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15 Tips to Limit Teacher Talk Time and Get Students Talking in the ESL Classroom

A good teacher should try to say as much as possible in a lesson to give as much information as possible… right?

WRONG! 

In this article we will look at why limiting teacher talk time in a class is a good thing.

You will also find 15 essential tips on how to start limiting your own teacher talk time and create better ESL speaking lessons for your students.

So… let’s dive in!

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Why Should You Limit Teacher Talk Time?

Just because you are the teacher it doesn’t mean you need to be in front of a blackboard talking at your students for an entire lesson.

This can maybe work well with certain concepts like grammar or when training listening ability but for building speaking skills we need more input from the students.

Naturally, in a conversation, there can only be one person speaking at a time. If you are speaking then the student is not and if they aren’t talking then how can they build their speaking ability?

Limiting teacher talk time will create the void needed for students to speak. Allow yourself to step back and listen to your students. Make notes on how they can improve and then guide them the right way.

This may be a different mindset than what you’re used to but is essential for students who want to focus on building their speaking fluency.

And… if you are teaching online then newsflash, this will be a large proportion of your students! Get this right and they will keep coming back for more.

The Tips to Get Your ESL Students Talking as Much as Possible

Now you are in the right frame of mind to begin helping your students build those speaking skills.

Let’s look at some top tips to get us speaking less and get them speaking more!

1. Ask Open-ended Questions

This first one is simple. Instead of asking closed-ended questions that are going to elicit… well… short answers at best, we should ask open-ended questions.

Look at the difference between these:

“Do you prefer chocolate or vanilla ice-cream?”

“What would you do if you won the lottery?”

How many possible answers could a student give for the first one? Two at most with some variation on sentence structure, right? 

The second question, however, has so many possibilities and the type of answer will usually be a lot longer.

Here’s a list of interesting conversation starter questions you can use to get a student talking.

2. Use the Words Because and But

Now, having open-ended questions is great and all but it doesn’t guarantee success.

In our last section, we looked at answering what a student would do if they won the lottery. They could still answer with a short “I would invest it.”

This is where our magic words because and but come in.

Whenever a student gives you an answer that is too short, you can get a little more out of them by adding one of these words on the end.

Again, back to our example:

Teacher: “What would you do if you won the lottery?”

Student: “I would invest it.”

Teacher: “Because…”

Student: “Because that way I would get even more money.”

It can also take a different direction when we use but:

Teacher: “What would you do if you won the lottery?”

Student “I would invest it.”

Teacher: “But…”

Student: “But maybe not all of it because I would want to buy some clothes first.”

3. Use the Words Tell Me and Describe

This is where things start to open up even more. When you tell a student to tell you about something or describe something then you are likely to get a fairly lengthy answer. 

Coupled with the fact that the teacher really doesn’t need to say that much, this is a powerful tool for levelling the student / teacher talk time balance.

We can add on follow up “tell me / describe” questions like so:

Teacher “Tell me about where you live.”

Student “I live in a small house in the city.”

Teacher “Describe the layout of your house.”

Student “It has three bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen… etc.”

4. Have the Students Ask You Questions

It’s very easy for things to sound like an interview when students follow your lead and only answer your questions.

Try mixing things up by getting them to ask you questions and engage more of their speaking side than just answering things.

Make sure your answers aren’t too long though. Remember that the shorter your answer, the more questions your student will have to think up to keep a conversation going.

I like to use this at the beginning of a class when doing some warm-up chitchat. I spend 5 minutes or so asking about my student’s week and then tell them to ask about mine.

5. Step Into a Supervisory Role

Consider your role in the classroom. In order to get the teacher talk time down, you will need to switch into a supervisor role. 

In this position, the students will have been set a task (roleplay, interview each other, free talk, etc.) and your job is to simply make sure they are doing the right thing and only step in when necessary to make occasional corrections. 

Finding the right balance for how often you should intervene is a skill you will develop with time.

You want to give your students enough space to be able to work things out but at the same time, you need to correct any major errors. 

You will also need to check that they aren’t doing things such as speaking in their mother language or simply staying silent and not trying!

6. Have the Students Read the Lesson Explanations

I like to do this in my grammar lessons. Instead of reading everything out to a student and having them nod along, I like to get them to read it.

Not only are they learning grammar but we are getting them to read these things themselves which allows us to check their pronunciation at the same time, very effective!

Bear in mind that reading aloud tends to lower comprehension ability. For this reason, you may want to take over explaining when you get to really tough parts.

Alternatively, you can tell your students that they can read it again in their head if they struggled to understand something when speaking out loud.

7. Be Encouraging!

Speaking English can be very intimidating for some students.

They might not be naturally confident speakers in their own language, let alone in a language they don’t feel confident in!

The biggest worry is likely to be making mistakes.

Some students want their work to be perfect and the thought of making a mistake means that they will think it’s better to say fewer things well than risk saying more and messing everything up.

