Get Your Students Talking

Actively using English is critical for people who are learning the language. Because many of the people coming to our English classes don’t speak English very much outside of class, it’s vitally important to their success that they speak English as much as possible while in class.

However, one of the most common mistakes teachers make is that they don’t allocate enough class time for their students to talk. This is especially true in ESL ministries staffed by volunteers. Usually people who who are willing to volunteer their time to teach also really love to talk. Often, without realizing it, they spend too much time talking in class, which reduces the amount of time students can practice their English. Some teachers may rationalize that they are helping students grow in their listening skills; however, research has found that students’ listening comprehension and communication skill is not improved by the teacher talking most of the class — in fact, it has demonstrated the opposite!

So how can we ensure that students have more time to talk during class?

  • Wait Longer for a Response (at least 15-30 seconds) When a student is asked a question in a language they are learning, their brain has a lot to process. They need to take in the question and translate it to their language. Then they need to process any new content or ideas, formulate an answer, and finally translate their answer to English — all before they speak. This takes time, especially if there are words they don’t know – either in the original question or in the answer they want to give. Teachers need to understand that silence is productive “thinking time” and not cut it short. However, many of us are uncomfortable with silence and don’t realize how little time has actually passed in a quiet room. Other times we mistake the silence to mean the students don’t know the answer, when in fact, they are still just thinking.
  • Ask More Questions During downtime (or even during the lessons), intentionally ask students questions instead of sharing anecdotes or personal stories. An occasional story is great, but don’t get sucked into the trap of sharing more time than the students are.
  • Prioritize Conversation Over “Finishing the Chapter” Often as teachers, we feel like we need to finish every exercise of every chapter in order for the students to get the full learning experience. Instead, the books and curriculum should be viewed as a tool to facilitate learning – the book should serve the learning objectives not the other way around. If an exercise in a book isn’t helpful because the students already know the material or it’s too difficult to explain well, skip it. Instead, create some questions for the students to answer in pairs or groups about the topic while using the words they’ve learned in the day’s lesson.
  • Ensure That Every Student Gets to Speak To achieve this goal, you’ll need to observe your class carefully. You may need to divide students into smaller groups or even pairs. Sometimes you may need to change the groups. Other times, you might have to ask the confident, outgoing students that talk a lot to help by asking questions of the quieter students. You may need to assure your students that making mistakes is part of learning a language, and encourage them to talk even though it won’t be perfect. If you have some extremely shy students, it’s best to start them talking by having students work in pairs and talk about something they are interested in.

If you are a program coordinator, talk with your teachers and classroom assistants about the importance of increasing time students have to talk together. Your volunteers are more likely to try to implement change if they contribute to the solution. Brainstorm with them during this meeting about where they can add in more time for students to practice talking (not just repeating the teacher, but actually using the words that they know in conversation.) Give your teachers time to look over their lessons/materials and decide where and how they can create opportunities for students to talk more. Encourage them to make notes in the lessons (or add a sticky note to the book) where/how they want to intentionally provide more opportunity for students to talk so that they remember when they are teaching the lesson. After the class, have the teachers reflect on how it went, and adjust as needed for the next class.

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