10 Solid Gold ESL Teaching Tips to Maximize Your Students’ Talking Time

You’re smack dab in the middle of an ESL lesson gone wrong.

Your students seem to understand the grammar points, but they don’t look at all engaged or interested.

How did you end up here?

You’ve been giving them your tried-and-true explanation of the difference between “will” and “be going to.”

But then a realization suddenly dawns on you.

When was the last time any of your students talked?

Your homemade lesson plan covers the topic thoroughly enough — but there were no interactive games, group activities or motivational points to get your students enthusiastic about learning the material.

Instead, the students have remained silent for the entire lesson.

Why Student Talking Time is Critical

High STT – Student Talking Time – is one of the things today’s ESL students expect most from their classes. Thanks to the internet, students have more resources than ever to improve their passive skills. They can read articles or blogs online – many of which are written specifically for English learners. They can also listen to dedicated English learning podcasts, internet radio broadcasts or YouTube videos.

However, if they want to get better at speaking English, their best bet is still to take lessons.

In today’s highly competitive English education market, the schools that thrive are the ones which are able to promise and deliver high levels of STT.

In short, students are no longer satisfied paying expensive lesson fees to listen to someone talk.

They can do that at home for free.

For their hard-earned cash and time, they want to talk in class and get good feedback on their progress.

A 50-50 balance of STT and TTT (Teacher Talking Time) is the industry standard, but some schools – and instructors – boast 70-30, or even 80-20 ratios in their classes.

What can you do in your lessons to meet your students’ expectations to speak a lot — and possibly even hit 80-20-level highs?

10 Solid Gold ESL Teaching Tips to Maximize Your Students’ Talking Time

1. Keep your signposts and directions simple.

Nothing adds to TTT like complicated or wordy instructions. Consider the difference between the following sample instructions:

a. I think what we’ll do now is some practice of the key words we just learned. To do that, I’m going to ask you two questions, and I’d like you to answer them. Is that alright?

b. Let’s practice these words. I’ll ask you two questions.

The difference is not only 38 words versus 9, but also the difficulty of the language used. If you give the first set of instructions to a lower-level student or someone with weak listening comprehension, they’re not going to understand you. You’re using grammar and vocabulary that’s way over their head. You’ll only end up repeating all 38 words when your students ask you for clarification. Then you’ll say it again while simplifying it a little. Then you’ll eventually end up saying what you should’ve said in the first place: something clear and concise, like the second example.

2. Avoid explanations.

In the example at the top of this post, the teacher realized that they’d been talking too much, even though their explanation of “will” vs. “be going to” was good. Whenever possible, try to prompt your students with questions to help lead them to the answer on their own. This both increases their speaking time and makes use of their critical thinking skills.

3. Get your students to read instructions.

This is great for lessons where you use textbook, workbook or worksheet exercises frequently. It requires no effort on your part other than a simple command. For example, all you’ll have to say is something like, “Julia, read #1.” Take it a step further by having them read examples or describe accompanying pictures. This helps you build context for the activity and create purpose.

4. Set up activities interactively.

For example, suppose your plan is to run a role-play session where one student is ordering lunch at a restaurant. You could set up the whole thing yourself, but that would boost your TTT rather than STT. It would also end up being top-down. It would take less time, perhaps, but only if the student understood your instructions fully.

Instead, setting up the activity with a series of questions will help better establish context and make the activity more personalized for the student, because they’ll have a say in what it is to be.

Some possible questions you could ask in this example would be:

What kind of restaurant is it?

Where is it?

What would you like to order?

What questions will you ask?

Who are you? (ex. “I’m a customer.”)

Who is your partner? (ex. “She’s a server.”)

It might be a good idea to model this kind of conversation, and an excellent way to do so is by using the authentic videos on FluentU.

FluentU is a great resource to have in the classroom in general as a way to make native English speech more accessible to students.

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

5. Have your students do summaries.

Summaries make fantastic add-ons to just about any activity. For instance, if you’ve just had a discussion with an individual student about the business of brands, have the student summarize the opinions presented. If it’s a group lesson, have them summarize what their classmates said. Summaries take hardly any time to set up, are great comprehension and fluency practice for your students and, best of all, the students are the only ones who talk! All you need to do is sit, listen and make a few notes on their strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

6. Insist on full sentences every time.

Sure, it’s not necessarily natural to speak only in complete sentences. If a native English speaker is asked where they bought the coat they’re wearing, they’d be more likely to say “the mall” then “I bought it at the mall.” But, for boosting STT, full sentences are key. They also force your students to think about their grammar and syntax. Try associating a gesture with a reminder to speak in full sentences. Mine is spreading my left and right hands apart. When I do this, my students know they haven’t used a full sentence and need to try again.

7. Don’t talk about yourself.

In class – especially when teaching higher-level students – it can be very tempting to include “anecdotes” or “asides” from time to time.

These can be helpful if they have a purpose.

For instance, you might relate a personal experience to provide some context for new vocabulary or phrases. Unfortunately, too often these anecdotes don’t help and end up not only reducing STT (and boosting TTT), but also taking the lesson off-course. Instead, keep your lesson focused on the student as much as possible.

Resist the urge to throw in “stories” – they’re often more interesting for you than they are for them. In discussion or other fluency activities, make sure your students are the centerpieces. When students really want to know all about you, they’ll ask. (But even then, try to keep your answers brief!)

8. Maximize pair and group work.

In a private one-on-one lesson, the student practices with you. In group lessons, students should practice with each other at all times. This both boosts STT and gives them the opportunity to learn from each other. When students do pair and group work, they establish and solidify teamwork and communication.

9. Take yourself out of activities.

Your role in a group lesson should basically be to facilitate. You’ll be the “center” of the lesson when introducing the new language and concepts, but after that, the spotlight should be on your students. Let them talk to each other, and keep yourself free to note down corrections and things they did well.

10. Assign a “class leader” and use him/her.

A class leader can be one of your greatest assets in a group lesson. Class leaders can help provide examples when you need them and can assist you in setting up activities. This helps reduce your TTT in explaining things and makes setup more efficient. You can “show” rather than “tell.” Class leaders can help you even further by making pairs, summarizing instructions for activities and assigning homework! Choose someone with strong comprehension (relative to your group’s level) and initiative to be your group’s class leader.

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