NQT Special: Dealing with ‘chatty classes’

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Having a ‘chatty class’ can be a tricky low-level behaviour challenge for teachers. John Dabell offers some advice

An excessively talkative class can be disruptive and exhausting and allowing students to freely talk and without permission is certainly a slippery slope.

At the same time, at the heart of a pupil’s learning and a teacher’s repertoire is talk. Robin Alexander in Towards Dialogic Teaching argues that “talk is arguably the true foundation of learning”. But, while championing the role of oracy is important, not all types of talk are welcome or appropriate.

Constant chit-chat is the “bane of my life” for many a teacher and does need to be curbed. The problem is that some students need little or no invitation or encouragement to talk.

Chatty class syndrome is a real-life classroom management issue. It’s also a serious problem because, left unattended, it tears at the fabric of your class and the right of all pupils to work without interference. Students who chat indiscriminately to each other and you are out of order. It is also an affront to your authority and chips away at your wellbeing if mismanaged.

However, at the same time, you don’t want a class that is afraid to speak or a class that is silent and dull. So what do you do? Well it might be easier to start with three approaches that I would advise against...

1, Carrots and sticks

There are plenty of ways to reward good behaviour, such as stickers, smileys, beans in a jar, tokens, merit points and certificates – but they do come with a class health warning: they can make a situation worse.

Although these strategies “work” as quick-hit wins, they don’t actually do students or us any favours in the long-term. In the book Best of the Best: Feedback (edited by Isabella Wallace and Leah Kirkman, 2017),

Professor Barry Hyman makes the point: “Although apparently positive and benign, these extrinsic reinforcers are little symbols of manipulation, designed to ensure compliance or to compensate a child for doing something that their better selves might have chosen to do for other reasons, such as intrinsic motivation or even altruism. Incentives end up being an exercise in the administration of power. Intrinsic motivation to learn is the casualty.”

2, A signal or a word

Some teachers try respond signals and having “a word” instead. They use a secret word to let their class or particular individuals know that they have pushed it too far. This can be any word you want: calypso, Pringles, trampoline, meerkat, marshmallows, etc, and when said or written down it is a signal to quit the chatter and get back on task. The problem is, some students want to hear the word and so play up to it.

3, Countdown

If things are getting too much and talk is not focused on learning then you can use a simple timer to get minds back into learning mode. There are various downloads and apps you can use to set a time by which all students should be quiet. The music from the television show Countdown is well-known and a fun way of resetting the atmosphere of the class, although again students can play up to this and deliberately chat so they can get their daily hit of music.

There are other ways...

Lots of teachers don’t use these ideas because they don’t go far enough and because they still allow for idle talk to live and breathe – for the sound wave cycle to continue: loud, quiet, loud, quiet...

Be more Michaela

In my view, Michaela Community School (MCS) in Brent has got it bang on. Pupils at this outstanding school do very well because they know how to be successful learners and have exemplary attitudes to learning.

Ofsted reports that the behaviour of pupils is outstanding – they behave responsibly, are highly self-disciplined and “they follow the school’s conduct guidelines conscientiously so that lessons run very smoothly and without interruption”.

So can we learn from what MCS does? Their expectation is that students work in silence unless they have been asked to answer a question or work with a partner. MCS does not ask classes to “work quietly”, because this is too ambiguous – they remove this ambiguity and expect silence unless asked otherwise.

As Jonathan Porter says in Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way (edited by Katharine Birbalsingh, 2016): “Most pupils like this. They recognise what people have recognised for centuries: that it’s easier to concentrate when there aren’t people chatting next to you.

“Our autistic pupils revel in it. For them, the ambient noise in their primary schools made concentrating very difficult indeed.”

We can all be more Michaela by removing any haziness and letting students know where they stand when it comes to what is expected of class life: silence should be expected unless the teacher has asked for talking and everyone puts up their hand before speaking – no-one stands in the way of learning.

Stemming from Doug Lemov’s book Teach like a Champion (2010), all MCS teachers consistently use the phrase “3-2-1, SLANT” in lessons. This stands for: Sit up straight, Listen, Answer questions, Never interrupt,

Track the teacher.

All students sit facing forwards with their arms folded when they are not writing in their books and not a second of lesson time is wasted. Students know that “talking stops learning”.

Go back to square one

If we are going to be more Michaela then it’s time for some tough love. Teachers who complain about their talkative classrooms, talk as if they have nothing to do with it, but the reality is that the teacher decides when, how much, and how often students are allowed to talk.

