Teaching without speaking

Esther reflects on how she learned to teach without speaking and what that meant for her practice as a learning technologist.

Have you ever tried to teach without speaking?

Twenty years ago I decided to train as a teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL) and I enrolled on the CELTA course at Harrow College which was a Cambridge Centre of Excellence. It was more like boot camp – one night a week for a year, working with real students, and all our classes employed the experiential teaching methods to teach us, which we then used with our learners.

We were trained to teach at various levels, beginner, intermediate and advanced, but the hardest to teach were the beginners. Why? Because they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak their languages. I had to employ a whole range of skills and resources to be able to teach the target language without being able to explain it. These included mime, acting, drawing, flashcards, props and target language drilling.

tell me

Free images: publicdomainpictures 

We have all seen this quote from Benjamin Franklin, and we all nod wisely and say of course! But I think that if we reflected on it we might all find ourselves speaking too much in our teaching and learning sessions and expecting learners to know things just because we have told them.

On my CELTA course I learned that too much speaking can be a hindrance rather than a help to learners – it can be like white noise cluttering up the audio environment without serving any useful purpose. I learned that we can we can teach with minimal speaking in order to achieve our purpose – speaking needs to be sparingly used and carefully targeted. I also learned that we need to use a lot of different methods and tools to facilitate learning and that the most important thing is that learners are doing, building, researching, collaborating, practising and sharing. It was up to me to prepare beforehand so that when we all went into the classroom the activities would be in place for the learners to work together, discuss, play games and tackle tasks.


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So I always used a kind of blended learning in my practice and for all my teaching, training and presentation sessions I went in with the intention of facilitating with minimal ‘telling people things’ from me. When I became an eLearning advisor with Jisc I was thrilled to discover a world of new technologies, tools and techniques to add to my repertoire and share with colleagues and fellow teachers and trainers.

My favourite definition of blended learning is just the simple approach of using technology and social media alongside traditional techniques to support and enhance teaching and learning. This could happen inside or outside a classroom and it might also include gathering evidence for assessment in digital formats. Technology makes learning more accessible and students can use their own devices to make choices about formats, apps and settings that work for them. Using blended learning helps staff and learners to develop their digital capability and increase their opportunities for gaining employability skills, knowledge and experience.

Digital tools and resources can expand and modernise our methods of engaging with learners and enable them to participate and communicate in new and exciting ways. We can set the scene, provide the tools, give them the guidance and let them go! And all with just a few words from us…


Jisc guides on blended learning and more can be found here

This post is based on my keynote at the Colegau Cymru FE Teaching and Learning Conference – ‘Step Up to the Future’ and the resources and slide decks are shared here

You can find the Storify here

And the open access resources for digital literacy in Wales and more are here


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