The Golden Rule of Language Teaching

April 2012

In classroom observations, the biggest single problem I see, time and again, with novice and experienced alike, is too much TTT. It’s a big topic, not least because prescriptions on teacher talk tend to get overlooked and are sometimes dismissed.

Rambling is bad enough in any subject but in language teaching it’s far more disadvantageous for the student. I don’t think people really disagree with the reasoning behind limiting TTT. We all know why student talk is important. But from my own observations, I have noticed that people tend to underestimate their own TTT and overestimate that of the students.

We all do it. We all have the tendency to blether a bit. It’s just human nature. I think teacher talk can be a comfort zone. The first type of overdoing it (maybe I could call this ‘negative ttt+’) can happen when we feel unsure about something and we go into talk mode as a way of reassuring ourselves that we are in control of the situation.

The second or ‘positive’ type is the fact that we open up when we feel comfortable with the people around us. After a rapport has been built, we stop being self-conscious and become more assertive. We naturally lose our inhibitions after a while and this reflects itself in TTT levels.

A heady mix of these two attitudes is compounded by the fact that the teacher is invariably the person in the room with the best proficiency and knowledge of the language. And thus the impetus to talk is even greater still when the students are not typically as confident in their own skills.

Over the limit: Teacher talk
can be intoxicating but often
doesn’t serve best interests. . . .

This is why we need to proactively turn the tables in their favour: to give them not just the opportunity but the obligation to come forth and talk. A prescription like the old 80/20 principle is a kind of affirmative action to put learners at the centre of things. Giving students the opportunity to talk is the easy part, but it doesn’t always get taken up. Thus the onus predictably comes back on the teacher and this is how the backslide into more TTT happens. This is also why properly executed communicative tasks are beneficial; they put the focus on to something abstract and purposeful for a decent amount of time. Fully participant conversation, when you get it, only does this briefly.

So this is why I think a good discussion of TTT needs to be one of the central planks of any teacher training course. Secondly, TTT then has to be curbed proactively by schools to continually remind people. And I don’t think the word prescription has to be pejorative here. It’s perfectly reasonable, like a measure prescription on a glass of wine or a pint of beer. It’s a solution.

Tulip glass
No half measures: The imperial pint was
established in the Weights and Measures
Act of 1824 to give consumers a fair deal.
No reason why the ELT industry can’t strive
for a similar standard for student talk time.

Dogme has an issue because there are no prescriptions on ttt and so it always has the danger of descending into a teacher talk show. Dogme is not as teacher-centred as book-based approaches of course, but still I see room for improvement with it. For dogme to be a viable pedagogy and to be researchable, I think it needs a prescription on ttt. Not a fashionable idea but it’s based on a practical sense of students 1st and teacher 2nd, which of course is not at all at odds with the philosophy.

The 80/20 rule is a sensible way of quantifying the language of a class but why 20 percent (or 30 for beginners)? It doesn’t have to be. 20 percent happens to be a nice natural ratio given the numbers involved normally and the fact that language learning is a skill which thus needs hands on participation from the learners rather than teacher-led instruction. Obviously this is a well acknowledged notion. But it’s a general rule so does not have to be followed to the letter. It serves as a helpful guide. That’s all. If students are spending more time talking than the teacher, you can be sure that the lesson is on the most important footing to be effectual in the progress of their learning.

Beer mat
Purity prescription: The traditional German beer laws meant that only four ingredients could be used in brewing: water, barley, hops and yeast. Note that yeast is by far the smallest quantity yet the catalyst that harnesses the potential of the rest. The same might be said of TTT as the largely latent but key component of a good class.

The point is that especially for research, you need quantity first and quality second. First you need data then you can examine it. But in order to get decent data to start with, you need a proper parameter on it and the 80/20 provides this. And in a way, this is about practice over theory. It’s about common sense and putting first things first. Student talk is the number one most important aspect of a class. Student talk can be worked on, can be developed, can be remembered. Teacher talk comes as secondary in this scheme.

Once this raw quantity is safeguarded, then you can analyze what people are doing with the language. Then you can look at the quality of the talk, at the interactiveness, the difficulty, appropriateness, and effectiveness of that talk. Then you can look at how that talk is related to lesson goals and practice goals, and then you can even look at L1 and L2 related issues and all other aspects.

Dogme is a loose cannon in this respect, as is much of Communicative Language Teaching because this old prescription has faded. The ttt rule is seen as authoritarian. But it shouldn’t be. It’s just sensible. It’s a fundamental and dogme needs a scientific, precise, and criticial approach. There is no code for dogme which specifies technique and material. There is no categorization or quantitative and qualitative benchmarks. However, the dogme that gets taught in classrooms utilizes materials and different approaches and so what about the variability of these? This is the biggest headache for researching dogme. But before all this can be considered, a fundamental ought to be established.

To me, the golden rule of modern language teaching with relatively small classes is that you cannot, under any circumstances, allow the majority of a class become teacher centred. Time is a resource and once we have that allocated fairly — weighted in the favour of the learner, then we can move forward in a generally optimum way. It’s about us getting the most out of them. And them getting the most out of us is, perhaps unfortunately, a luxury to be employed and enjoyed only in an immersion environment.

Pimm's Rangoon
A class in a glass: A class is like
cocktail of language, ideas, and
personalities and the teacher is the
discreet bar tender with the professional
knowledge and skills to blend them
elegantly into something potent.