July 2010


How teachers and students can benefit from Toastmasters International programs

In Toastmasters, when making a speech or acting as master of ceremonies (MC), we look for and comment on a speaker’s ability to move comfortably and smoothly, with style and variety, from one part of a presentation to the next or from one speaker to the next. Not only are smooth transitions important for an MC, but also for teachers, as verbal habits and routines can become very distracting, and even annoying, if they are continually repeated.

Don’t jump, transition

Okay, let’s get started. Many teachers use the word “okay” to ask students if they understand; to signal it’s time to start something; time to stop doing something; to mark transitions from one activity to the next; to agree on something; and to comment on the quality of something.

In short, over-and-over, “okay” is deployed for a variety of uses, and while the idea that one word can carry many different conversational meanings is a useful learning point for students, it can become very annoying.

The first step in making better transitions is to stop using the word “okay”. In class, begin by totally avoiding the word. Other options will appear, some of which might themselves become overly used – words such as “ready” come to mind.

As you begin to experiment with words, see which ones you like and think it is easy and effective to use. In time, you should have a variety of words at your disposal and you can then return to “okay”‘ now and then to add variety to your teaching arsenal.

Using questions

Students can be very sensitive to what we say. For example, one student asks a question and you reply, “Good question”, but forget to say it with another student, therefore implying, of course, that the latter student’s question was not a good question. Alternatively, if you use the words too often until you reply without thinking, like replying to a question like “Can I go to the toilet?” with “Oh, good question.”

When answering questions, a starting point is to repeat it. Rephrase the question so that it is corrected if needed, change pronouns if you need time to think, or if the students are capable enough, rephrase it into reported speech.

For example, to “What did you do at the weekend?” a reply might be “What did I do at the weekend? On Friday, I went to Hua Hin and came back on Sunday.” Another example is “Do we have any homework for next week?” A reply might be “Lek has just asked me if you have homework for next week; no, you don’t have any homework.”

Using answers

It is also important to do the same with answers. With answers, try to avoid commenting on the quality of the answer and try not to repeat it. Ask for verification, and if it is a large class and some students may not have understood the answer, ask the same or a different student to repeat it.

In addition, once this idea is introduced and students are comfortable with it, it allows the opportunity to avoid situations where we have no idea what a student has said. We can simply ask another student to repeat the answer and hope we can understand it this time, thereby saving the first student (and ourselves) any embarrassment.

However, with answers, one method to avoid the “good answer” reply or parroting what has just been said is to suggest to the students what might be better if it is wrong or if it is correct, or ask a “wh-” question in reply, such as “Where did you find that answer?” or “Why do you say that?”

Students might not attribute the teacher’s versatile use of segues to being an effective teacher. However, if a few transitions are overly used, they may detract from the central message.

Fortunately, English is a language that has rich vocabularies and many different ways to express ideas. Our goal is to expose students to the rich and varied selection of English vocabularies and enable them to create a smooth bridge between topics effectively. After all, variety provides us with one more opportunity to introduce our students to real English.

Removing verbal ticks

A new toastmaster completes ten projects to develop the basic skills needed to make a good speech. At this time, one major focus is to help speakers learn to drop annoying, and often very distracting, voiced pauses like “uhmm” and “ahhh”, and other words or phrases that, through overuse, distract attention, like “you know”, “okay”, “like” and “so”.

It is very difficult to avoid “verbal ticks”, and once one set is abolished, another set often appears. However, if they become distractions due to too many voiced pauses, or become overused expressions, they can take away from a teacher’s core message and make it that much more difficult to help students learn.

A basic teaching example of an overworked word is “okay,” used to mean, among other things, “yes”, “I understand” and “good”, and as a marker to signal moving from one thing to the next, as in “Okay, class, let’s move on to … .”

If you have any doubts as to the extent to which voiced verbal pauses can distract from a message, compare live interviews on CNN – which are filled with voiced pauses – and those on BBC – which have relatively few. Then, record your own lesson and listen for any verbal ticks you might have that could be distracting from your message and work to remove them one by one.

It will not be easy, but a key point to keep in mind is that when teaching, unvoiced pauses, while initially difficult to accomplish, have more impact, and unlike in a conversation, are not a turn-taking signal but rather a time for both you and the student to think about what you have just said.

Even in an ideal world, where we talk 30 percent and students talk 70 percent, in a three-hour class, we may talk for almost an hour. If our talk includes nervous verbal and physical ticks that distract from our message, it should not be a mystery as to why some, if not all, of the students stop listening.

Evaluating student work

Another key idea for Toastmasters is to give effective evaluations that highlight a speaker’s strengths using examples and to highlight what needs improving by offering concrete ideas that could prove useful.

In making these evaluations, we use the “sandwich method”: you did this well, this could be better, you did this well. If an evaluator follows this format and if concrete examples are provided for the strong points and concrete suggestions for a weak area, not only the individual being evaluated, but also other members of the audience/class benefit.

To follow this pattern, find at least two strong points for every point the student could improve on. Experienced and comfortable using this format, I find students react very favourably to evaluations and are eager to try again as they know my evaluation will be pleasant and not painful. Too often in class, we focus on the negative and forget to praise students for the positive.

By removing nervous verbal ticks and pauses, we can enhance the message students will hear, which can only be a plus. In addition, if students know that evaluations will praise and recommend ideas, and not criticise, my experience has been that they look forward to and actively seek evaluation opportunities.

In addition, other students learn from what the speaker did well and can incorporate positive aspects while avoiding potential weaknesses mentioned about a previous speaker.

[widgets_on_pages id=”Inner-Page”]