Month: April 2017

We need to talk about Teacher Talk

Classroom Interactional Competence: Developing the Missing Strand

Notes from a talk given at IATEFL 2017 on teacher talk and interaction in the second language classroom.

ttt

If you’ve ever been observed teaching, or if you’re training teachers, you’re probably familiar with the initialism T.T.T. – and we’re not talking test-teach-test. Not just now anyway. We’re talking about Teacher Talk Time.

T.T.T. is often seen as taboo. You’ve probably been told that yours is too high at some stage in your career. I know I have. If you’re a trainer you’ve probably told teachers that theirs is too high too. I’ve definitely done this too. And I still do.

We all need to cut down and hand over to the students.

Reduce your TTT. Script your instructions. Your TTT is too high. Stop lecturing the students. Stop echoing. Stop having a running commentary on your lesson.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t disagree with the above advice – I think students do need to take control and that teachers often do talk too much.

But in focussing on the time or amount  rather than the quality of teacher talk and student talk,  I think we’re missing the point. I say  ‘I’   think we’re missing the point, but as ever these are not new ideas. Scroll through the slides below to the references and you’ll see that many people have flagged this issue up before. One key figure informing the field would be Steve Walsh, who has researched and indeed come up with practical routes out of this cul-de-sac of focussing merely on the amount of talk happening in the classroom. Instead of focussing on the amount of talk, we should focus on whether this talk matches our intentions at any given stage of a lesson.

And what are our intentions? Surely our main goal in the classroom should be to maximise learning opportunities. Teacher – student interaction in the classroom is one ripe area for such opportunities. So one of our goals should be that:

  1. we as teachers, and
  2. our students

are interactively competent in the classroom. This is what Steve Walsh calls Classroom Interactive Competence.

cic

How to develop this in our own practice, but especially how to strengthen this ‘missing strand’ in teacher education was the principal focus of the talk.

question.png

In the talk we IMG_20170404_102035looked at the development of CIC as distinct from Interactive Competence – with the classroom being a very specific context that demands its own interaction patterns. I shared my own initial attempts to integrate an awareness of CIC at different levels of teacher development on initial and in-service ELT training courses: Trinity Cert. and Dip. TESOL and Cambridge CELTA and Delta.

This was realised by using transcribed extracts of recorded lessons and self-evaluation tasks, together with assignments which integrated components of CIC in their design.

Critical to the whole discussion of TTT is having the right vocabulary to be able to identify what our talk is doing. Terminology on the slide below again comes from Walsh (2006).

terminology

Transcribing sections of our own classroom discourse and coding it using the above terminology allows us to notice patterns in our interaction, language use and over-use and see the effect that our teacher talk actually has on learning. I’ve tried it myself and can share the feeling reported by teachers in a study by Thornbury back in 1996 – that I was ‘ploughing ahead’ and not always exploiting student talk to maximise learning opportunities. Encouraging other teachers and trainees to do so has the advantage of creating critical reflection at the level of self-image as teachers.

The slides below show some of the assignments I’ve used on various courses, as well as more details about the terminology and where it comes from.

I hope you  agree it’s an area worth developing in training courses. And also as a tool for professional development at any stage of your career. Have you ever tried it out?

Select Bibliography

Ellis, R 1998 Discourse control and the acquisition rich classroom in W Renandya and G.M. Jacobs (eds). Learners and Language Learning Anthology series 39. Singapore S E A M O Regional Language Centre

Thornbury, 1996, Teachers research teacher talk, ELT-J, 50/4 October

Van Lier, 2000 From input to affordance : social interactive learning from an ecological perspective, in JP Landolf (ed)  Socio-cultural Theory and Second Language Learning

Walsh, S 2002 Construction or obstruction: teacher talk and learner involvement in the EFL classroom Language Teaching Research 6/1: 3-23

Walsh, S 2006 Investigating classroom discourse, London: Routledge

Walsh, S 2006, Talking the talk of the TESOL classroom, ELT J 60/ 2 April

Walsh, S 2011 Exploring Classroom Discourse, London: Routledge

iatefl glasgow

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Grasping The Nettle

IATEFL Glasgow 2017

grasping the nettle.png

It was a good conference for listening and phonology, this. Standout sessions from John Field, Sheila Thorn, Richard Cauldwell, Mark Hancock. Sandy Millin’s given a great roundup over here, as ever.

I was pleased to have a good audience for the final session on Friday – including some of the very people who inspired me to get more into listening and receptive phonology in the first place. As usual, the original ideas in the talk were rarely my own. Even the title – it’s lifted from an article by Richard Cauldwell.

john field

John Field looks like he’s about to hit me. He’s not. He’s a very nice man.

