6 ESL Teaching Techniques to Cut TTT and Get Your Students Talking

“The teacher doesn’t give the students enough time to talk.”

Every teacher has heard this criticism or something similar.

Whether you’re getting it from students or supervisors, it’s something you probably want to change.

Usually, we hear this when we first start teaching and still have to learn to adapt.

Especially in quieter classes, teachers are inclined to talk more.

However, students and administrations alike want less teacher talking time (TTT) in the classroom.

How do we change the habit of talking too much in class? Is there a balance between verbal instruction and student interaction? Is there more to minimizing TTT than just motivating students?

What’s Teacher Talking Time (TTT)?

Teacher talking time refers to the amount of class time the teacher spends speaking to the class, either as part of a lecture or in discussions. Particularly in ESL classes, more time needs to be given to students so they can speak more—foreign language learners improve more rapidly when they’re able to practice what they’ve learned more often.

Don’t take this to mean that TTT is all bad — it’s not always a negative thing in the ESL classroom. Students need to hear a native speaker pronounce words correctly. Students also need to hear explanations as well as see them. Plus, sometimes you’ve just got to get the ball rolling.

It’s also worth mentioning that not all in-class instruction counts as TTT. Non-verbal cues and written instructions aren’t included in the TTT. Of course, those parts of the instruction time don’t count as student talk time either.

The goal is for you to take up no more than 50% of the class time with talking. This doesn’t mean that the other half of the class time needs to be totally filled with students talking, but students should all have their fair share of time to talk.

Why do teachers need to cut TTT?

Too much TTT can make your class boring.

I know, we’re all brilliant teachers and everyone loves the sound of our voices.

But the ESL class isn’t about the teacher, it’s about the students. The class should, therefore, be focused on the students with the teacher serving as a guide.

Reducing the amount of TTT will make the class more interesting for students—it may even make the class more interesting for you as well (your students can surprise you with insights and opinions on the topics covered in class, you just have to give them a chance to express themselves).

How will less TTT improve your class?

The more your ESL students talk, the more likely they are to improve. They learn best by doing. When you speak less, they fill in the empty spaces. With adolescent students, it may be very challenging to get them talking at all. This is only harder when you’re overwhelming them with TTT because they’ll feel more complacent taking the back seat and simply listening to you.

While your students are talking more during classroom activities, you’ll have the opportunity to make more corrections that they can learn from. They’ll get used to making mistakes and being okay with that. This means that they’ll be even more receptive to hearing those corrections and picking up what they need to do in the future.

When students are able to freely express their opinions in a class, they’re more satisfied with the outcome. Even if they don’t learn as much about grammar or vocabulary, they’ll be advancing their practical speaking skills. In ESL programs, teachers need to maintain a balance between student satisfaction and academic achievement.

6 ESL Teaching Techniques to Cut TTT and Get Your Students Talking

1. Time yourself

If you’ve heard that criticism about the amount of time you spend talking in class, it’s time to take action. Even if you haven’t heard this comment specifically, it’s worth the effort to improve your classroom manner and really get the most out of your class time.

The first step you should take is to time yourself.

Depending on how well you can naturally keep track of time, you may be able to estimate the time you spend talking. If you’re not that good at judging time, bring a stopwatch to class. I always have to check my watch during class to ensure everything’s running on schedule. Whenever you give instructions or lecture the class, use the stopwatch.

After class, calculate how much time you spent talking. If you filled up the majority of the class time, you need to make adjustments. Think back to which points in your lesson you spoke the most. How much was repetition? How much was answering student questions? How much was lecturing?

Take a moment to reflect.

At what points in your lesson could you have either cut out some of the speaking or replaced it with student-centered activity?

2. Add more detail to your lesson plans

Are your lesson plans detailed? Or do you prefer a rougher outline?

If your choice is the latter, you may want to alter your approach. For those with too much TTT, it’s important to plan more effectively. For every point you intend to cover in your lesson plan, you should have a talking time estimate. This’ll help you keep track of your TTT.

When you’ve got more detail in your lesson plans, you’ll notice points at which you’ll tend to speak more or less. If your lesson is full of activities that require a lot of verbal instruction or lecturing, you need to find alternatives. Split those more involved activities up into multiple lessons or replace them with student-centered activities.

As you alter your lesson plans, evaluate the effectiveness every day. Sometimes we cut the TTT too much and lessons become less clear. Listen to your students and watch for their reactions to the reduction in TTT.

One type of non-TTT activity that your students might like is FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

 It lets students learn using fun videos and real-world context.

3. Ask more leading questions

When you get into the heart of your lesson, you should encourage students to speak more. Rather than just asking questions throughout a lecture, try asking leading questions.

Which of these questions are your students more likely to answer?

What is the present progressive tense?

How can we talk about an activity that is happening right now?

The first question implies that your ESL students have read their textbook and understand clearly what the different verb tenses are. The second question may get students to describe the present progressive tense or provide an example without actually stating what the tense is. Some students may even answer the second question directly with “present progressive tense.” Either way, by providing more information through leading questions, you’ll trigger their memories better and allow them to answer however they can.

No matter how the students choose to answer that second question, they’ll see it as more engaging than the first. It’s more open-ended and they can come up with multiple ways of answering. Therefore, they’re more likely to answer the question without fear of being incorrect.

You may even change the question to “can we use present progressive tense to talk about daily activities?” As students answer this, you can ask follow-up questions that’ll lead the class to explain the verb tense in greater detail. This should provide the students with a better understanding of the grammar point overall.

4. Incorporate more group work into lessons

The easiest way to cut down on TTT is to use group activities. ESL students feel more at ease when speaking with their peers than when speaking in front of the class.

Whether you have your class practicing a dialogue or writing an introductory paragraph, have the students work in groups or pairs. The students will learn from each other and they’ll enjoy the time more—they certainly won’t be able to fall asleep at their desks like they sometimes do during a lecture.

There are even listening activities that can be done in groups to decrease TTT.

Group work allows you to go around the classroom and listen to all your students. You can answer individual questions and provide more specific instructions to those who don’t fully understand the material.

5. Use more non-verbal cues

There are words or phrases that you repeat in class all the time. You’re tired of saying them and your students are tired of hearing them.

Replace them with non-verbal cues.

The first few times you use non-verbal cues, you should also say what you mean at the same time.

The class will pick up on the cue quickly.

After those initial few times, they’ll know what you mean just by looking at you.

Some of your non-verbal cues might involve tapping the board and pointing to specific words or phrases for students to read or repeat. If a student is reading a sentence written on the board and you point or tap one word, the student will understand that something is wrong and try again. There’s a wide variety of gestures you could use. To find the ones that work best for your lessons and students, explore a little and see what students to. (Disclaimer: If you’re teaching in a foreign country, research which gestures might be considered inappropriate or offensive before using them in class.)

If you don’t think you’re capable of providing adequate non-verbal cues, start playing charades with friends. Travel to a country where you don’t speak the language and force yourself to communicate with your hands. Really, this will improve your ability to communicate with your students without actually speaking.

6. Ask for feedback

After evaluating your lessons and altering how you manage the class, you should be able to cut down on TTT. If you have a difficult time decreasing the TTT, ask for feedback—you may be able to have a colleague observe a class or even ask your students what they think of a lesson. Consider the advice and determine whether you can use it.

Asking for feedback in class is a sneaky way to boost their talking time. They’ll have to try to express their opinions in English!

After you’ve cut the TTT, you may notice that your classes run smoother and your students are more engaged. Your students will then be more receptive if you have to revert to occasional lectures—they’ll understand that it’s a necessary evil of education. Over time, you’ll find a better balance between your talking time and your students’ talking time.

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