I’ve Heard of TTT vs STT, But What Does That Really Mean?

This article was originally posted on the BELTA blog.

A few years ago I wrote this cheeky post, reminding teachers that sometimes it’s a good idea to shut up for a while. I’m returning to this idea in a slightly more reflective way due to this post on Brainpickings about the twentieth-century novelist, poet, playwright, and psychiatrist Paul Goodman who examined “the nine types of silence present in life” in his 1972 book Speaking and Language.

Goodman says:

“Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”

In our training as teachers we are often told about the balance between teacher talk time (TTT) versus student talk time (STT), but I think this is far too simplistic. For a start, it forgets about silence. Silence is an essential part of any lesson and the idea of getting to the end of a lesson without any of it sounds horrible to me.

Apologies to anyone reading this who teaches young learners as I have a feeling you may be scoffing at this idea. I teach adults and teenagers, so this is a realistic goal for me.

Our students have to be silent for a number of reasons. There are times when they need to listen attentively, whether it’s to you, to another student or to audio or video. They will probably have to do some reading or writing at some point, even if it’s only for a moment to complete an activity or to read a grammar explanation. Perhaps the most difficult one for teachers and other students is the thinking time some students need when asked a question. Extraordinary levels of patience can be required to wait without rushing in.

I also think that the idea of STT and TTT are too basic. What kinds of STT and TTT are taking place? Here are some possibilities.

STT

  • Student talks to class very briefly (e.g. ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer)
  • Student talks to class briefly (e.g. Answers a question in the coursebook with a sentence)
  • Student talks to class for medium duration (e.g. Answers the question “How was your weekend?”)
  • Student talks to class in long form (e.g. Gives a presentation on a subject)
  • Student interviews a partner using pre-prepared questions
  • Student has a conversation with partner with no preparation
  • Student has a conversation with the teacher
  • Student repeats phrases (drilling)
  • Student participates in a group discussion
  • Student leads a group discussion
  • Student talks about something irrelevant to the lesson to another student, possibly in L1

TTT

  • Teacher engages one student in spontaneous conversation
  • Teacher leads a group conversation
  • Teacher offers ‘hot correction’ during a productive activity
  • Teacher answers a student question on language
  • Teacher answers a student question on culture
  • Teacher answers a student question on something irrelevant to the objectives of the lesson
  • Teacher explains a grammar point
  • Teacher explains how vocabulary is actually used in the real world

… and I’m sure there are more examples.

All of these exchanges are potentially worthwhile in a lesson, and equally there are times when they are inappropriate. In order to evaluate whether we are using the student’s time productively, we need to have a better understanding of exactly what is happening in that period of STT or TTT. There are times when a teacher spending a few minutes to make sure his students really understand what is going on is very valuable, but if he or she doesn’t know when to stop and continues rambling on for too long, it has become a problem. Equally, we want our students to produce as much as possible, but if they ‘over-produce’ and don’t allow other students a chance (and we’ve all had those students…), we’ll have to step in and do something about it.

Also missing from the equation are other forms of input such as recorded audio and video (from both authentic sources and from coursebooks), and listening to other students (if we think of this as being from a student’s point of view) which should also be taken into account.

All of these inputs and outputs need to be assessed in the same light – are they justified? Is this the right time for this to be happening, and if yes, for how long? If no, what should I be doing instead? A more nuanced approach to TTT vs STT will lead to more reflective, analytical, and ultimately, better teachers.

This article was originally posted on the BELTA blog.

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