer opportunities not only for 'uninhibited' but also for sheltered practice.

If language-teaching fails because it is limited by some of these natural 'sheltered' constraints, then so does any other form of teaching in any other classroom for any other subject. I believe - intuitively believe - that good teachers have never succeeded in teaching well by ignoring the fact that they are teaching in classrooms. In a way, good teachers are like good actors. I say 'in a way' because I don't want in any way to confuse good teaching with good acting. There are certain similarities but there are also enormous differences and I am -after almost forty years of teaching -enormously ware of the differences. So I don't want to leave you with the impression that I am confusing in any way these two things. What, however, is the one most obvious way in which they are similar?