6 Ways to SHUT UP

By Thomas Topham
Essential techniques to help your students speak more and you speak less. Required reading for all TEFL teachers

“Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.”
Martin Fraquhar Tupper

As a teacher trainer, one of my ongoing issues in pre-service courses is with teacher-talking-time – how much is coming out of the teacher’s mouth, the proportion of time the teacher is talking vs. the students, and how to get this ratio as high as possible in the students’ favour.

Whether this is actually something worth striving for is a whole different debate. Let’s just take it as a given that less teacher-talk is a good thing, and get on with the list:

1. Don’t Echo

Here is a common classroom script:

T: So, what are your ideas, where shall we go?
S1: Bolivia.
T: Bolivia, yes, great, we can go to Bolivia. Where else?
S2: The Marshall Islands.
T: Ooh, the Marshall Islands, yes, we’ll put the Marshall Islands on the list, ok…

Even though the lesson is to some extent interactive, the students have no reason to listen to one another – the teacher is repeating everything that needs to be heard. “But they might not hear each other!” Tell them to speak up. Or better yet, if a student can’t hear, she can ask the other student to speak up.

“But how do I work in open class, if I am not supposed to speak?” With the above scenario, the teacher needs to say exactly four words:

  • T writes on WB “Places to Go”.
  • T holds WB pen, ready to transcribe. Waits. If nothing is forthcoming…
  • T asks “Where should we go?”… and waits for answers.

2. Wait

It takes time for learners to hear and process what you have said, and adding more teacher talk doesn’t help. Shutting up and waiting does.

“So where should we go? (1.5 second pause) Let’s make a list, we’ll write down our ideas here, what do you say guys? (1.5 second pause) How about Tierra del Fuego, is that a good place, should I write that? Yeah, OK…”

The only way for student voices to enter the classroom is by the teacher allowing the space. After you ask a question, wait. Wait a long time, if need be.

3. Don’t Answer Right Away

Chances are one of the students knows the answer, if the teacher shuts up. Compare:

S1: Why is that?
T: Ah, yes, you see here we have the auxiliary, so blah blah blah…

S1: Why is that?
T: Mmmm. (pauses, looks around the room, waits…)
S2: I think because, is question…
T: (pointedly shuts up, open body language, waiting…)
S3: Yes, “Do” because it is question, same like in yesterday lesson…

Here not only do we have students speaking and the teacher shutting up, but as an added bonus the students are doing the thinking, and are showing evidence of their learning! Big Win!

4. Groupwork Is Better, Always

Because when the students are working together in groups it is impossible for you to speak. Well, not impossible – resist the urge to interrupt the groupwork for “just a second” to “just explain this one more thing”

5. Ask Open-Ended Questions

They require more from the students, and therefore require less talk from you. Compare:

T: Is it a boy, or a girl?
Ss: Girl.
T: Yes, a girl. And what do you think, is she happy?
Ss: Yes.
T: Ooh, yes, she is. Maybe she got a good mark on her test, do you think so?
Ss: Yes.

T: Look. What’s this? (shut up. wait)
S1: A girl.
T: (continuing to shut up)
S2: She is schoolgirl.
S3: She is going to school, she has book bag.
S4: No, she is going home, she is happy. (laughter)

6. Make Use Of Your Written Materials

If the instructions are already there in the coursebook, why are you spending valuable class time blathering on about how to do a gap fill?

Written by Thomas Topham for Teflnet June 2008
Tom has a BA in Philosophy, as well as the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA teaching certificates. He has been teaching since the mid 90s, and training teachers since 1999. Thomas is a SIT TESOL Certificate Trainer with the SIT Graduate Institute.
© Teflnet


  • Jamie Kinsella says:

    Fantastic post by Thomas Topham. Many thanks! And insightful comments from @jennifer et al!

  • Jennifer Akdemir says:

    I have stepped into all the potholes listed above! I think the key to it is confidence. Nervous teachers (like nervous anybody) fill in silence with chatter. In our haste, we forget that a) we already know the answer and b) we are working in our mother tongue. With time and greater classroom confidence comes the realisation that we don’t need to fill in every space for the students.

  • seyed saeed eftekhari says:

    That was great. I need to put into practice the above as much as possible.

  • Cooper says:

    This is helpful. I can finally shut up and pay attention in class.

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