Missing Link in Education: Someone Who Listens

Studies conducted in France show student levels in English (especially oral English) are going down. It is true the levels have increased at the primary school level, but previously there was no teaching at all for this age group—so a temporary rise is logical. As for junior high school students, the level of oral English has decreased over the last five years in spite of the Internet and recent technical innovations. A teacher interviewed on the morning news (France Inter-May 13th) explained the reason: "too many students per class as a result of the suppression of teachers during the Sarkozy presidency".

Other reasons for this decline

I agree with this statement but wish to take it one step further by asking two fundamental questions.

  • Why in this day and age is the proficiency of students in many disciplines especially foreign languages on the decline?
  • Why with all this profusion of knowledge available to everyone can we not train students with greater speaking skills than before?

The missing link or element

The rise of the Web 2.0 with its multitude of easy-to-access and easy-to-fuel sites, blogs and social networks points to a greater need for self-expression. Yes, people—especially young people—want to be heard. They want to voice their opinions. They don’t want to sit silently listening to a teacher or even to one student speaking at a time. They want to be listened to. Yes, that is precisely what is missing: Someone who has the time to listen and be interested in what the student has to say.

Would we accept what students go through?

Who among us adults really wants to spend most of the day listening passively to a manager, a head of department or a prominent lecturer? One or two hours would be OK, but definitely not most of the day. We all need to communicate. We all have reactions to what is being said or information that contradicts what we’re hearing. We need to communicate, i.e. interact with others, sometimes just a neighbor like the person sitting next to you. Putting "voice" to a reaction allows to us cement these ideas in our brains and helps us remember them.

Individualizing education

We should try to introduce "tutorials", one-to-one sessions with teachers, coaches, assistants, or even just volunteer teachers whenever possible. We should encourage any set up that will let the maximum number of students express their thoughts and make the learning process an "oral" activity. More important than preparing what you are going to say to a class is "anticipating" and "preparing" all the opportunities your students will have to express themselves. The main concern should be: if an exercise or activity can be conducted WITHOUT the teacher, then have the teacher remain silent.

Here are some solutions:

  • If students can use a key to correct their work, favor this solution.
  • If students are supposed to memorize a text or poem, have them recite to a partner and never to the whole class in front of the teacher.
  • Whenever possible assign tasks either from a textbook, the Internet or even from a loose handout (preferably in a plastic sleeve to be reused).
  • Get used to working in a noisy classroom—far better than functioning in an ultra quiet atmosphere of boredom.
  • Help students prepare ahead of time for a presentation—thus avoiding teacher correction during the talk.
  • Have your students ask each other questions so that they are practicing interrogative forms and not just making statements.
  • Favor student preparations where students have been able to prepare outside of class—always go over their presentations ahead of time to avoid intervening while they are speaking.
  • Give students the possibility to present the same information several times to different classmates through the use of "rounds" or other means of rotating.
  • Give "individual" and "private" corrections whenever possible.

Here are some techniques to be avoided:

  • Never conduct an exercise with the entire class unless you are giving a brief explanation where everyone will be answering together.
  • Never force students to answer spontaneously one after another to "teacher questions"—this drastically reduces STT (Student Talking Time).
  • Never point out the mistakes of a particular student in front of the entire class.

When is the teacher supposed to correct?

Teachers often seem a bit perplexed when I first explain this technique called "Intensive Student Talking Time". They inevitably want to know when the teacher is supposed to correct the students. They seem to think that if the students are doing everything on their own and are just being coached or encouraged from the sidelines, they will not improve. They seem to believe that only the teacher’s words will help students overcome recurring errors. Actually, students can learn just as much from their classmates as from the teacher. And when you are able to explain something to someone else, then you have really mastered the subject!

Avoiding embarrassment

There are many ways of correcting a student. Teacher correcting in front of the entire class is one—but it often creates embarrassment. And the student who feels humiliated by the teacher in front of the whole class has little chance of remembering what he/she was told to correct. If, on the other hand, the teacher moves around the room and discreetly corrects students "in private", this is a far more useful and effective procedure. The teacher will actually hear students say, "Yes, of course. Now I understand." Very rarely would a student say that same sentence after having been corrected by the teacher in front of everyone else.


So trust your students to correct each other and even teach their fellows. A classmate with a detailed key can pick up most mistakes if that person is paying attention to what is being said. And this is an excellent way of giving the "silent" or "listening" partner a reason to concentrate and to speak up.

An inspiring video

If you want to see an inspiring video about children teaching each other, I recommend Sugata Mitra’s inspiring TED talk "A Hole in The Wall".

Best wishes,

Marianne Raynaud

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