“I wish you would talk less…”
The comment smacks me in the face over and over as I read my 6th hour students’ feedback for the semester.. At first, I think they must be forgetting how little I speak. How much work time I give them. How they clearly must be wrong, because I am the queen of not speaking much.
Yet, that very next day I realize that they are right. As I teach my 6th hour, the one right after lunch, I see how much longer I take to get directions. How much more information I give them. How my brain seems to work a little slower right after lunch and I am talking myself back into the lesson. At the expense of their time. At the expense of their attention span. And their eyes glaze over so I speak more to get them excited It’s a vicious cycle.
And I am not the only one speaking too much. As I do workshops on student engagement, I keep adding m0re and more research on teacher talk versus student talk. The research is startling; according to John Hattie teachers ask between 200 and 300 questions a day, whereas most students ask 2. 2...And those questions are typically clarification questions.
Teachers dominate classroom talk speaking anywhere between 60% to 75% of the time. That means in an average 45 minute English class, the teacher may lead the conversation an average of 27 to 33 minutes, leaving little time for most students to speak. And while I know I do not speak that much in any class, unless we are learning an entirely new concept, I also know that most of us think we speak a lot less than we actually do. And I also know that the more my students seem disengaged, the louder I speak.
So what can be done to limit teacher talk. To create an environment where students have a much bigger chance to discuss and explore? Where every child has a voice and someone to hear it?
Own your talking. Like I said, I thought I was quick to get to the point, apparently not. If we won’t acknowledge that we talk too much we won’t see an impetus for change. And if you are not sure, ask your students.
Set a timer. I generally allow myself 10 minutes to teach a concept leaving 25 minutes for the students to work and me to do one-to-one or small group instruction (25 minutes because we start with 10 minutes of independent reading). I thought I was pretty good at keeping it to 10 minutes but my surveys are telling me otherwise. Time to pull the timer out again.
Have students answer in a group. Too often, we rely on the call out question and answer, which is not the type of talk we should be trying to generate since it only allows one student to speak. I often have students give their answers in their table groups instead and then have them share out. I find that it opens up the classroom for much deeper discussions since many students become invested in the conversation, and it also means that students who may have been confused get a chance to try out some ideas or unscramble their thoughts. Turn and talk also works for this. Circulate instead and pick up on their answers that way.
Avoid the echo. The best advice I received my first year as a teacher was to stop echoing student answers back to them and yet, I still catch myself doing it every now and again. Our job is not to be the voice of the classroom, it is to give students a way to be the voice. So when a child gives an answer do not repeat it, if the class did not hear it then have them ask for it to be repeated.
Change your questions. No more call and response, instead have open-ended questions that will lead to a discussion. I know this, yet I forget at times, I will therefore be writing some big questions down on a post-it to remind me.
Just ask the question. Too often when we ask a question, it becomes a long rambling sentence filled with anecdotes and extra information. Yet this ends up confusing students more and we then have to repeat the question. So get to the point and then add afterwards for those students who need it.
Stop the unnecessary repetitions. How often do we teach to the students who do not get it rather than assume that most will? So rather than over-explain, state the instructions and then head over and check in with those students who may not have understood. Think of how often we explain more than necessary because we are worried that a few students may not get it while the others have? Stop explaining so much and teach instead to those that do need it.
Stop interrupting. How many read alouds have we interrupted to ask just one more question? How many times have students been in the zone working and we have borken their concentration to do a quick check-in. I think I do it because that looks like teaching to me; a busy teacher asking lots of questions. Find the right time to interrupt, enjoy your read aloud rather than constantly model what you are thinking. Limit it to the very best things so that students can reach a state of flow more often.
Be mentally ready after a break. The hour that told me I spoke the most is the one right after lunch, where my brain has had a nice break and I feel more relaxed. Yet, I often enter the classroom right when my students enter and then launch into class. Get your brain woken up by revisiting (mentally or on paper) your main points of instructions. Take a few minutes to wake yourself up so that you are back in teaching mode, because when we don’t we end up rambling.
Encourage student talk. By emphasizing the importance of students speaking up, asking questions, discussing and dissecting, we can create communities where all students are heard, where all voices are part of the learning. My amazing principal, Shannon Anderson, gave me the idea of giving each child two markers that they use when they want to speak. All students need to have used a marker in the group before they can use their second one. While I have not tried this yet, I want to try it for book club discussions to make sure all students feel they can speak and that not one voice dominates the conversations.
As little as we think we speak, I think it is vital to take the pulse of our classrooms every now and again. We would all like to think that our words are dripping wisdom, but how often do we ramble on when students are ready to work? So check yourself and your talk, ask your students, and then change your ways. I never want to be main voice of the classroom, none of us do, but it takes changing our deep-seated ways to truly change it. We can create classrooms filled with passionate learners but to do it, students have to have a voice.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.