After a run through the background literature, and stressing the importance at looking at what causes perceptual difficulties for second language listeners, we looked at a timeless TEFL classic – the gapfill.

I often use transcription in listening lessons. I’ve done so myself in Spanish and with very little in the way of support – sometimes using a grid-type format as I’ve outlined elsewhere. At other times, I’d want a little more focus on the aspects that cause decoding problems for students, and for this a simple gapfill is ideal.

When creating material for listening, we can often focus on many things other than the speech stream itself and what causes great problems for our students. In the workshop, I shared three different gapfills focussing on different areas. We watched a short clip from a BBC show about India going cashless.

Here’s the tapescript – which bits would you blank out?

tapescript cashless

IMG_20170407_122503

The ‘Which gapfill?’ challenge.

Gapfills I would have made in the past would often focus on details:

gapfill 2 detail

This is fine, but it’s testing whether listeners have picked up the details of the listening text. I wouldn’t generally use this any more in my classes – I find it more effective for students to ask each other and the teacher if they’re unsure of gist or general details.

The next gapfill looked at something different:

gapfill1vocab.png

This one focusses mainly on lexis, and again, is probably not one that I would immediately go for if my focus was on developing learners’ perceptual abilities. It could be used, but would require some careful handling.

The final one we looked at is what I would tend to use most these days. It’s worth saying that I would use this after the class had listened a couple of times in order to extract the main ideas and details (by simply playing through and having them discuss what they think these are – clarifying and replaying at their request).

gapfill phon and answers

As the slide heading suggests, I would focus on what’s perceptually difficult. In other words, rather than focus on unusual words or grammar, I would focus on unusual or difficult soundshapes of familiar language. You can’t focus on absolutely everything, of course, so I’d prioritise. Areas I look out for would be function words – those that don’t carry prominence and can get easily missed by the second language learner. Also, what Cauldwell calls ‘squeeze zones’ (e.g. ‘Now I want to find out’) – where many words are rapidly uttered in a non-prominent area of a tone unit. I’d also focus on high-frequency clusters wherever they appear – simply because they have high surrender value – it’s likely the listener will hear them again in spoken English.

Here’s a second example from the talk – this time from a podcast about 3D printing from the Naked Scientists.

3dprint

Which areas would cause problems for your students?

Here’s what I focussed on with mine:

3dprint answers.png

We looked at the process we need to go through as teachers when doing this: essentially sitting down with the audio and a tapescript and listening to predict what decoding problems students will have:

▪Find / record your text – always consider needs and interest of students

▪Chop it – audacity, tubechop etc. See here for how.

▪Listen with tapescript and a highlighter

▪Make sure you mark times on your tapescript for replaying

▪Predict what they’ll have problems with and prepare for this.

▪Prepare for different levels of T control and intervention.

▪Consider high frequency clusters – something that’s likely to come up again.

▪Focus more on function words.

Once we’ve done the receptive work, we’ll often want to follow up on the content of a listening, so we looked at some activities that do this while keeping a phonological focus rather than moving on to lexis or discussion (not that I’d never do this, just that my intention is sometimes to focus very much on the sounds)

We looked at minimal pair chunk bingo (Catchy title, eh?) I’ve talked about elsewhere

minimal pair chunk bingo pic.png

We also looked at how we can adapt microdictation tasks to try to generalise the features of multi-word chunks. Here’s one that followed the Naked Scientist’s task.

Students can ‘race’ to complete their grids on the left, with the teacher dictating 3 or 4 word clusters of a similar pattern to those picked out of the listening. For example, here we have ‘layer by layer’ in the listening. The teacher could dictate ‘one by one’ ‘bit by bit’ ‘step by step’. Or from the listening we have ‘and the reason it’s’ – the teacher can dictate ‘and the way it’s’, ‘and the place it’s’ and so on. Students have to listen and write the chunk in the correct row on their grids. Once it’s all filled in they can use their grids in pairwork games like Connect Four, or battleships.

Time was running away from me at this stage, so I had to drop the Masterchef lesson – I’ll write it up properly and post materials here in due course when I get a chance.

We did just have time to have a quick look at crowdsourced microlistenings. I used three clips collected from the audience earlier this year at the IH Barcelona conference. As before, the key task was to listen and decide what question they were answering.

The actual question was ‘what’s your comfort food?’, but when using this with students, I wouldn’t worry too much about about getting this exactly right ‘what’s your favourite food?’ works just as well. I’d have students listen several times until they could work out and transcribe the exact words each speaker used. The second one above talks about ‘twiglets’ – I had to listen a few times myself to extract that one. Kudos to Anthony Gaughan who got it on the first listen in the session!

There was no time to actually record our own, so we pretty much wrapped things up there.

Here’s the slides from the talk: