The 80:20 Rule in the Language Classroom

By Jennifer Robertson Montes posted 07-03-2010 11:54


One of the challenges for many language instructors is balancing the amount of time spent talking and the amount of time the students spend practicing in the target language. It seems that no matter how long the course is, there just simply is never enough time to cover all the material.

Unfortunately, this lack of time sometimes lends itself to rushing through the curriculum to cover all of the objectives.  The result is higher teacher-talk and less student communication.  Another reason for high teacher-talk in the language classroom may be simply bad habit.  The instructor is used to being the “conveyer of information” rather than the “facilitator of communication.”  This sometimes happens with instructors who were trained in a program that did not stress the communicative approach to language instruction.

What we try to strive for in our language classes is the “80:20 Rule.”  The instructor’s goal is to create an environment in every class where the students are communicating 80% of the time and the instructor is communicating 20% of the time.  Now, all you beginner-level instructors out there are saying “impossible!”  To clarify, this obviously does not mean from day one.  This is a goal, and there are some simple changes to the way material is presented to help achieve that goal.

For example, a new instructor is introducing the verb “ser” in Spanish (to be).  She writes it on the board, says it, and has the class repeat.  Then she writes out the subject pronouns on the board, says them, and has the class repeat.  Next, she tells the class that “ser” means “to be” in English. Finally, she directs students to the book to read some examples and do the practice activities.  (Yes, this really does happen!)

So, how can we change this approach to decrease the teacher-talk and increase the student communication?  First, begin every new lesson with a question.  In this instance, the instructor would start the lesson with “¿Cómo se dice to be en español?” (How do you say to be in Spanish?)  Next, have pictures depicting the subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.).  Ask students if anyone can identify them even if it is new.  Always begin a new objective by finding out what they already know with more questions.  This is “Preview” in the Steps to Mastery™.   Remember that these are adult learners who may have picked up some Spanish in high school, college, or on the street, so they are not a “blank slate” like a child. 

Therefore, by simply beginning every new lesson with a question or a series of questions, you are going to start changing the ratio of teacher-talk in your classroom.  Here are some other ideas to decrease your teacher-talk and increase student communication:

  • Review your lesson plan and make sure there are more student-centered activities that involve paired and group practice in every class.
  • Incorporate more visual aids into your lesson so you can have students try to guess the answers from the pictures instead of giving them the information.
  • Have students read the instructions from the book in the target language rather than you reading them.
  • Have students take turns leading the homework review.
  • For larger groups, do more choral practice rather than round robin practice.  Use a choral approach for reading dialogues as well to give more students the opportunity to practice.

Monitoring your teacher-talk is just one component of establishing an effective language learning environment for your students.  Look for more articles in the future on this topic at