You need to explain from the beginning that this is the best environment for them to make mistakes.

It’s better to make those mistakes now where an English Teacher can correct them than later down the line in a more critical situation.

8. Be Strict With Bullies

Coming back to groups, this can be worse as not only are students thinking about what their teacher thinks but also their peers.

Again, make it clear to your students that making mistakes is fine but making fun of others will not be tolerated.

This is vital as if your quiet students get picked on for their mistakes by others then they are going to be even less likely to want to speak up.

Be strict with any bullies from the beginning!

Learn how to set classroom expectations effectively in this post.

9. Use a Ratio of 3:1 for Talk Time

This is the ratio of student to teacher talk time that you can aim to keep to for a specific exercise.

Tell your students that for every sentence you speak, they must speak for three sentences when replying (3:1). 

If your student replies with less than this ratio, simply wait…

It may feel awkward at first but your students will soon get the hang of it and realise that they have to fill that gap. Which leads on to another important tip…

10. Enjoy the Silence in Conversations

In order to get some students talking, you will need to create some gaps in the conversation and this can feel awkward at first, very, very awkward.

You may be used to having to fill this gap with more speaking but you will have to turn that mindset off.

For a conversation to work you will obviously need to say some things, ask questions, etc.

But if a student gives an answer that is too short, if they try to quickly pass the “talking baton” back almost immediately then you will need some pauses in there.

Nobody likes this awkward feeling of “somebody should be talking” and sooner or later your student will say at least a little something else to keep the conversation going. 

In order to get to this point though you will need to desensitise yourself from that awkward feeling and try to become comfortable with it so that only the student feels slightly awkward.

We need to shift the thinking from “nobody is talking so the teacher is making things awkward” to “nobody is talking so the student is making things awkward”.

11. Split the Class Into Smaller Groups

Obviously, in order to practise speaking in a group class, you will need to split everyone into smaller groups. 

Now, you could split people into groups of 4-5 students and have them speak that way. If you do this then you’ve reduced teacher talk time but we are still left with students waiting for their turn to speak.

However, if you split your class into pairs then this increases the student talk time even more.

Something to consider the next time you do group work in class!

12. Have the Students Teach the Teacher

This is something I’ve started doing recently and am enjoying good results with it.

When going through your lesson, check your student’s comprehension of a word, phrase or concept by getting them to explain it to you (as if you didn’t know).

This can be quite difficult for them as they may only have a rough grasp of what it is anyway.

That being said, if they can power through and find a way to explain it to you then not only will they have boosted their speaking ability (explaining difficult things) but you should also find that their concept of that thing will have deepened as a result.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca said: “While we teach, we learn”

13. Have the Students Teach the Class

Similarly, you can have students explain things to other students. I’ve been using this to wonderful effect in my group classes.

Conduct your class, as usual, let’s say you are doing some reading practise. Your student comes across an interesting word that you want to check their comprehension of.

Simply ask them if they know what that word means. If they know it, then great, they can explain it to you (as mentioned in the point above).

If they don’t know it then don’t just give them the answer, open it up to the rest of the class…

“Does anybody else know this word?”

Now you are not only enlightening student A on the definition of a word but student B is building their ability to explain things (and strengthening their understanding of the word in the process).

Is there such a thing as killing three birds with one stone?

14. Get Out the Timer

This is something that would work better in a one-to-one class but could see some benefit in a group class.

Bring out a timer so it is in sight of both you and the student.

You will then ask questions and the student will need to talk for a set amount of time. You will only begin speaking again once the time is up, which forces the student to keep going even if they get stuck.

This is great as it gives you a measurable target you can use to increase speaking stamina.

Start with a short time such as thirty seconds and over time bring the time up until it’s up to several minutes.

As well as being great for general speaking practice, this is a great tool for anyone studying the IELTS where examinees are expected to speak for up to several minutes without any aid from the other person.

15. Always Have Backup Conversation Activities Prepared

You will inevitably finish a lesson earlier than expected at some point and need to find some way to fill the time.

Have some simple conversation activities prepared, for example:

  • Split the students into pairs and get them to find out 5 things about the other person.
  • Split the students into pairs and have them find out about the other’s day.
  • Split the students into pairs and have them plan an ideal holiday.

Add some more to your list and you will have your own, great “get out of jail free” cards!

Check our section of ESL teacher resources for more speaking activities.

Conclusion

Again, one of the biggest things you can do is become comfortable with the idea of not having to speak all of the time.

Once you create that space then you will start to see it filled with your students’ words instead and that’s where their speaking ability really grows!

Experiment with these tips, don’t be afraid to mix and match or even try some of your own ideas out!

About Jonathan Race

Jonathan is a native English teacher with 3.5 years of teaching experience. As well as teaching online, he also runs the website English +XP, an online resource for English learners and teachers.

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