What experienced teachers tend to do with ‘silent’, ‘dominant’ and ‘off-task’ students


Bal Krishna Sharma

“I had one person who was always working and two people were just sitting there and watching.”

“At the beginning of the semester I had two very talkative students, and they were sitting in opposite sides of the classroom; and all the time it is them talking.”

“I have had several students who frequently bring topics that are unrelated to the teaching agenda.”

These are some of the quotes I took from my colleagues teaching academic writing at the University of Hawaii. My teaching experience, and perhaps yours as well, shows that students show different learning dynamics and engagement patterns in language classrooms. For example, you may encounter students who are quiet and shy and do not make verbal contributions to whole class or group tasks. You may also find some students who are overtly dominant; that is, they tend to take most of the talk time as well as task time in class as well as in collaborative projects. Still another dynamics: you may find your students engaging in talk and discussions but they may quite frequently drive your teaching agenda to different directions and lead you to off-task situations where you and your learners may not achieve the stated lesson goals. These are some of the learner dynamics I have recently been interested in.

Three years ago, I video recorded five lessons my own class where I was teaching academic writing to international graduate students. When I repeatedly watched the video for a reflection, I noticed that my class included all three types of students described above. As I had just moved from a relatively teacher-centered pedagogic context (Nepal) to a more learner-centered teaching context (the US), I was metacognitively more aware of the belief that ‘Now I have to do a more learner-centered teaching’. As a result, after watching the video, I noticed that I was unnecessarily giving more autonomy to my students. That is, I was not making as much interventions in student activities, particularly in group work, as I now realize I should have.

Then I was curious what other teachers were doing with similar students. I took this issue as a research topic for a Task-Based Language Teaching seminar that Dr. John Norris was teaching. As a next step for my own professional development, I prepared three video clips, each of which contained examples of ‘silence’, ‘dominance’ and ‘off-task’ behaviors of my students. Then I showed those videos to eight writing teachers who were from the same language institute I was part of. As you might know, success of a task depends on all its variables: the nature of the task itself, the learners and the teacher. Based on this principle, I interviewed those eight teachers regarding how they address ‘silence’, ‘dominance’ and ‘off-task’ behaviors of their students. Their responses showed that a teacher has to be well-trained in designing and implementing the tasks in all three stages: pre-task design, task design, and task implementation. Following table gives a summary of these teachers’ suggestions:

Pre-task design Task design Implementation
• Know learners by collecting background information, e.g. use of literacy autobiography assignment, learner style survey, background survey questionnaire, etc.• Use awareness raising tasks, e.g. show videos to illustrate ‘good vs. bad’ group participation patterns; explicitly discuss issues with learners, with a reflection from their own classroom, if possible • Choose familiar topic for the task• Make task guidelines and task goal explicit• Give planning time

• Give worksheet/ handout for preparation

• Designate different roles (e.g. reporter, recorder, time keeper, etc.) in the task itself.

• Do the task first by yourself in order to experience its pros and cons

• Arrange the learners in groups in terms of their demonstrated task engagement patterns•Keep changing group composition unless there is a reason not to do so• Assign learner roles in group

• Keep eyes on what learners are doing

• Make an informed intervention and remind the learners of task goal and allocated time

•Motivate the students

Let us have a look what these teachers say:

“I used to have a video of Cambridge task; it was like about 2 minutes for the task. And one student was dominating the other student. I asked them like how they would rate them. Everyone said that they did not like the student talk too much. And I asked what advice would you give to the one who talks too much or the one who talked too little? So I recommend this to others.”

“Each time I give them a task, I want to engage myself like how much time it should take, its difficulty level like that. And also who is this task for, does it really work? When am I going to put it in class? Am I going to use it in the beginning or end? After I analyzed all of that then I think okay I am going to pair them up or put them in groups. I’m not going to give my students a blind task.”

“I don’t interrupt immediately. I feel it’s kinna rude. And then I indicate ‘okay that’s great, but how about this reading?’ I do expect them to talk about the reading but I am also glad if they are getting fluency practiced. I also feel that it is important to let them talk about social things and make friends.”

“When I see a student talking a lot, I would say something that would go against his or her opinion and then ask the other students which opinion they would agree or disagree with. So, that way quiet students get space between talkative students and they can state their opinions and get involved in discussions.”

“Some students finish tasks before others. Sometimes I go around groups and ask additional questions”.

“If I see that students move to some off-topic talk, I also try to see a reason why they did so. I go next to them and try to restate the task so that they understand what they are supposed to do.”

“Try to let the student do the task independently as much as possible but intervene when it is necessary.”

Concluding remarks: After these two stages of reflection (video watching and interview), I have had more insights on how to deal with diverse students. I have used many of the suggested ideas in my recent teaching. For example, in the beginning of the semester, I always collect student background information through short questionnaire. Frequently, I designate different roles to different students in a group so that each student has a visible contribution to make.

With the incorporation of such ideas, I have had more balanced contributions from my students. Please respond to this if you find the ideas useful to you.

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