How Much Do Students Speak in the Target Language?

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How long do students speak on average in the target language during a regular class session (let’s assume one hour of instruction)? If your answer is about 50% to 75% of the time, you either have less than 10 students (lucky you!) or I’m afraid you may be wishfully miscalculating how much students actually speak (in the TL) in the classroom.

A study commissioned by the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) found that, when adding up every instance of student talk in the TL during a regular foreign language lesson, all students together spoke only 23,5% of the class time. The study was conducted in 219 schools (11,000 students) and with video recordings of the lessons that were transcribed and coded for teacher vs student talk in the TL among other variables. The study was also longitudinal, meaning that multiple class sessions of the same course were recorded, which makes this estimation very reliable.

So, why so little? Let’s list the “other stuff” that happens in the classroom and estimate the time it takes. I’m assuming the lesson is taught at an intermediate level, following communicative methodology.

Contextualized input, that is, presenting visually and auditorily within the context of a story, song, or video the actual words or grammatical structures that students will be learning that day. Imagine that there are three of these in the lesson = about 20 minutes of class time total. During comprehension, students may engage with the input with answers to binary questions (yes/no, normal/strange), surveys or ranking activities. Students’ use of the TL may be limited to single words or simple sentences. Assuming ALL students participate, and that we have about 20 students, we can say they each contributes about 1 minute of talk in the TL.

Guided speaking activities. It is best practice to scaffold student activities from more tightly supported structured output exercises to more open-ended interactions. Let’s assume 15 minutes of class time total for more supported structured output activities where students may need to both write and speak. Let’s assume that we have a talkative group of students that use 50% of the time speaking, for a total of 7.5 minutes of talk in the TL each.

Administration and classroom management (welcoming students, announcing the goals for the lesson, reminders about homework, tests or events, giving back graded assignments, describing/modelling student activities, answering clarification questions, etc.) = about 10 minutes of class time total. During this time, students’ use of the TL may be limited to single words or simple sentences, and, honestly, only a few dedicated students will actually use the TL for this administrative portion of the lesson. But let’s be optimistic and give each student credit for two to four full sentences or 30 seconds of talk in the TL (at the intermediate level uttering two full sentences takes time).

Open-ended speaking activities. We have about 15 minutes of class time left for speaking practice that is not supported by reading or writing (unstructured interviews, describing an image for a partner to reproduce, giving oral instructions for a partner to achieve something, etc.). Since our class follows communicative methodology, these activities will involve turn-taking in pairs or small groups. In the unlikely event that ALL students speak an equal amount of time within their pairs or small groups, we can potentially get up to 7.5 minutes of talk in the TL for each.

According to this rather optimistic estimation, students speak about 16.5 minutes in the TL in a 60-min class, or 27.5% of the time. Not far from the 23,5% that the DIPF found. And we have assumed that ALL students speak for the same amount of time when working in pairs or groups, and that they all are willing to keep the TL even to ask about an upcoming test.

Most foreign language classes don’t happen for 60 minutes, for five days a week, and not every class in the semester or school year can be as focused on speaking as this one (what about exam days? Or writing and peer editing of essays?). The reality is that many students only get about 30 minutes of speaking practice in the TL a week, and probably much less in the case of shy or nervous students who are good at avoiding speaking tasks. If oral proficiency is among our teaching goals, we need to increase students’ speaking practice time, either by assigning speaking homework or by doing more lab-style speaking practice in the classroom when all students talk simultaneously at the same time.

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DESI-Konsortium (Hrsg.) (2008). Unterricht und Kompetenzerwerb in Deutsch und Englisch. Ergebnisse der DESI-Studie. Weinheim: Beltz.