There is a long-standing rule that many veteran ESL teachers know about called the 70-30 rule. What is the 70-30 rule? It is a ratio of student talk time to teacher talk time. We can state total class talk time during one conversation class period (60 minutes, 50, 45, 30, 20, etc.) as 100 percent. Seventy percent of the talk time should be student talk time. The remaining 30 percent should be teacher talk time.
Seventy-thirty provides a formula for monitoring talk time in ESL conversation classrooms and an effective strategy. It is a guide for how much teachers should be talking and how much freedom students should be afforded to talk. It is not a hard and fast mandate where measurements need to be made. But it is a rule of thumb that helps teachers manage their conversation classes. The following are five reasons why the 70-30 rule is useful in ESL classrooms.
1. More Opportunities for Feedback
The more learners talk, the more feedback you as a teacher can provide, the more you can focus on their needs. A class dominated by the teacher’s voice offers very little in giving students real feedback. And it is real and individual feedback that matters. Students need to know more about how they can improve instead of learning more about the language. When a teacher talks beyond 30, the tendency is to talk about unimportant matters. The 70-30 rule gives students more chances to receive relevant feedback for their specific needs.
2. It Limits the Amount of ‘Teaching’ Teachers Do
Keeping talk time to 30 inhibits excessive teaching on the part of the teacher. Human minds can only receive a certain amount of information in one sitting. Because of that, a 70-30 rule prevents teachers from overwhelming students with ‘information.’ Teachers who speak more than that tend to over talk points. They sometimes add more than is necessary for the target language of the immediate lesson. So instead of being allowed to exercise the target points they have been given, students listen to more than they need to. In turn, they lose time to use English. The 70-30 rule pushes teachers to focus on the important issues—the areas that need improvement. And it allows students more opportunities to use the language.
3. It Promotes Fluency
Like practicing the hula-hoop, the more you do it, the more proficient you become. The 70-30 rule invites students to not only speak more, but it also gives them opportunities to develop fluency. By restraining the teacher from much speaking, learners are gently encouraged to add more information in their answers. By doing so, they must access more vocabulary and structure. This in turn helps build more ability to use the language in a more fluid manner. When learners are afforded ample amounts of time to practice the language, they gain the confidence that leads to improved fluency. The 70-30 rule can be thought of as a teaching aid in that respect.
4. A More Satisfied Student
One of the biggest complaints I have heard over the years is when students say the teacher talks too much. Another complaint I hear is the students saying that the teacher never gives them opportunities to speak. In fact, most complaints involve something to do with speaking. Students sometimes feel that they never have a chance to speak. Why? Because the teacher has ignored the 70-30 rule. Teachers must be aware that they are not just teaching students but managing customers. As such, he/she must be concerned about what the student not only needs but wants. They want to be able to talk when they pay for a class. They want to maximize their investments. By giving people what they pay for, the 70-30 rule helps teachers improve student satisfaction.
5. Why Not Let Students Talk More?
The class is not about you the teacher, but about the learners. Since the class is for them, it just makes sense to give them more opportunities to speak. They may want to share their answers to questions. They may want to share their life experiences. They may want to express their opinions about a matter. Whatever they want to share, it is their time to do so. The ESL classroom is not a platform for teachers to share their opinions, thoughts, experiences, or ideas. That belongs to students.
It may be difficult at times for teachers to remain quiet when they have an opinion about something that comes up in class. It takes practice—believe me, I know. But it is better to deflect the response to class members, giving them opportunities to interact with each other. If it is a one-on-one class, the 70-30 rule ensures that the teacher’s opinions are kept to a minimum. Share just enough to provide an example of how a student can respond, but do not take centre stage. Remember, your role as a teacher is supportive and facilitative.
6. But what about low-level learners?
One argument I hear against the 70-30 rule is that the teacher ‘must’ speak more in lower-level classrooms. But is that true? The teacher may feel he/she needs to talk more. But it just means lower-level learners need more time to produce their thoughts. They need more patience—i.e. there will be more need for silence, not more need for teacher talk (TTT) to fill the silence. Some teachers are uncomfortable with the silence. However, silence is a necessary part of language development as learners take time to think about their responses. If a teacher must speak, perhaps he/she could give a brief example answer or gentle prompting.
The 70-30 rule is a necessary component in conversation lessons. It gives teachers more opportunities to provide feedback and students more feedback. It keeps the teaching to the bare necessities. The 70-30 rule promotes fluency by allowing students more time to speak. It helps ensure a more satisfied customer. And it just makes sense to let English language learners speak more. Even at lower levels, students can be afforded the courtesy of 70-30 by giving them the time to create statements in their minds and produce them. The seventy-thirty rule is useful, and it works.