Research Spotlight- Effective teacher talk: A threshold concept in TESOL

Teachers talk in the classroom every day.

Seems like such an obvious statement, so much so that it wouldn’t be worth writing about.

But an important question arises from this well-known fact: when teachers talk, is their talk always effective?

Barbara Skinner has concerns that the answer is ‘no’ and that teacher preparation programs should put more focus on what is known as “teacher talk” and how to make it more effective.

About the Study

In her study “Effective teacher talk: A threshold concept in TESOL“, Skinner asks the question:

What is the extent of ESL student teachers’ understanding of teacher talk which is effective for pedagogical purpose?

To answer this question, she used stimulated recall with ESL student teachers. Nine ESL student teachers participated in the study. Five were non-native speakers (NNS) from various countries and four were native speakers (NS) from the United Kingdom. The teachers were asked to record two 30-minute videos of their teaching and select two 10-minute segments for analysis. Students then watched the videos with the researcher who asked stimulated recall questions throughout.

Following the stimulated recall interviews, the researcher divided the students into three groups:

  1. Pre-liminal Understanding- Students who do not understand the pedagogical purpose of teacher talk.
  2. Liminal Understanding- Students who understand the pedagogical purpose of teacher talk to a certain extent.
  3. Post-liminal Understanding- Students who fully understand the pedagogical purpose of teacher talk.

Skinner reports that 3 NNS had a pre-liminal understanding, 2 NS and 1 NNS had a liminal understanding, and 2 NS had a post-liminal understanding.

Pre-liminal understanding

Those with pre-liminal understanding focused not on teacher talk’s pedagogical purpose but on aspects of how they performed.

“They do not link their teacher talk to pedagogical purpose but perceive teacher talk to be about themselves, especially about features of voice, for example clarity, accuracy, and volume” (Skinner, 2017,  p. 155).

liminal understanding

Those with liminal understanding spoke about pedagogical purposes when discussing their teacher talk, but the author notes that their teacher talk may have been misguided. For example, Marion justified her act of providing explanations of new words to her students during her stimulated recall. However, Skinner suggests that Marion is performing this teacher talk during a phase in the lesson in which such talk is inappropriate.

Another example of misplaced teacher talk is Richard. Richard, an NNS from Bangladesh,  uses repetition in the classroom. While Richard justifies this use of teacher talk as a legitimate method, Skinner notes that Richard is using an ‘Eastern’ concept of teaching rather than considering the use of ‘Western’ approaches.

post-liminal understanding

Finally, those with a post-liminal understanding adequately displayed a knowledge of the use of teacher talk for pedagogical purposes. Rachel and Leanne show this by discussing how the questions a teacher poses in a classroom have the potential to open or close interaction. They note that Initiation Response Feedback, where the teacher knows the answer, tends to close interaction, while Referential Questions, where the teacher does not know the answer, opens up interaction.

skinner’s conclusion

From the data, Skinner concludes that most student teachers do not have a solid grasp of teacher talk. Skinner believes that while difficult to master, effective teacher talk can be learned and that teacher preparation programs should make efforts to make the explicit teaching of teacher talk a component of their programs. As teacher talk largely governs what happens in the classroom, this critical concept is a crucial skill for future teachers.

Unconvinced by the Data

This concept of analyzing teacher talk is new to me, but I see how such analysis of one’s talk in the classroom could spur development. However, I feel that Skinner does a poor job of presenting data which suggests that poor teacher talk is an epidemic in the system that can only be solved by major overhauls of teacher preparation programs.

Beginning with those deemed as pre-liminal, Skinner suggests that their comments about themselves such as volume, clarity, etc. mean that these students do not understand that teacher talk is for pedagogical purposes. One might note that only NNS fell into this category. Could it be possible that when using their L2 exclusively in the classroom caused struggles that override their commenting on pedagogical considerations? What about the culture shock of teaching in a European classroom? With those questions in mind, I wonder if they would be scored differently if their student teaching took place in their home country where they could use both their L1 and L2 in the classroom.

Moving onto the liminal classification, I feel as though Skinner has left out quite a bit of information for the reader to make the decision whether or not these student teachers understand teacher talk. To begin with Marion, who was allegedly explaining words for her students at the wrong part of the lesson, Skinner fails to tell us what part of the lesson she was doing this in. What was the task at hand? As a reader, we don’t know; we’re just told she is wrong and are supposed to accept that.

Second, I find myself concerned about the explanation that is given about Richard, the teacher from Bangladesh using repetition. Skinner notes that Richard is using an ‘Eastern’ teaching method without considering ‘Western’ methods. What exactly is she trying to suggest here? In an attempt to vindicate her as a reader, I thought perhaps she has made this Eastern vs Western statement because Richard is teaching in a Western context in this study (Europe) and Eastern methods perhaps do not work as well with this student population. This explanation, of course, is just speculation as Skinner gives us no detail into what she is thinking.

Another possible explanation, and one of which is of concern, is that Skinner is making a statement that ‘Western’ methods are superior to those used in the East and that Richard should reconsider his approach. If Skinner has a contention with the method of repetition, I perhaps would recommend not to use ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western.’ Rather, it would be best to discuss how repetition is considered to be an out-dated practice under current theories of ELT practice.

Regardless of which explanation, if either, represents the thinking of Skinner, her lack of commentary on Richard leaves me wondering her true intentions and also questioning the legitimacy of whether her assessment of Richard’s knowledge of teacher talk is accurate.

Conclusion

I believe teacher talk is important, and teacher training, as well as professional development, should focus on it more. However, this opinion is not a result of the data presented by Skinner. While I feel she has good intentions, and I support her in making a case for focusing on teacher talk, I have major reservations about what she has presented as evidence in this study to support her case. Not only do I find the data questionable to support her conclusion, but I also worry that such data could be misconstrued in supporting a native-speaker driven field. It seems rather suspect that there was such a divide between the NNS and NS in terms of understanding teacher talk, which raises questions about the study’s validity. Nonetheless, I appreciate Skinner bringing up the conversation of teacher talk, its importance in the classroom, and its potential for developing teachers.

Reference

Skinner, B. (2017). Effective teacher talk: A threshold concept in TESOL. ELT Journal, 71(2), 150-159. doi:10.1093/elt/ccw062

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