How to Boost Student Talk Time in Zoom

During the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, instructors and students alike were cast into unfamiliar online waters. As an instructor, you may have missed the natural energy of face-to-face interaction to spur discussion, collaboration, and language risk-taking. 

Zoom can pose problems. Simply put, it can be hard to get students to talk.

Trying to manage reticent students, you may fill awkward silences with extraneous explanations. Group discussions can suffer from crosstalk, confusion, and hesitance. Breakout rooms can flop if participants lack tangible goals.

As schools return to the crisp textbooks and colorful markers of physical classrooms, online instruction won’t be going away. In fact, online education will keep growing, allowing you to make an impact on the lives of English learners around the world.

In this post, we’ll go over ways to boost student talk time in Zoom so that your students become more comfortable and confident using their voice--in both the literal and figurative sense--in English to express themselves. We have found that our techniques help students collaborate with partners, take risks with new language, and feel more confident about their English skills and progress.

Before delving into the tips, let’s review the concept of student talk time.

How much student talk time is ideal?

According to ESL best practices, students should be talking and using the language 70-80% of the time. That means you, the instructor, should be speaking only about 20-30% of the time.

So, let’s look at how to boost student talk time in Zoom. These tips center on three broad themes: building community, cultivating turn taking rituals, and supporting students with A/B/C scripts.

Boost #1: Use names to build community

It may seem obvious, but don’t forget that the most beautiful word in a language is one’s own name. On the first day, everybody should conscientiously--even relentlessly--practice pronouncing each other's names. When sharing, discussing, and debating, students should use each other’s names with learned phrases such as:

“I spoke with [name] about social media, and he/she said that…”

“So, [name], what’s your take on the issue of masks?

“[name], what are three things you’re interested in?”

Boost #2: Turn Taking rituals 

As an instructor you can call on students by name to speak. But why not have them call on each other? Or teach phrases that become rituals to help them volunteer--or stall until inspiration strikes? In our classes, students know by heart phrases like these:

  • “I’ll go.... Who’s next?”
  • “I’ll go. I think… You’re next, [name].”
  • “[Name], could you elaborate on what you said about…”
  • “Let me get this straight. [name], you said that…, right?”

After a week or two of building a repertoire of turn taking phrases, your classroom interactions will increasingly sound like this:

  • Teacher: “Who can explain the difference between fun and funny?”
  • Student: “I’ll go. The difference is… right? Got it. Who’s next?”
  • Student: “I’ll take this one. An example is when… Make sense?”
  • Student: “I have a question. Can somebody explain the meaning of __?”
  • Student: “Hmmm… I’m not sure. [Name], can you come back to me?”

Boost #3: Create scripts

To speak more, students need extra language support. Getting started is the hardest part of speaking. Students can more confidently volunteer, lead, collaborate, elaborate, and take risks if you provide scripts with sentence starters.

Scripts can take many forms, from two-person dialogues to roundtable discussions.

Scripts may contain learned phrases, key vocabulary, connecting language, and open-ended questions. Scripts balance freedom with structure.

Importantly, scripts are designed to either expand outward or repeat in a cycle. They make their own sauce.

With the script as a template, students organize responses, make choices, and elaborate on their own ideas as well as those of their classmates.

Favorite prefab phrases currently include “in terms of x” as a one-size-fits-all way to bring up a topic:

  • “In terms of food, I think…”
  • “In terms of masks, what do you think about…”
  • “Can I jump in? In terms of Facebook…”

Student favorites tend to take on a life of their own. 

Another important idea is that both the speaker and listener have important jobs. Person A and B (and C) share responsibility to reach communication goals.

Discussions die when one side listens passively while the other speaks endlessly. 

Simple ways to give the listener a job is for the speaker to ask for a summary by saying “What did I say?” or feedback by saying “Do you agree? Why or why not?”

Scripts that balance fixed phrases and freedom can fit most activities: sharing about the weekend, discussing goals, drilling grammar, reviewing vocabulary, analyzing a text, debating an issue, completing a chart, preparing for a task--the possibilities are virtually limitless.

Once you get the hang of scripts, you’ll be able to quickly create dozens when planning lessons. Scripts can be created in PowerPoints, Google Slides, Google Jamboard or Google Docs and displayed on screen share in Zoom or to a shared doc.

In part 2 of this blog post (Boosting Student Talk Time in Zoom Using Scripts), we’ll look at many examples of scripts, including student as teacher, one-minute presentations, Jamboard, infinite choice, and more.

Meanwhile, we recommend taking a TESOL Certificate Course. No matter your level of experience, you can benefit from practicing new teaching tools with peer and instructor feedback in a TESOL course.

How do you boost student talk time in online classes? We’d love for you to share your experiences and advice on the IELTS Official Teaching Community on Facebook!

About the Authors

Janelle Rivers has been working in the IEP at the International Language Institute since taking the ILI TESOL program in 2008. You can reach her by email at janelle@ili.edu.

Chris Elliott has a BA from Bard College and MFA from Emerson College and has been working in the IEP at the International Language Institute since 2008. You can reach him by email at chris@ili.edu or find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/christopher-thomas-elliott/.

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