Thinking time in ELT

By Alex Case

The positives

From what I have read about TBL (Task-based Learning), there seems to be a lot of evidence that giving students thinking time before asking them to speak improves both the level of language they produce and their accuracy. Although more traditional teaching methodologies don’t include built in thinking time most people would, I imagine, have little problem accepting this fact. While there is much less evidence that increased range and fewer errors in one speaking task has the same effect in the long term, it also makes sense to me that students using more complex language today will eventually lead to their ability to use higher level language in general and so improve their speech all round. Add to this the confidence boost that they will almost certainly have if they can produce better speaking and there seems to be a very strong case for sometimes (or even often) giving your students at least a minute or two to prepare what they are going to say in some way. It is also worth pointing out that we do mentally prepare what we are going to say outside the classroom more than you would think, e.g. mentally rehearsing what you will say as you break up with someone, and this is true eve in L1. Preparation and rehearsal are therefore things that we should allow in class and perhaps train students to do outside.

The negatives

Thinking time usually comes up in teachers’ room conversations with a far more negative meaning that the one explained above, being the time that students sit there in thought before they find themselves able to say something about the topic they have been given. This can be uncomfortable for the listener, especially if they come from a culture where silence is less tolerated or if the silence (and perhaps the accompanying body language) could be taken as a negative reaction to the question being asked. More seriously for some, being able to produce speech spontaneously is a sign of your level of English, and so excessive thinking time could stop students going up a level or even cause them to fail a speaking exam (such as IELTS or FCE) where they only have a certain amount of time in which to express themselves and are marked on fluency. At a deeper level, excessive pausing could be a sign of bad student habits such as too much focus on accuracy or translating whole sentences before they speak. It could also suggest a lack of good habits such as using the language you have to express what you can rather than struggling for words to express exactly what you want to.

Despite the two uses of the expression “thinking time” being quite different from each other, there could well be reason to believe that always giving thinking time before asking students to speak in class could lead to them being unable to produce language spontaneously, therefore linking the two ideas. This is especially an issue in classes where fluency is what they most need in order to improve their level. What we need to look at, then, is how to use the positive of giving them thinking time, how to avoid the negative of them sitting there thinking when they should be speaking, and how to adjust those things for different students with different needs. All these questions are discussed below.

Using thinking time in class

The most typical way of allowing students to prepare before a speaking task is probably letting them write notes about what they want to say for a minute or two, similar to the preparation time in the middle sections of the IELTS and BULATS speaking exams. They can add extra language to that preparation if you allow them to use a dictionary, choose from a list of useful language or ask you for help. It can even be useful to let them write whole sentences or the whole script, as long as they don’t look at it while they are speaking. Other possibilities include asking them to listen to someone else doing the same or a similar task (on tape or from someone in class such as the teacher or a guest), asking them to brainstorm things they could say, asking them to memorize a similar text (e.g. a transactional dialogue) before they improvise their own, and choosing useful vocabulary and phrases from a text or the internet.

Cutting down on (silent) thinking time

Reasons for excessive thinking time before or during speaking could include not being able to explain things that they can’t think of the word for, trying to push themselves too much to use complex or accurate language, trying to use half-remembered language, expecting and hoping that someone will interrupt them if they pause long enough (perhaps due to previous experiences), a lack of confidence, or cultural reasons such as silence being more acceptable in their culture. Perhaps the most common cause is students translating too much in their heads before they speak.

An obvious solution to silent thinking time is to get them saying something (anything!) straight away, even before they have decided what to say. One category is pausing for thought phrases such as “Let me see”, “Let me think”, “That’s a difficult question” and “I’ve never really thought about that before”. These could be combined with a sprinkling of “Hmm”, “Well” etc, but these are notoriously difficult to use naturally and are used less in English than in some other languages. An alternative that or language that can be used straight after is sentence stems that they can use even before they have decided how the sentence will end, such as “I am going to talk about…” for presentations such as IELTS Speaking Part Two or “In my opinion…” for many classroom discussions. In many real communicative situations, a good tactic is just to get the other person talking, so teaching them questions like “What do you think?” and question tags can be really useful. Here are some other classroom ideas on how to train students to pause less before speaking.

A few more tips that are not mentioned in that article include: teaching longer and longer chunks of language (to avoid word by word translation); playing games where you get them to define words without saying what it is (e.g. Taboo); and teaching them language they need to make those definitions, such as relative clauses, for + ing, and infinitive of purpose.

The balance

Most classrooms should probably have a mix of tasks with preparation time and others when they are expected to speak spontaneously. If students are stuck on the Intermediate plateau due to only using basic grammar and vocabulary and/ or having good communication strategies that help them too much in coping with limited language, you might want to avoid too many spontaneous speaking activities as something they can already do. This is true even if you try to extend their language after they have done the task, as there is some evidence that being told how to do something better when you already think of your performance as a success having a limited effect.

In contrast, if students are trying to use too much complex language already and/ or need to concentrate on fluency and speaking strategies, you’ll want to concentrate on making the speaking tasks as real life as possible, usually meaning limited or only mental preparation. The caveat with such students is that confidence is often an issue, so you will want to start with very manageable spontaneous speaking tasks by using familiar topics and not stretching the amount of imagination they need.

Written by Alex Case for August 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Arthur Miller says:

    In the case of some (most) politicians, extended thinking time would definitely be an advantage. Preferably so extended that they never actually get to speak.

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