Robert O’Neill has questioned a basic idea of EFL teaching that too much teacher talk is bad and therefore more 'student talk' can be achieved by reducing teacher talking time. In contrast, he introduces the idea of teacher talking quality; it’s not the time the teacher spends talking, but the quality of the teacher’s talk*. O’Neill certainly makes a valid point, yet it requires further elaboration.
First, the idea that decreasing teacher talking time (TTT) will increase student talking time (STT) needs to be addressed. One can imagine a teacher doing various things, e.g., telling stories, partaking in speaking activities, and giving instructions. Should a teacher avoid talking when it comes to piquing students’ interest; relaying some culturally relevant anecdotes; explaining how an activity is going to work? I don’t see how a seasoned teacher could argue that TTT should be avoided when it comes to these situations. TTT versus STT becomes important when considering speech which does not result in student learning. Such speech from teachers would therefore be lacking in quality and efficiency, but what does that look like?
STT and TTT have to do with time, which is easily measured. O’Neill has proposed the acronym TTQ (teacher talking quality). Quality in comparison to time is not quite as objective, which is why I believe the discussion of TTT x STT seems to be a recurrent theme in TEFL. That’s not to say that quality can’t be measured. One could design a rubric for scoring the quality of teacher talk just as we’ve developed a scoring rubric for the writing assignments we give to our students. This TTT rubric should give points to a teacher who uses elicitation, gives practical and clear explanations, checks for understanding by asking concept questions, allows students to be responsible for their self-directing their speech, organizes students into speaking pairs or groups, and tolerates silence long enough to give students time to formulate a response. Likewise, this TTT rubric should take points away for a teacher who speaks for many minutes without elicitation, gives explanations full of terminology, transitions to an activity without first asking questions that check student comprehension, controls or dominates discussion to the point where students have limited involvement in the learning process, or impatiently reinitiates talk without giving students time to process so as to formulate a proper response.
Above all, teachers need to be humanistic and understand that although silence can be used as a technique in specific instances (allowing the student time to find their words), being silent all the time is not natural and doesn’t cater to everyone’s learning needs. Students who seek clarification or wish to share their experiences with the class should be welcomed with a warm response from the teacher. In fact, teacher talk can include current issues in comparison to dated textbooks or audio, disseminate relevant content, and fine-tune language to a level that is readily comprehensible based on that student’s level of language development. We also can’t forget that the teacher’s English is a source of input for our students to process both consciously and unconsciously.
To summarize, it’s safe to say that there are some strong points to O’Neill’s argument for TTQ. When TTT is dry and monotonous, void of elicitation, or needlessly complicated, it becomes obvious why TTQ is so crucial. That is not to say that TTT shouldn’t be limited at times when students are capable of some learner autonomy; they can guide their own discussions, which both further involves students in the learning process and develops their speaking skills when it comes to turn-taking or discovering the meaning of vocabulary or grammar rules for themselves. English classes can’t be all about the vocabulary and grammar, however. Teacher talk is needed to build rapport with our students so that they not only learn the language but are given opportunities to use the language in ways that are meaningful and humanistic. In the end, it bodes well for the teacher who recognizes when it is necessary and not necessary to talk during class, duly combined with the idea that when TTT is warranted, it is done with our students’ learning needs in mind.
*Robert O'Neill – IATEFL, April 2004