Get Them Talking: Increasing Student Talk Time in the Classroom


Allison Lewis, Pui Tak Center in Chicago & University of Illinois at Chicago

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I’m always thinking about how I can get my students to talk more in class. With the limited amount of class time we have, it’s important to create as many opportunities as possible for my students to practice speaking. One day when I was getting over a cold and partially lost my voice, I worried that my class would be a disaster. But it turned out fine, and it helped me realize that I didn’t need to talk nearly as much as I thought I did during class. Being forced to restrict my own talk time helped me think about new ways to get my students talking more. Instead of just thinking about what activities will get students talking, I also started considering how to change the overall structure of my class to provide more speaking opportunities for students. Here are a few ideas:
Let Students “Be the Teacher”
  • When checking homework or the answers to an activity, ask a student to lead the class in checking the answers. The student in charge will call on their classmates individually to give the answers and then say if they are correct. (Just make sure the students know their classmates’ names so they can call on each other.)  If two students disagree about the answer, they discuss it with each other. This can lead to valuable opportunities for explanation and negotiation of meaning. Let the students determine the correct answer with each other, and try to only jump in to contribute when absolutely necessary. 
  • After students read an article or watch a video, instead of thinking of discussion questions yourself, ask students to think of questions they can ask each other. Depending on the level of your students, you could even ask one student to lead a discussion with the rest of the class or a small group.
  • As teachers, we often provide a summary of what was learned the previous day in class. Instead, ask a student to remind the class what they learned.
  • Call on a student to read the instructions for an activity.
  • When a student asks you a question, pose it to the class to see if another student can provide an answer.
Group Work
  • Use “Think, Pair, Share.” Having students talk with a partner gives them more time to formulate and practice their answers, and it also means that each student gets time to talk—unlike a whole-class discussion, in which there are usually only a few students who answer each question aloud.
  • Use the smallest possible group size. I’ve found that if a group includes more than three students, one or two students usually end up doing most of the talking, while the quieter or lower-level students sit silently. So unless I need to use larger groups for some reason, I almost always put students in pairs. Fewer people in each group means more available talk time for each student. (One other tip if your students often try turning pair work into individual work: If you’re using a handout, give only one handout to each pair so they have to work together.) 
These are just a few ideas to get you started thinking about how you can change your class structure and routines to get students talking more. I know it can be difficult to break the habits of a traditional classroom structure in which the teacher does most of the talking, and giving students more talk time often means we are giving over some of our classroom control to students. That can be a little scary since it makes the situation open-ended and a little uncertain. But it gives our students more opportunities to practice speaking, which is crucial for their development as English speakers.

Allison Lewis teaches Adult ESL at Pui Tak Center in Chicago and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Linguistics/TESOL at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 


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ITBE Link - Spring 2015 - Volume 43 Number 1