Why are your Students Talking?

I cannot count the number of times I have walked by a classroom and have seen students having conversations/discussions as a class task.

When taking the the communicative approach to teaching, this would appear to be a good thing. Right?Well, technically this is right, if the teacher has managed to appropriately design the speaking tasks to "communicate through real meaning"

Jose Bowen (2012) suggests that "leading a good discussion that results in the learning outcomes [teachers] want can be much harder than delivering a competent lecture. A small group of prepared, talkative, and comfortable students and an engaging topic can make preparation easier, but striking a balance between guiding the discussion and letting the students discover their own connections is difficult" (196).

As teachers, ideally we want talk in the classroom to facilitate learning. Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Carol Rothenberg suggest (in their book referenced below) that “if students aren't using the words, they aren't developing discourse. As a result, we often think we've done a remarkable job teaching students and then wonder why they aren't learning. The key is for students to talk with one another, in purposeful ways, using [target] language.” It is said that teaching does not equal learning, and I agree. 

In a TESOL class I was teaching last week, a student asked me "how do I know if students have met the objective?" My response to her was "if they can do it." I explained that students should be able to demonstrate whatever it is that you are teaching.

Knowledge in itself cannot be measured. Application of knowledge can. This same principle relates to speaking activities in the classroom. Just because students are talking does not mean they are improving their speaking.

There are a number of factors that stop students from participating in discussions mentioned by Stephen D. Brookfield (2006) in his book The Skillful Teacher. He believes the problem can be linked to (pgs. 133-141):
  1. Introversion
  2. Fear of looking stupid
  3. Unpreparedness
  4. Trust issues
  5. Enviroment
  6. Past experiences
  7. Loss of status
  8. Teacher interjection
  9. Lack of rewards
Here is a representation of how I believe teachers can integrate talk in the classroom and make it purposeful, and tackle those problems mentioned above as a result. The visual has been organized to show that each of the sections can be combined or done separately.

This visual is based on Types of Talk  from the book  Content-AreaConversations. I have adapted it to fit the needs of a language class, including new elements in what was their Independent Tasks section. Based on my own teaching experience, noticing and reflecting are crucial in improving one’s confidence and fluency in talking.

Using this structure of Modeling, Guiding, Collaborating and Individualizing, how will you change your speaking tasks to facilitate learning?
By Shawna Cole


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