Sorry to interrupt, but…

Last week, I found myself being stared at by students because one student was really talking too much. This happened twice with two different groups.

In one of these groups, when the one talking too much started to beat about the bush on some opinion he had already made clear, another student would jump in with a polite “Sorry, to interrupt, but…”, and luckily the con- element of conversation was re-established. But that was not all of the time; sometimes they expected me to mute one and pass the “microphone” to another. The talk-show-host role of an English teacher, I suppose.

In the other group, when the more talkative student took over, nothing happened; one student simply turned off and started scribbling on his notebook, another raised her eyebrows in discontent and few others looked at me as though I was the only one in charge of managing the conversation.

It is this last thought that I would like your comments on. I don’t feel like it is my duty only to balance how much each student talks. I do that of course, and lately I’ve even paid more attention to it; trying to offer everyone equal ‘time’ to say something (esp. because this second group has a lot of debates and open panel discussions). Moreover, a week before the last, I offered this group some activities which overtly focused on interrupting (and being interrupted), turn-taking, taking the floor, etc.

I’ve spoken to some teachers about it in the past, and some said it is my job, and only mine,  to manage classroom conversation. Okay, as I said I’m not denying this responsibility, but at the same time it is the students’ responsibility to have the best lesson they can have in any given circumstance, so I think if a student is bothered because another one talks too much, s/he should interrupt.

They should definitely do it; and I can’t help but expect them to. Especially because in my view, I’m not working with oppressed children who are never given a voice. They’re all adults, they’re all paying for the course, and they all participate in a negotiated syllabus.

It’s difficult for me to get my mind around the idea of them depending on me to stop someone’s words, when I have nothing to say, just to give them theirs. This kind of thing never happens outside of lessons, so why does a conversation lesson have a total different code of conduct? And in the end, isn’t being able to manage a conversation toward one’s interest a communicative competence they should aim at?

Any ideas?

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9 Responses to Sorry to interrupt, but…

  1. Not really an in depth response, or in anyway an answer/solution for that matter, but maybe these students just lack the emotional maturity (even though their adults) and emotional intelligence to deal with each other in the classroom?

    Good luck with it, Willy!

    • Thanks for raising this point, Mike. I haven’t considered emotional intelligence as a barrier. Now thinking more about the group I can say that one thing which really made a difference in group cohesion was the arrival of a new student (it happened to be the talkative one) in a moment that others were already pretty comfortable with (or used to) each other. If they lack anything, as you suggest, it is ‘talking to strangers’ perhaps. However, outside the classroom in a similar situation they’d just find a way not to talk to the dominant student (and I’d probably do the same), but in the lesson there’s no way to run.

    • John Marriott says:

      Sorry to be such a pedant, Mike, but if you’re an English teacher you really should know that the correct way use a contraction for ‘they are adults’ is “they’re”. It’s embarrassing for the ELT profession!

  2. Carol says:

    Perhaps the balance of power in the conversation needs to be adjusted? From your description, it sounds like the students see you as the one with the power to direct the conversation and, if so, they might not feel that it’s their place to interrupt. Do you start the conversation, ask the questions, nominate speakers? Do the students address their comments to you? You say that you try to ‘offer everyone equal time’ which does seem to set you up as the one in control.

    Could you sit back from the group a bit? Or, occasionally look away from the speaker, encouraging them to make eye contact with fellow students who might then feel as if they can join in more legitimately or interrupt if necessary? Could you rearrange the seating so that students are facing each other more than you? If there’s a pause after a student’s contribution, do you take a turn to keep the conversation going? If you do, perhaps you could wait a bit longer, to see if someone else will take a turn?

    I’m not sure if this’ll be any help and it could well be that you’ve tried all this, but I hope things start to click soon.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks, Carol!

      Most of the topics are chosen by the students, so I do not often have to initiate all interactions, though I do ask them many questions as a way to encourage them to elaborate their ideas further. The lessons I bring up the topic myself are more teacher-centered, I have to admit.
      They tend to address their comments to me, yes. Mainly because they want to be sure they’re being accurate. But I always encourage them to look more at each other, and assure them I’ll be monitoring their use of English and give them feedback later. This hasn’t been much of a problem recently, although one new student (very talkative) hasn’t yet understood the idea.

      Seating plan is something I’m very careful about, but I think there’s room for improvement. We often use a circle, but sometimes it’s a semi-circle with me in the front, which I really dislike.

      I’ll try your last point more, i.e. to wait longer between comments, I haven’t really paid attention to it, so thanks for suggesting!

  3. Great post!

    One thing that I have done in the past was to give a few students the role of observer during class conversations. They (secretly or not) keep track of the interactions between the speakers and how many turns/minutes/exchanges each person has in the conversation. This can (but doesn’t have to) lead to a conversation about just how much time they expect to talk in a lesson/conversation and how much they might expect others to talk. I think that this sort of awareness raising potentially coupled with a (re)visit to group norms can be beneficial.

    Mike Harrison suggests that maybe they are lacking the emotional maturity/intelligence and this is surely a possibility. Perhaps it is an issue of awareness. The long talkers don’t really know how much they are talking and they might not know that it could be an issue for others.

    The idea that occurred to me as I was just about to post this is that you might consider an explicit focus on conversation “gambits” related to taking (and keeping?) the floor.

    • Thanks, Michael! I’ll try that, to have an observer. That’s a good idea!

      I have focused on stock phrases and controlled activities using ideas from a book titled ‘Conversation Gambits’, it has helped.

  4. I agree that it is initially the teacher’s responsibility to manage conversations to allow equal time for all different personalities. It’s also our responsibility to introduce expectations on students in their conversations and enable them to act on those expectations with appropriate language and timing. Conversation in class isn’t conversation that happens outside of it. There is rarely more than two or three people in any given conversation anyway (at least one that isn’t moderated somehow), one reason why those same people may end up dominating the class conversation too, but it seems more natural.

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