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How much teacher talk?

I recommend to you Barry Smith's blog about language teaching. Barry is a full-on, skill-building, cognitive code, teach-em-from-the-front, give-em-lots-of-written-word French teacher from the Michaela Community School, a new free school in London led by Katharine Birbalsingh.

In Barry's latest blog he refers to a young PGCE trainee from Cambridge who says they were advised that a lesson should be 10% teacher talk, 90% pupil talk. Barry clearly thinks this is duff advice and I agree.

It is certainly the case that over the last few years Ofsted clearly communicated the notion that a good lesson should not feature lots of teacher talk. Even in my fairly traditional grammar school we would make sure we planned our inspection lessons with plenty of pair work and a less than average amount of teacher talk. (To be fair, we did not have to alter our normal practice that much.)

It is also the case that teacher-led lessons, if poorly done, can switch off pupils and produce poor results.

But Ofsted are now telling schools that there is no preferred style of teaching and, whilst this might imply a kind of "anything goes" approach to teaching, which I could not honestly support, Ofsted are right to row back on the pupil talk emphasis.

So, is there a suitable balance of teacher versus pupil talk in language lessons? Whilst it may be foolish to put a figure on it - I'll do this later nonetheless -  we have to bear in mind this key point:

Pupils need to hear and read enough of the target language to give them the input on which to build proficiency. If you are a Krashenite comprehensible input fan you take this as a given. But even a "skill-builder" values the importance of students hearing and seeing lots of the target language. With this in mind, the teacher and the audio source are the best models. A pair work partner may be pretty good but may be pretty awful, so we cannot deprive students of the high quality comprehensible input they need.

The teacher has to talk a good deal, whether it be to model the language, ask questions, lead oral practice drills, explain grammar, explain phonology and letter-sound relationships, talk about the culture, model good assessment technique etc.

But the good language teacher also knows when to break the lesson up with appropriate pair or group work (pair work is usually better). This is often to stop boredom setting in, to shift the emphasis of the lesson, to allow pupils to try out their oral skills in a less threatening way and explain things to each other. Let's not forget two of the best things we have learned from the communicative movement: information gap tasks and using language for a real communicative purpose.

But if you were to ask me how many words a student should be hearing form the teacher, audio or video, compared with other students.... I would say other students should be playing a minor role. For me it would be closer to 10% pupil, 90% teacher/audio/video.


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What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

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Most teachers and researchers would agree that knowing words is even more important than knowing grammar if you wish to be proficient in a language. As linguist David Wilkins wrote in 1972: "Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed."One of the frustrations for teachers is pupils' inability to retain vocabulary for productive use. A good deal of research has been done over the years into how pupils might better keep words in memory. Two concepts which have come to the fore are spacing and interleaving.

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