Teacher talking time and parent talking time

Roger Hunt

Teacher Talking Time (TTT) was considered a bad thing when I first trained to be a teacher more than twenty years ago. I had a 'problem' with my TTT in as much as there was too much of it according to my tutors. However, we all learned our first language partly by listening to it and making sense, eventually, of what we heard. Most of what we heard was our parents speaking to us ie: Parent Talking Time (PTT).

Clearly there are many other factors involved in first language acquisition, and many more in second language learning by adults, than just making sense of what we hear, but, that which we hear and make sense of remains a singularly powerful learning and teaching factor; perhaps a very underated teaching tool.

TTT may be divided into two main types: asking questions and saying things ie: making statements. The following is an account of helping teachers in training aware of their TTT as a teaching tool; a contributing factor in their learners' understanding and learning of a second language.

Teachers and question types


In 1994 a candidate on what is now the Cambridge DELTA course, and on which I was course tutor, conducted an experiment in which he recorded himself teaching and analysed his TTT according to criteria defined by Michael Long (1983) and further developed by David Nunnan (1987). These criteria related to question types, which were: 'Display' questions, in which the teacher asks students to 'display' their knowledge of language eg: asking: 'What colour is my shirt?' in order to ascertain whether or not the student knows the appropriate vocabulary item, and 'Reference' questions to which the teacher does not know the answer eg: 'What did you do at the weekend?'.

The Diploma candidate added two other criteria to his analysis which were:

1. Purpose
In other words why was the question asked in the first place?

2. Linguistic Demand
In other words how much did the student have to say in order to answer the question? eg: a 'Yes/No' question requires very little in terms of language production from the student, whereas a question such as 'What did you do this weekend?' might demand much more (although I have worked with some students who are adept at giving a minimalist answer to this question eg: 'I sleep'!).

The 'Purpose' analysis was intended to see to what extent the use of questioning was procedural ie: pertaining to the management of the class and lesson, and to what extent it was 'communicative' ie: using questioning to discover something not already known by the questioner. The 'Linguistic Demand' analysis was intended to see to what extent the students were invited to take long, as opposed to short, turns. In other words how much they were invited to contribute linguistically during the lesson; how much time they were given to practise speaking English. (This following Nunnan's suggestion (1987) that longer turn taking contributes to greater proficiency in second language usage.)

The results of this analysis were: the students were predominantly asked display questions, (which seemed to have little or no purpose), and the majority of the questions required little more than a nod or shake of the head by way of answer.

Following this analysis the candidate, for reasons of his own, resolved to eliminate all display questions and all questions which required a short turn response from his teaching.

A continuing experiment

As well as asking many teachers in training to record and evaluate their TTT as described above I have asked them to further their analysis by introducing other criteria for inclusion. These include: 'Waiting Time' ie: the length of time the teacher waits for a response having asked a question; 'Authenticity' ie: a question may be 'procedural' in as much as it is an aspect of classroom management eg: giving instructions/checking understanding/etc. or it may be genuine piece of communication eg: 'What did you think of the new Harry Potter film?'

This differentiation may seem very similar to that between 'display' and 'reference' questions. However, the distinction I intend here is that between classroom management (procedural) issues and those which the students may understand as 'real' (or 'Reference') questions. For example 'Could you open your books at page 17?' is unlikely to be seen by anyone as anything other than a procedural question.

Waiting time

Typically the teacher asks a question, waits for a second or two, feels undermined by the lack of an answer, then asks another question or gives the answer him/herself. I asked the participants on an INSET training programme to ask a question then wait, however long it took for an answer from the students. One teacher I observed asked the question: 'What is the difference in meaning between 'walk' and 'run'. Seventeen seconds later a student offered an answer. Meanwhile the teacher sat silently. The other students in the room did not agree with the answer ('running is quicker than walking') and eventually decided that when walking one foot is always on the ground, whereas when running both feet are off the ground at times - a series of leaps.

The interesting thing was that the teacher waited, he knew the answer to his question, but he knew that thinking time was involved and that rehearsal time was involved as well: thinking time to come up with an answer; rehearsal time to work out how to give the answer in a foreign language. Wisely perhaps, he waited: it is easy to answer questions such as 'How are you?' 'Fine', or 'Do you smoke?', but many questions which require longer turn-taking also require thinking and rehearsal time. This waiting time became an integral part of the continuing experiment. It also gave rise to the issue of the 'right to silence', in which students are not required to say anything until they want to do so, which is commented on later in this article.

