Wouldn’t you love to have discussions in ESL classes where everyone not only speaks, but takes turns, listens, and invites others to speak? The thing is, we’ve all had that student, the one who dominates every conversation. We’ve also had the one who never speaks at all.
Passive vs. Overbearing
Why are some students so passive and others such stage hogs? Sometimes their culture inhibits them verbally, or their birth order in a large family has them clamoring to be heard. The reasons for whether a student is an expert at pontificating or a conversation wallflower are many. One of my students refused to speak in class because she did not want any males who were not in her family to hear her voice! Another tended to be overbearing because he came from a very large family and didn’t know any other way to get and keep people’s attention. But let’s get back to that dreamy class and how we can achieve it.
You need a strategy for managing a classroom discussion.
How do you get those who have opinions on everything to encourage the silent ones to take a turn? Without taking them aside and telling them, “I need you to be quiet so that others can talk”? I had that exact problem.
That’s when I started giving talking tickets.
What are Talking Tickets?
In the beginning, they were simple colored pieces of paper without any writing on them. I used them for discussions with a class that had extremely talkative students who made it too easy for the quiet ones to remain silent. Each time my students spoke up in class, they turned in a ticket. When they ran out, that was it…they couldn’t talk anymore.
This had the added benefit of them thinking carefully about when they really wanted to say something vs. just talking to hear themselves talk. Yes, I had some like that.
However, on the flip side, ALL of those talking tickets had to be used before the end of that class. This ensured that the quiet ones spoke. Perhaps I did give extra tickets to people who paid more attention to their phones than the discussion. Perhaps.
Going beyond Talking tickets.
Clearly, I had to tweak the Talking Tickets to put more of the responsibility on the students. To avoid being the one who did all the work in keeping a conversation going or getting students to ask a question or say something, I started making invite tickets. Now I also required students to seek someone else’s opinion or encourage another student to speak. This turned their focus more on their classmates. Instead of directing everything to me, they became better at interacting with each other.
Making another tweak to the tickets.
However, I still had some that were completely disengaged from the discussion while another person was speaking. Enter the listening tickets! Now they had to demonstrate engaged listening to use up their allotted listening tickets. Sure, there was some eye-rolling initially, but as time went on, the eye-rollers realized something. They were getting a better quality of feedback to what they said because people were truly listening to them instead of just hearing their words.
How can I take this to another level?
Eventually, I stopped merely handing out tickets to students at the beginning of every class and started having them be a more active part of the process. The class with many students preparing for the IELTS, for example, creates a chart to illustrate how often each student speaks up (on average) in a class. The class that has a good mix of cultures discusses what kind of speaking their culture values. Going meta on them helped improve the quality of their discussions.
For a class using the talking tickets and ready to move to the invitation tickets, I involve them instead of merely handing out tickets. Together we gather up all their background knowledge so that it’s not just me telling them what to do. I first have them demonstrate nonverbal cues from their culture that indicates they want to hear what someone has to say during a discussion. Then we all work together as a class or in small groups to come up with what they can say to invite someone else to speak.
When they are ready for the listening tickets, they are again part of the process. Depending on class size, I have them brainstorm in small groups or as a whole class demonstrate nonverbal behaviors that show engaged listening. We top that off by listing other ways to show that a person is truly listening. Having a cultural awareness of how people show attentiveness decreases possible hurt feelings and will be invaluable to them outside the classroom as well.
What if using the discussion tickets takes up too much time in my ESL classes?
After a few days or so, I usually find that I don’t really need to use the tickets anymore. The discussions in ESL classes become more well-rounded once students have learned how to take turns. Occasionally I’ll pass them out again to reinforce the behaviors I want or because new students have joined the class, and sometimes there are one or two students who need them, but not the whole class.
How can I differentiate according to my students’ needs?
I limit speaking opportunities to the number of speaking tickets when I need to rein in any conversation dominators. However, if these are all used up before class is over, I just pass out a few more. I always allow students to make more speaking invitations than they have tickets (provided that everyone has already had a chance to turn theirs in). Likewise, I let them know that it’s not over when they run out of tickets. I expect to see continued demonstrations of active and engaged listening. I also tailor the ticket number to the individual student. For example, I give a greater number of invite tickets to my verbally dominating students.
What’s the best way to organize Talking Tickets?
Use color to make organization easier. I make each type of ticket a different color by printing them on bright-colored paper. This also makes it easier to see at a glance who needs to speak, invite, or listen. Students often help each other out by using an invite ticket to ask a shy student who can then turn in a speaking ticket. The colors make it easy to know who they can help.
Try it! Make your own tickets or grab (for free!) the ones I’ve already made and spend your free time doing something more enjoyable. Use them with any of my discussion topic resources, and enjoy listening to your students in your conversation classes. You can even use these in a grammar class. I like to encourage them to ask each other grammar questions.
Read more about speaking and discussions with adult ESL classes.
- Free Talking: Getting Low-Level ESL Students to Talk
- Discover Two Ideas for Cultivating Insightful Discussion Questions for ESL
- 3 Powerful Reasons to Incorporate Conversational Visits in a Speaking Activity