Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

When the office bore is the bore in your class

The more I observe and interact with students in a classroom environment the more I am struck by this revelation:

They’re not only students, they’re people.

And as such, this means they bring all the character flaws, communicative failings and lack of social skills that many people bring to their everyday lives. All too often TEFL assumes that students are somehow inherently able to hold conversation, listen to each others’ views, expand on ideas, are imaginative and are able to formulate opinions and observations on a wide range of often spurious topics along with a whole host of other skills that make for great communication.


This morning I was supposed to be monitoring two discussions going on simultaneously between a pair of females and a group of three with two males and one female. But I was really sitting there marvelling at the way this one male always dominates a conversation and bores on and on and wondering what I can do about it.

It’s an Advanced class so when someone is a bore they can display this trait for even longer and more eloquently than lower level students so the problem is one that increases as the student’s ability rises to the level of  their obliviousness to social niceities.

In whole class discussions, he never lets anyone get a word in and the topic dies a death because he says everything there is to say. And he has a tendency towards long, convoluted sentences which makes not sticking pins in your eyes to stay awake even harder. A lot of what he says is interesting but that’s not quite the point. He’s not sharing the conversation.

So when I put them in groups, I was hoping to make it easier for the others to get their share. The two women nattered away, easily taking turns and interacting with each other. The group of three were immediately taken over by Robomouth. The other guy, who is a good turn taker, waited and waited and finally saw his chance to interject.

The girl was staring off into space, knowing full well she was last in the queue because she isn’t the type to elbow her way into a conversation. She’d have been fine in the other group where both members were talking in a non excluding way. You could see it from the little devices they used like “Mmmm, yes” and echoing. Things they did naturally and, I would bet my pitiful hourly rate, do in their own language.

The second guy did the right thing and, after he’d said his bit, asked her opinion. I am sure he did that because he’d picked up on the dynamic of the conversation and knew that if he hadn’t the other guy would have launched straight back in. It turned out she  agreed with most of what the first guy had said and was able to talk about it. But what we had was three monologues, not a discussion, and that was solely down to the way that one member of the group behaves.

The other students like the first guy, so do I. But even I don’t manage to turn his monologues into class discussions and I just wait for a gap that I can use to move on to something else. My only option is to have a quiet word with him but that’s all very easy to advise, do you tell the office bore they need to listen more and let others talk?

Artificial set ups like having him be some kind of linguistic referee in a conversation don’t seem right to me. It wouldn’t teach him anything; it wouldn’t reflect real life. And the type of lesson where you teach them phrases to interject…it’s not that they don’t know how to do it…it’s that this situation is one that’s annoying in real life and not easily solved with some textbook phrase like “If I can interrupt you there…”

Maybe an article like this one on conversational narcissism to start a discussion that hopefully leads to self reflection? But, students, much the same as real people, probably don’t see their own flaws from reading a magazine. They think “Oh, yes, I know someone just like that!” Plus once I’ve used that kind of article, I definitely can’t speak to him about it otherwise he’ll feel picked on.

Any ideas? How have you dealt with that?

Incidentally, there is a girl in my social circle who is an even worse example of Bore-ness so I’m going to try out the techniques in class and then turn the most effective onto her!


16 comments on “When the office bore is the bore in your class

  1. pterolaur
    February 14, 2013

    I wish I had some useful advice but I’m struggling with one of these myself! So far I’ve tried (in ‘whole class’ discussion – only 4/5 Ss) just interrupting him and inviting someone else to speak, which feels a bit rude but then so are his interminable turns, and (in pair discussion) expressly saying, as part of the instructions, ‘Make sure you share the conversation 50-50. I’ll be listening to make sure both people have equal turns.’ Sometimes works, sometimes not. On the plus side, when he thinks about it, he *is* aware of what he’s doing, because after class the other day he said, ‘You know, I speak less now that you’re our teacher.’ I asked him if that was a good thing, and he said, ‘Yes, probably.’ So I agreed it was a good thing when everyone had the chance to share their ideas, and thanked him for being considerate towards his co-students. We will see what we’ll see. Good luck with yours! – I’ll be following the comments here…

    • Nicola
      February 14, 2013

      Maybe…just had an idea after reading your comment. The person speaking has something to hold (Lord of the Flies conch style) and when someone else speaks they take it so everyone is more aware how long they are holding it for, either to increase or decrease their contribution.

