Getting Your Students To Speak in The Language Class
Despite Steven Krashen’s famous methodology of language acquisition, in which he claims students must go through a silent period before they can speak, we know how anxious our students are to start producing the target language from day 1. This silent period is the time learners need to be exposed to enough comprehensible input so they can absorb the language and be able to speak it. It emulates what happens when kids acquire their first language. Having said that, it’s a fact that motivation also plays a key part in language learning, and setting up speaking activities from the very beginning of the language course will not, in my opinion, have any negative effect on the students’ development: they will not be able to do much, though, but that is OK. Motivation will work wonders. The elementary level, which is usually known as A2 in the Common European Framework benchmark, would be the ideal moment to start with speaking activities, but don’t worry too much if you have to do it earlier to please your students.
Teachers usually complain about the same problems when they set up speaking activities: students might not know what to say, they are shy to speak in public, they don’t know enough about the topic, they are not that interested in the topic.
So, as a teacher and teacher trainer, with many years of experience, and with the help of a number of methodology books I have read throughout my career, I would humbly suggest a few tips to get your speaking activities going smoothly in the language class. See the main points below:
1. Decide whether the activity will be task or topic-based: a task-based activity typically involves the use of language as a means to an end. The students, for example, are given a problem (e.g. give each pair of students a list of 10 objects and ask them to discuss and negotiate the following problem: you are stranded on a desert island, if you could pick 5 of these 10 objects to have with you on the island, which ones would you both pick?). To pick the objects, they will have to justify their choices. On the other hand, a topic-based activity requires the students to discuss or talk about a specific subject (e.g. what’s your country’s situation concerning racism?) The more they are able to personalize the topic, contributing their own opinions and experiences, the more they will have to say about it. If you wish to read more on this, please refer to my previous post “Topic-Based versus Task-Based Speaking Activities”: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1nJ
2. Give them context (input): Before setting up an activity, expose the students to some linguistic or visual context, so they can rely on some form of scaffold to help them structure their output. The stimulus can be established through a text, a picture, a video clip or a listening passage, for example. But it’s important that the teacher introduce the topic, or brainstorm some vocabulary and ideas about it before having the students talk about it.
3. Brainstorm: depending on the input the teacher chooses to use in the step above, the brainstorm will be more or less controlled. If the students have been given a written text, for example, the teacher should work on it and exploit some ideas and related vocabulary and grammar. If the teacher starts by showing a painting by a famous artist, the brainstorming will have to be longer and less controlled. The students will probably have to learn some new vocabulary as well, get to know something about the artist and his times, or even his style and technique. Always elicit info from the students before spoon-feeding them with ready-made answers: you might be surprised about the vocabulary they already have or their knowledge about the topic.
4. Get them to work in pairs and/or small groups as often as possible: do not put the students in the awkward position of speaking in front of the whole class right at the beginning of the exercise. Give them time to prepare their answers. The best way to do that is, of course, to put them in pairs or little groups, so they can participate more and not feel intimidated by a big audience. Many times they won’t even have to speak to the whole class at the end, or you could ask only for volunteers to share their work. During the activity, however, make sure you go around not only monitoring the different groups but also lending them a hand.
5. Focus on fluency: the aim of the speaking activities we are discussing in this post is not to drill grammar points or practice vocabulary, or even pronunciation, in a controlled way. As the students produce their utterances, make a mental note or write down discreetly some of the most common mistakes made, especially the ones that involve grammar or vocabulary already taught in previous lessons. Do not interrupt the students for correction, unless you don’t understand what is being said. Decide on what you are going to focus on for correction in each activity, then, at the end, or in a future lesson, list the mistakes on a handout and pass them to the learners, so they can correct the mistakes in pairs, without necessarily naming the perpetrators.
6. Personalize the activity: people like to talk about their own experiences. Design questions that allow them to talk about their own tastes, aspirations, experiences and life in general.
7. Make the questions as opened-ended as possible: to make this personalization possible, try to design questions that allow for open-ended answers, do not look for right/wrong answers, but for opinions and suggestions.
8. Make the activity as relevant as possible: choose topics or direct the discussion towards a path that is relevant to the group of students you have. The same speaking activity can be slightly changed to reflect the reality and interests of a different group of students. The closer they feel to the topic being discussed or the task being proposed the more productive the result will be.
Some speaking activities will go better than others, as you know. Don’t give up on a well-prepared exercise if it does not work well with a particular group of students. Try it a number of times with other students: it might work better. The important thing to remember is the more the students are exposed to linguistic input, by either reading or listening, the more fluent and accurate their delivery will be eventually. So make sure you focus on receptive skills especially at the earlier levels of the course your are teaching before worrying too much about the success of the speaking activities.