Authenticity: Initiation Response Feedback (IRF)

IRF is a well known phenomenon: the teacher asks a seemingly genuine question eg: 'What did you do last night?', the student responds eg: 'I went to the cinema.' then the teacher comments on their langauge display eg: 'Good!' (meaning: Good, you got the grammar etc right), the student then says: 'No'. What is going on here in the student's mind is not a comment on his/her language display but a genuine peice of communication, obviously the intended meaning was: 'No, it wasn't a good film.'.

A variant on this might be:

T: What did you do last night?
S: I've been to cinema.
T: Is that right?
S: Yes.

Again the teacher's response has been to question the correctness of the student's grammar etc., but this is not what the student has understood: the student is still communicating at the level of one human being to another. Clearly teachers need to help students say what they want to say correctly (phonologically, grammatically, lexically etc) but the above IRF sequences beg the issue of when it might be most appropriate to comment on language display and when it might be better to remain a human being engaging in conversation (and storing up the language display issue for later lessons?).

As part of the continuing experiment I have asked candidates on teacher training programmes to note incidences of IRF, and to comment to themselves on the appropriacy,or not, of comment on language display to students at different points within a lesson.

The right to silence

The issue of waiting time, particularly, leads to the issue of whether or not a student may be ready to contribute in class, and to the issue of whether or not a teacher should require a student to contribute. Clearly some students contribute even before invited (or welcome!?) to do so, others are more reticent. Krashen (1981) suggested that contributions by students are only indications of what language they have acquired, rather than indications of what language they are acquiring.

The issue in the continuing experiment was to what extend might a teacher ask/require a student to contribute and to what extent did contributions by students indicate their ability with the foreign language. After all, many people are very quiet in their own languages though they have an expert mastery of it.

The continuing experiment, therefore, asked participants not to nominate individuals, but wait until any individual appeared to want to contribute. (An aside: I once watched a horrific lesson in which the teacher continually asked a particular student to contribute when she was not ready to do so: she found the pronunciation of the language point impossible. Rather than helping her, the teacher relied on showing her that all the other students, of different language backgrounds, could do it, therefore, so could she. She finished the lesson in tears.)

Part two: making statements

In the seventeenth century Nicholas Clennard gathered together a 'motley group' of learners and 'caused their ears to be assailed by Latin and nothing but Latin'. He claimed that 'after a month, each of them babbled it fluently after their fashion'. He described his methodology in these terms: 'whilst I stood by and made the thing more apparent by gesticulation'. (Howatt 199...) An example of highly refined teacher talk (TTT)? Perhaps based on the obvious parallel of parent talk (PTT)?

Some centuries later Sauveur published his account of learning through physical response (TPR), (see also Asher, Krashen and Terrell). The human voice had an acknowledged role in second language learning many years before the present. In fact documentation on 'Natural Approaches', in which the prime source of 'input' is the teacher's voice abounds. The human voice was 'out' when I was a teacher in training, hopefully it can come 'in' again. The secret is merely to be aware of what you are saying: the words you use; the way you pronounce connected speech, and the extent to which you help your learners become aware of these factors.

A short story for you:

What do the following mean?

splink; fuitzkerlick; blanetch; splean; bloimp; tront; plimp

No doubt you have no idea at all (as I have just made these words up), but in the following story, which could be a bit of teacher talk, I am sure all will be clear.

The story:

Dick and Dora were splinking along the highway in their brand new fuitzkerlick when a twenty ton blanetch coming in the opposite direction went out of splean and skidded into their lane. The blanetch boimped into their fiztkerlick with a sickening crunch. Fortunately Dick and Dora were not tronted, only plimped.

The meaning of the 'new' words in this story have not been made clear by 'gesticulations', as in Clennard's methodology, but I am sure that they have been made clear. Obviously there is nothing new in using context to help students understand meaning. But the point of the continuing experiment was to make teachers in training aware of how they could use their TTT in creating a PTT type environment: how they might use their speech to help with understanding and, to an extent, create an environment of 'comprehensible input'.

In this continuing experiment I ask teachers in training to record themselves teaching, analyse what they say according to the criteria above, and to consider ways in which, by talking, they can make language comprehensible to their students. Just making language comprehensible is not enough to enable students to use it. But, learners will never be able to use that which is incomprehensible to them.


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