  2. nakanotim
    February 14, 2013

    Interesting idea (the conch one). I use an activity with something similar (a ball that’s lost its bounce) when teaching the idea of turn-taking (it’s a seminar class on Pragmatics/Conversational Analysis). Going one step further and using one in classes with general discussions sounds good. I tend not to have this ‘problem’, though, of any student speaking too long.

    • Nicola
      February 14, 2013

      I can see the ball is a good way to ilustrate it but then hoping for self reflection to do the rest.It’d be fine if he was a one to one, the more they talk the easier the lesson goes!

  3. creativitiesefl
    February 14, 2013

    No real advice but lots of sympathy as I’ve also had a few of these and it can make things really hard work! Like you say, he’s probably just the same in his L1 so it’s more a case of personality than anything else. I have heard of doing the ‘pass the object’ thing you mention in the comment above but never done it myself, might be worth a try though? I’m sure Jim Scrivener talked about this type of student in a talk I heard on his Classroom Management book and he suggested (I think) the ‘traffic cop’ approach where you use gestures to control who speaks (ie. holding your hand up to stop one person and then an open palm to someone else to invite them to speak) but that would only work in whole class situations.
    Apart from that my only advice is just make sure the same people don’t always get stuck in groups with him!

    • Nicola
      February 14, 2013

      In the Scriv’s world it might be OK to hold your hand up to stop someone speaking but in the real world that’s just about the rudest thing you could ever do!

      • creativitiesefl
        February 14, 2013

        yeah, that’s what I thought actually! He demoed it with a friendly smile and it actually seemed ok but I wouldn’t be comfortable with it personally. Just throwing it out there…:-)

      • Nicola
        February 14, 2013

        Thanks, I love nothing more than being able to criticise one of the EFL “greats”

  4. grossetobrit
    February 14, 2013

    How about ” a pass the parcel” type game where you forfeit a life / points if you speak after a certain time (after the music) . You could include structures to ask for others’ thoughts and opinions. The other students gain points for using (dis)agreement forms and polite interruption forms. I have used this in my B2 level conversational course without the timings and students get extra points for idioms, vocab and phrasal verbs.

    You still monitor but it may give the others a chance to speak without the “culprit” realising he is being “manipulated”.

    • Nicola
      February 14, 2013

      I think that might work for an Int class where they might lack the linguistic tools to get themselves heard but seems unnatural for an Advanced class where the issue is character, awareness and manners.Someone else suggested an egg timer and that might work in place of the conch…hopefully each speaker would monitor themselves, but then they also might feel they actually have to talk for the timer’s length and that doesn’t mirror natural talking either. Someone on my MA described it as the difference between tennis and bowling…maybe that’s an image I could bring to class…? Don’t mind me, just thinking aloud.

  5. thesecretdos
    February 14, 2013

    Another strategy is to give everyone a couple of speaking cards and limit the time of contributions. Once they’ve played their cards, they have to wait until everyone else has played theirs. Ostensibly you are teaching conversation gambits such as, “if I could just go back to what X said,…”. Really you are buying a bit of peace and quiet.

    Personally, I always found being very, very blunt and then smiling: “ENOUGH! if there were medals for talking, you’d be like Usain Bolt.” That and interrupting with, “,WHAT DO YOU THINK, ANYONE ELSE???”

    • Nicola
      February 14, 2013

      Or, “Sorry are you STILL talking? I must have fallen into a temporary coma there. Has everyone else managed to stop their ears bleeding?” But speaking cards, perhaps, perhaps. Wait-does that mean I have to bloody laminate something?

  6. Ann O'Nymous
    February 15, 2013

    Just use playing cards. Consider getting some tailor-made, like the US military did in Iraq. When you hang the garrulous, rip the card up. Look how well the whole thing worked in Iraq.

    Oh. Hang on a minute…

  7. Laura
    February 15, 2013

    I tend to say “Marta, you´ve worked really hard in this conversation, thanks – now you can just sit back and relax for a bit and let the others do some work”. With a wink if they have any sense of humour.

    • Nicola
      February 15, 2013

      Too obvious though, and public. If public I feel it needs to be subtle enough that the person’s feelings are not hurt as well as their pride. IF I’m going to go for hurting their feelings anyway, it might as well be in private to spare their pride.

  8. linksandanchors
    February 27, 2013

    You need a traffic light system like the one they use at Labour Party conferences to limit the length of speeches and/or the voting system used by Let Me Entertain You see:

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This entry was posted on February 14, 2013 by in Teaching English, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , .
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