Conscious Scaffolding: Making Teacher Talk Time Matter

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Do you limit teacher talk time in favour of active learning? Good!

Do you limit teacher talk time because your students seem disengaged or don’t understand? Bad…

Let’s face it, teacher talk time (TTT) is valuable. Although it should not be the focus of any lesson, it can certainly be an opportunity to mediate learning, not just facilitate it or curate it. Hence, done purposefully, TTT can help students take better notes, recall valuable information, and differentiate between main ideas and extraneous detail. How can this be?

Let me explain . . .

Ever since I read Linda Steinman’s article “The Role of Transition in ESL Instruction” (see reference at the end)[1], I have become more conscious about how I deliver content during my lessons. I am now more aware about the type of vocabulary I use, the register by which I address my students, the way I introduce an anecdote or example, and most importantly how I check for understanding.  I call this new awareness conscious scaffolding because I plan for it and gauge it as I talk. In other words, I consciously make teacher talk time matter. What are the advantages?

  1. Students gain better understanding of content.
  2. Students learn to differentiate between academic language and everyday speech.
  3. I have the opportunity to express my enthusiasm, personality, and passion about the topic

Conscious Scaffolding

As I mentioned above, I called my new found TTT awareness conscious scaffolding. It is conscious because I seek to mediate learning instead of simply delivering the lesson. Just to clarify, in this context, the term scaffolding is a socio-cultural construct (not a constructivist approach as Piaget proposed), as it directly relates to Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory (SCT), where through mediation, students are given “support in the nature and quantity [that is] required” (Steinman, 2013, p. 50). In other words, the teacher as mediator provides the means to help students recognize the interplay between content and context so that learning can take place. I like this approach because lecture time can be boring, especially if we reverberate what is already available in textbooks without adding our own spin on the topic.

Steinman’s Article

In “The Role of Transition in ESL Instruction,” Steinman (2013) describes her experience while observing a teacher deliver a lesson to a mixed group of college students (the class comprised both first language and second language students) to determine what helped students assimilate content and what did not. By observing students’ behaviour while listening to the teacher and taking notes, Steinman noticed that many second language learners were not writing; others seemed confused. She attributed this behaviour to the teachers’ delivery of the lesson, which Steinman describes as lively and engaging, but lacking clear transitions or signals to help students separate lecture-content with the teacher’s personal reflection and anecdotes. From this observation, Steinman concludes that perhaps one way to help students identify important detail from extraneous information is by incorporating clear markers. As Steinman (2013) explains, there are many ways teachers can make lectures more meaningful for students, including adding phrases such as “’let me stop and tell you a little story’; or using a hand gesture to indicate stop writing; or moving away from [a] lectern position as a cue that [the teacher is] about to relate an anecdote” (p. 47). She also recommends that teachers create a road map in the same way an essay is broken down. This way students may be able to take better notes.

Amazing! It’s so simple… Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers did this? It would certainly bring relevance to the strategies we teach students about note-taking. Wait! Perhaps we should be teaching teachers how to add some conscious scaffolding in their TTT.

Teacher Strategies

Besides the strategies Steinman (2013) lists, teachers could also:

  • Recap relevant information before launching into the next topic. A lead in phrase such as “In this section we discussed. . .” or a question to elicit relevant information such as “Who would like to list the …”
  • Introduce a new topic – not just by relying on what is written on a slide, but by letting students know a new topic is going to be discussed. One way could be by starting with “Let’s move on to …” or “We are now going to discuss. . .”
  • Use vocabulary you would like students to use and provide an explanation by way of restatement using vocabulary students are more likely to know. Restatements such as “In other words…” or “This means that…”
  • Create a glossary of words and make this available online or as a handout.
  • Tell students when sharing a personal anecdote, starting with “I am now going to share a story that relates to the topic we are discussing . . .” (Don’t forget to let students know they don’t need to take notes).
  • Redirect students’ attention by asking a question related to the story. The question could start with “Do you think the story relates to the concept of…?” Then ask for clarification.
  • Be conscious that anecdotes and lecture-talk take on different registers, from a formal/academic tone to perhaps a more informal/conversational tone (idiomatic expressions and everyday vocabulary tend to creep in the switch). This does not necessarily mean teachers should avoid them, but it is important to be aware that clarification should be provided or elicited.

An Anecdote

Whenever my conscious scaffolding goes dormant (sometimes it happens), it never stays asleep for long. I am now quick to observe students’ facial expressions or bewilderment. When this happens, I stop and reflect. What did I just say that I did not explain well? I then rephrase, recap, and ask.

I am now going to tell you the story.

Not long ago I asked my students to “look up” a list of words in the dictionary. I waited … and waited. I then asked, “What should you be doing now with the list of words?”


A second later, a student asked, “What’s look up?”

Elated I thought, “Yes!!! A learning opportunity. Incidental language at it’s best. This is no longer an accident, a slip of the tongue no more.”

I explained what “look up” meant. I added the unfamiliar phrasal verb on the right side of the whiteboard (a section I reserve for these occasions) and added a synonym “to find.” I then asked students to come up with another synonym

“To locate” one said. Nice!

I’ve realized that my students have the words; they just don’t know it yet, which is why I must make it conscious scaffolding.

My Questions to You

What about you? What do you do during TTT? How do you make TTT matter?

[1] Steinman, L. (2013). The role of transition in ESL instruction. TESL Canada Journal/Revue TESL Du Canada, 30(2), 46-54.

Hi, my name is Cecilia. I love taking part in good brain awakening discussions. Blogging, I find, lends itself for that. I also believe in sharing my skills through scholarly practice, which is why I write regularly and have presented at several conferences, including TESL Ontario, TESL Toronto, CALL, and at Seneca College. My M.A. in applied linguistics along with my skills and experience have led me to my current position at Centennial College, where I teach English and ESL in the School of Advancement. I'm truly passionate about what I do: teaching, writing, creative expression, and helping my students (both L1 and L2) gain agency and take control of their own learning. Thank you for your readership and I look forward to reading and answering your comments. You can find me on Twitter @capontedehanna


4 thoughts on “Conscious Scaffolding: Making Teacher Talk Time Matter”

  1. Cecilia,
    You’ve given me a lot of food for thought here, not to mention that you’ve piqued my interest in reading the resources that you reference. Thank you so much.

    1. lol…if this post serves to raise readers’ curiosity then whoo hoo! Yeah!!! The one article I cite (Steinman, 2013) contains a list of references which you might find useful – my tips are suggestions meant to provide reflective support and ways for instructors to think about TTT.
      Glad my blog post has given you ‘food for thought’! Cheers

    1. Yeah! How would you go about making the change? Sharing each other’s strategies could help enrich our search for new ways of thinking about TTT. Let’s call it ‘shared reflective practice.’

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