How long do you wait for your students to give you an answer?

It’s interesting to observe how often we turn up in class on a Monday and try to start an informal conversation with our students by asking:

So… What did you do at the weekend?

Right after the question, our students don’t seem to reply immediately and that second waiting for an attempted answer seems to be an eternity. Funnily enough, what we considered to be a relaxing way to start our class turns into a very stressful and uncomfortable situation. If we’re lucky, the most adventurous student will come up with an answer showing off wonderful social skills:

I don’t do nothing special

To which the teacher replies:

Oh! You didn’t do anything special then!

And the conversation has started:

Student: Not really

Teacher: Not really… Why was that? You were working or studying?

Student: I… I… er..er… I was at home… err… because…er..

Teacher: …Right… so you stayed at home because you wanted to relax…

Student: No, I just..er don’t do nothing special, like the normal.

Teacher: Okay, it was just a normal weekend then… Right, okay… So, today we’ll be working on listening, open your books on page

I’m not sure students feel great after a chat like this one, but it is incredibly frustrating for teachers.

Having a class conversation with your students is an excellent opportunity to foster communicative language learning, observe our students’ real communicative needs, and react and teach the necessary skills and language to help them get their message across and engage socially in the classroom.

Speaking a foreign language naturally isn’t easy though, so we can’t really expect our students to reply immediately. My students often report that their English isn’t good enough because they need to think before they speak, and I generally reply:

As you should! That’s a basic requirement in a conversation: I hope people think before they speak to me!

Of course, we know it’s different when learning a foreign language. Learners are often so concerned about retrieving the words they need to express their ideas that conversation might feel rather uncomfortable for everyone. Obviously, we can teach conversation strategies and routines to our students to help them sound more natural in conversation (such as pre-fabricated expressions, expected answers, turn-taking, intonation…etc) but that will be a later post. My point here is that, as teachers, we need to deal with the anxiety involved when this happens and there’s a very simple solution to this:

If teachers wait up to 5 seconds instead of 1, students enjoy some thinking time.

If we observe ourselves in authentic conversation we realise that we don’t always expect a fast reply. Unless we wait longer than 5 seconds, everything seems to go at a very normal pace.

We naturally tend to listen and adapt to other participants. Our collective engagement in listening and contributing brings about a feeling of naturalness.

Pauses aren’t always a sign of communicative breakdown, but may be a result of elaborate forethought and planning. Research shows that humans fine-tune their speech and pausing rates in an attempt to merge with their partners in a rhythmic collaborative co-construction. In conversation, speed and pausing are interactive and contribute significantly to the sense of ‘flow’ (McCarthy 2010).

So… In authentic conversation:

Do we wait for others to finish their contributions?

Or

Do we finish their sentences for them?

Do we repeat what they’ve just said if we’ve understood?

Or

Do we continue with the conversation?

I would find it rather annoying if someone finished my sentences for me.

Actually, false starts (changing your mind and starting your sentence again) and grammatical inaccuracies are very common in natural spoken conversation but still we engage in communication. Look at this example:

 

Speaker 1: Jenny and I went there.. at least I think we did .. or was that Rick? .. no, that was the other summer.. well, anyway, we went to Camber Sands again last week… You been there?

Speaker 2: Yeah, once… long time ago though… with mum and dad… must have been 5 or 6… gorgeous innit?

If our classes aim to be communicative: Why do we get impatient, interrupt our students to finish their sentences and repeat their contributions?

Certainly not because we’re horrible and domineering!

 

We do all this because feel responsible for our students’ English production and we want to help. When we echo (repeat what our students have just said), we either do it for correction or to show our approval. Correcting and praising students are important in class. However, if we want to encourage students to learn, make best use of the language they have and engage in conversation communicatively, I’d say…

Hold your tongue for 5 seconds… and see what happens.

References

McCarthy, M. 2010. “Spoken Fluency Revisited”. English Profile Journal, 1(1): 1-15.

Teach English in Spain

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