Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity

Posts in this series…
1. What is Explicit Instruction?
2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
5. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading
6. Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond

Hughes, Morris, Therrien, and Benson describe Modeling and Think Alouds as a core component of explicit instruction. In a subset to this component, they include “clear and precise language” (2017).

As teacher talk is seen as important no matter where you fall on the education traditional-progressive divide (though neither side remotely agrees on the type/amount of talk) it is depressing that empirical evidence supporting precise guidelines for teacher talk is generally lacking (Hollo & Wehby, 2017).

However, while guidelines are lacking, research into teacher talk is not. We know that teachers talk more than students (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). If we do not talk enough, we fail to communicate the content. Conversely, if we talk too much, we will overwhelm our students’ working memory (Grunewald & Pollack, 1990). Either way, our students fail to learn. Getting teacher talk right is important.

Lack of Clarity is Problematic

Lack of clarity is another problem that increases instructional casualties. This happens when teachers use poorly organized speech, characterized by vague terminology and hemming and hawing (Brophy, 1988, p. 245). Lack of clarity hurts all students, but it doesn’t do so equally. Unclear teacher talk hits struggling students with low language proficiency particularly hard (Ernst-Slavit & Mason, 2011), decreasing educational equity. 

The first step towards changing this is to know what types of speech make learning more difficult for students. However, changing teacher speech patterns is notoriously difficult (Dickinson, 2011). So we shouldn’t expect our habits or others’ habits to change just because we now know better. But we can and should expect consistent effort.

Sloppy Language

Sloppy language includes ambiguity, mazes, and errors. In their 2017 article, Hollo and Wehby described ambiguity as 

“words or phrases that indicate the speaker lacks confidence or knowledge, as demonstrated by equivocating, approximating, hedging, or bluffing (pretty much, maybe, probably, I guess; Hiller et al., 1969); decreased specificity of content or context (the thing, some kind of, all that; Smith, 1980); ambiguous referents (e.g., a pronoun without its noun referent; Chilcoat, 1987; Masterson et al., 2006); or hesitations that indicate the speaker’s lack of confidence (Bugental et al., 1999). Ambiguity also includes cloze statements in which the teacher asks an open-ended or fill-in-the-blank type of question, expecting a specific answer when in fact a range of responses would be logical (squirrels do what?).” 

Verbal mazes can occur in simple sentences with concrete and familiar vocabulary when the delivery lacks smoothness and/or is disfluent. Disfluency includes silent pauses, word and non-word fillers (like, uh, um), repetitions of words (But, but what I meant was), and repetitions of phrases (What I want, what I want you to do next is) (ASHA, 2020). 

Both ambiguous and disfluent (maze) teacher talk decrease student attention and increase student errors (Bugental et al., 1999)

Teachers can also flat out error. We can use incorrect grammar such as subject-verb agreement, improper tenses, and misplaced clauses. Commonsensically, it has been found that elementary student performance is better when they are taught with proper grammar have increased performance when they are taught with proper grammar (Forney & Smith, 1979).

Neat Language

I think it is probably easiest to fix ambiguous language and mazes. The path to fixing both is good planning. Ask yourself, “How should I explain this concept?” How should I model this skill?” Then jot down some notes and see what you can cut out, see what you should re-word. When you have made your explanation or model as simple and straightforward as possible without making it simplistic, you have arrived.

I am of the opinion that fixing errors is the most difficult because I this is the most ingrained speech pattern. You have been speaking and writing since you were a small child, getting rid of habitual errors will take a lot of intentional effort to undo. For this, I’d recommend humbling yourself and picking up a grammar workbook.

Clear Figurative Language?

Figurative language is one area where clarity is lacking by definition. Figurative language is simply words or phrases that have nonliteral meanings and are quite common in daily speech (ex: Metaphors, Similes, and phrases like “America is a melting pot.” “Time is money.” etc). Use of figurative language reduces the comprehension of students with specific language impairment (Nippold, 1991) and emotional behavioral disturbance (Mack & Warr-Leeper, 1992). In addition, figurative language also reduces the comprehension of English language learners (Palmer, Shackelford, Miller, & Leclere, 2006).

One reason comprehension of figurative language is reduced for the above populations is that many of these students have limited vocabularies with a narrow range of representations (Beck & McKeown, 2007). Essentially, when we use idioms, irony, wordplay, or colloquialisms, the information just goes over many students’ heads. And that’s problematic, just ask Drax.


We must be careful with our use of figurative language. If we do not think it through, many students will struggle to access our teaching. The solution isn’t to avoid all forms figurative language like they have the plague. Imagine an English class that avoids metaphors and similes, or a science or social studies class that avoids abstract concepts. Describing that approach as being crazy as a loon and dumb as a doorknob barely scratches the surface of it. Such approaches obviously don’t support language development (Dickinson, 2011).

Increase Clarity, Increase Learning

Instead, we should make things clear. We should be explicit. We can explicitly teach students about figurative language whether we teach English or not. We should recognize when we use phrases that cause confusion and use it as an extra teachable moment. “When I say _________, what it means is________.” Basically, this is a student friendly definition for a phrase.

In addition to being explicit about our course content and about the language we use, we can restate key information in multiple linguistic forms. This strategic redundancy improves comprehension for general education students (Brophy, 1988; Crossan & Olson, 1969). And it increases equity because special education students (Lapadat, 2002), and ELLs (Park, 2002) also benefit from being exposed to the same content in different forms. 

This does increase teacher talk, but it needn’t reduce student talk. The solution is to take shorter “turns.” Nobody likes a monologue and besides, they are hard to follow, “The longer the speaking turn, the denser the informational chunk, and the greater the oral literacy demand” (Roter, Erby, Larson, & Ellington, 2007, p. 1445). Free up your students’ working memory and talk in short chunks.

The second part of taking a shorter speaking turn involves allowing students to talk. I believe the form this takes is generally of secondary importance, while the way you model, structure, and enforce behavior when it is the students’ turn to talk is of paramount importance (Modeling will be the subject of my next post in this series). 

Your students must know exactly what to do and how to do it. The effectiveness of student talk depends on how you model it and provide structure. I have found success with Choral Response and Think-Pair-Share as described in my article for CogSciSci.

An added benefit of this approach is that you will be giving students additional chances to respond, which has been shown to increase student performance (Haydon, Macsuga-Gage, Simonsen, & Hawkins, 2012) while also decreasing problem behavior in children with emotional behavioral distance (Sutherland & Wehby, 2001). 

This approach is effective because each question forces students to engage in retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been proven to work with a wide array of students and subjects (Dunlovsky, 2013), increasing equity.

Increase Equity with Slow Teaching

Another effective practice for increasing equity is to simply slow down. Children with specific language impairments have been shown to have increased comprehension when the teacher speaks at a rate of 4.4 syllables per second or less. This slowed rate did not affect comprehension in children with typically developing language abilities (Montgomery, 2004). 

Increasing your wait time has been found to result in both increased quality and quantity of student responses (Tobin, 1986). By waiting just a little bit longer than normal, you allow for more students to think through your question.


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5 thoughts on “Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity

  1. Pingback: Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills | TeachingScience

  2. Pingback: Explicit Instruction: Modeling | TeachingScience

  3. Pingback: Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading | TeachingScience

  4. Pingback: Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond | TeachingScience

  5. Pingback: What is Explicit Instruction? | TeachingScience

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