In all likelihood you haven’t followed your own classroom management plan. If things have slipped, the contract has been broken and you haven’t held your class accountable. As Michael Linsin says in The Classroom Management Secret (2013): “Wherever there is weak or semi accountability, behaviour, respect, and kindness take a nosedive.”

It is not a nice feeling but all is not lost: accept failure with dignity, recalibrate and move on. Waste absolutely no time in getting back to basics and re-establishing what you said on day one. Talk the talk and walk the walk by modelling each of your class rules and consequences. Consistency is the key but for whatever reason you have opened the door and let certain behaviours get in. Once a bit of chit-chat is allowed to survive unchallenged, nattering can become the norm and students start to push other boundaries.

Be super clear with your students and set the bar high so that they know when it is acceptable for them to talk and when they should be working silently or listening carefully. Set clear limits, communicate those limits and don’t bend the rules for anyone.

Your high expectations can’t slide. If students see you let a rule slide for one person, things soon snowball.

Jump in

The second anyone decides to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to them, extinguish their flame immediately and back it up with a consequence. If you don’t jump in and pour water on a conversation, other students will jump in and join the party.

If the rules have been explained and everyone knows them then there are no excuses, so accept no nonsense early doors. Bolt the door to low level behaviour before minor becomes major.

Dealing with any talking swiftly is all important, so what do you do? Michaela teachers use the following pre-emptive reminders (see the MCS Behaviour Policy for more):

  1. Silent non-verbal: hand signal, eye contact, facial expression, shake head, sharp pause.
  2. Unnamed: “We’re tracking. Just waiting for 100 per cent. We need one person ... and 100 per cent.”
  3. Named: “David, we listen so we can learn. Thank you.”

Quiet management is in your hands, but mostly in your face, how you stand and where you stand. Some teachers can employ a stance and stare that stops everyone in their tracks. There are no words used, just body language. Not everyone can pull this off, so what do you do instead?

Using the power of proximity can often be enough to stop students from non-stop talking. Move yourself into a student’s space and stand next to them. You don’t even have to say anything and just your presence around them can soon encourage silence.

Don’t talk

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies by pressing the self-destruct button. You might have clear boundaries in place, set a class off on a task and then end up interrupting them with talk of your own because the silence feels uncomfortable. Hold back and resist the urge to pitch in with comments – let them get on with it.

When a class is settled don’t rock the boat. You can still work with individual students and groups but keep a quiet voice and try not to micromanage by hovering like a helicopter.

Make them accountable

Students have to take charge of their own talking patterns and learn when it is the right time (and not the right time) to speak. Encourage students to exercise self-control and police each other by using positive peer pressure to your advantage. Explicitly teach the skills needed for active listening and focusing on work amid disturbance. Challenge students to spot specific learning behaviours when they happen in the classroom.

Model oracy

Cut the chat and focus on oracy. Students need opportunities to talk so we need to systematically teach oracy and plan plenty of time for quality talk. How? Another outstanding school we can learn from here is School 21 in Newham. School 21 makes oracy “a moral cause” and elevates speaking to the same level as reading and writing to support higher order thinking. They have worked with the University of Cambridge to develop the four strands of oracy: physical, cognitive, linguistic and emotional. These support students in learning to talk with real impact and help them focus on the quality of their talk. This Oracy Framework is something we should all be aiming to copy and paste in our classrooms (see further information).

Keep the pot full

Make sure that students are kept busy and always have something to occupy them that matches their ability level. Those that finish first without enough to do will soon turn to someone else for a chat. Students engrossed in their work seldom find time to chat about Eastenders, and if they want to then they know that class time isn’t the time to do it.

And finally...

If your class is getting on top of you then it is time to get on top of them – it’s always possible to press reset.
Adopting a no-excuses style of classroom management doesn’t make you a dictator, or send your class into a downward spiral, resenting you for laying down the law.

Quite the opposite – students know you mean business, they know what the limits are, and they know they will spend their time in your lessons learning. As the government’s behaviour tsar Tom Bennett says, teachers need to be “the top dog”; we need to show them that we’re in charge.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv

Further information

NQT Special Edition

This article has been published as part of SecEd’s autumn 2017 NQT Special Edition – eight pages of guidance, advice and practical tips for new teachers. Topics range from wellbeing, workload an work/life balance, to classroom advice, feedback tips, behaviour management and advice about your own rights and entitlements. You can download the entire eight-page section as a free pdf via http://bit.ly/2Bv5dIc


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Claim Free Subscription