How to Teach Speaking
Reasons for teaching speaking
There are three main reasons for getting students to speak in the classroom. Firstly, speaking activities provide rehearsal opportunities - chances to practise real-life speaking in the safety of the classroom. Secondly, speaking tasks in which students try to use any or all of the language they know provide feedback for both teacher and students. Everyone can see how well they are doing: both how successful they are, and also what language problems they are experiencing. And finally, the more students have opportunities to activate the various elements of language they have stored in their brains, the more automatic their use of these elements become. As a result, students gradually become autonomous language users. This means that they will be able to use words and phrases fluently without very much conscious thought.
Good speaking activities can and should be extremely engaging for the students. If they are all participating fully - and if the teacher has set up the activity properly and can then give sympathetic and useful feedback - they will get tremendous satisfaction from it.
We need to be clear that the kinds of speaking activities we are looking at here are not the same as controlled language practice, where, for example, students say a lot of sentences using a particular piece of grammar or a particular function. The kind of speaking we are talking about almost always involves the activate element in our ESA trilogy. In other words, the students are using any and all of the language at their command to achieve some kind of purpose which is not purely linguistic. They are practising what Scott Thornbury, in his book How to Teach Speaking, calls speaking-as-skill, where there is a task to complete and speaking is the way to complete it. In the same way that ‘writing-for-writing’ is designed to help the student get better at the skill of writing so the activities are designed to foster better speaking, rather than having students speak only to focus on (and practise) specific language constructions. As with any sequence, however, we may use what happens in a speaking activity as a focus for future study, especially where the speaking activity throws up some language problems that subsequently need fixing.
Scott Thornbury suggests that the teaching of speaking depends on there being a classroom culture of speaking, and that classrooms need to become ‘ talking classrooms’ In other words, students will be much more confident speakers (and their speaking abilities will improve) if this kind of speaking activation is a regular feature of lessons.
Tips to develop the speaking skills of your students
Being a ‘good speaker’ requires a range of skills beyond accurate grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, though these are the basic building blocks that enable a message to be understood.
An effective communicator chooses the words they use, and the way in which they speak to different people in different situations, whether that is ordering a sandwich at a snack bar or giving a keynote speech at an academic event.
The skills involved in how we interact with others in different ways are called communicative competencies: teachable skills which frame the language used in interaction in different settings.
Speaking as a language skill involves these competencies much more than it requires accuracy of language, so when we talk about ‘teaching speaking’, we are talking about something different from grammar or vocabulary practice.
Speaking can be used to practice new language (as is common in question-answer tasks or role-plays held after specific language instruction, but this kind of activity may not teach the skill of speaking itself.
Teaching Speaking as a set of competencies
Just as we can instruct, present and practice specific grammar features to students, the component competencies which make up speaking as a pure language skill can also be broken down and presented systematically.
Some useful language sub-skills which can be turned into practice activities are:
Responding appropriately while listening
Circumlocution (talking around unknown words using known language)
Notice that none of these sub-skills make specific reference to grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation, though obviously these are necessary for students to communicate what they want to say.
In order to bring the focus onto these competencies, it is therefore advisable to lead speaking tasks on topics that are familiar to students, and using language that is within their ability. Taking the strain of new language out of speaking activities allows students to focus on the pure sub-skills listed above.
This is similar to the way in which native speakers are ‘trained’ for public speaking or assertiveness in social situations: as native speakers, they are comfortable with the structure of their own language, but want to develop other skills which go along with that.
Discourse and organization of message
Many of these features of speaking fall into the category of discourse – the organisation and style of a message as it is delivered in different situations.
When teaching speaking in a given context, think about how people actually speak in that situation.
Find recordings of people interacting in restaurants, banks, or wherever your lesson will be set, and think about the functional steps of the interaction as it happens.
You will probably find that most interaction that you listen to is quite formulaic and predictable, so can be used as a structure for the dialogues that you present and practice in class, only with the organisation and ordering of the speech as the focus of the class rather than the specific language used.
Restricted and free speaking
Again, as with grammar and vocabulary, we can incorporate these target competencies into standard formats of lessons – we can present the feature of speech through an audio or video task, and then ask students to practise applying the feature in a restricted task.
Gapped dialogues, ordering lines in a script, or choosing the best alternative from three different responses in a conversation, for example.
Again, as long as the learners are playing with language they already know, their ‘discourse brains’ will be more engaged and they will have more focus on the competencies they are learning.
Free speaking tasks should be exactly that: student-student interaction which does not have too many limitations.
Give students a topic or situation and ask them to script out a typical interaction in that situation. Assign roles to different students, so that they can practise speaking to different ‘people’, and see how they flex their ideas when talking to their boss as compared to their 7-year-old daughter. This will open up the features they are learning in application to different types of speech.
Finally, be aware that although your learners have been focusing on these great features of spoken communication, they have not yet had the opportunity to fully apply these until they have spoken totally freely, without a script, or notes to work from (after all, native speakers don’t carry scripts around with them to use in sandwich bars, though they do have an ‘expected script’ in their mind which informs their use of language), by participating in a speaking event with another student or students.
The same dialogue that was used in free practice can be repeated, though with different participants to ensure spontaneity and flexibility with language. Only then can you say that students have truly applied what they are learning by the end of the class.
In the following three examples, we are going to look at very different speaking activities. All the activities satisfy the three reasons for using speaking tasks which we mentioned above. As with all other skills, what starts as a speaking activity may very well lead on to writing - or the speaking activity itself may develop from a reading text, or after listening to an audio track.
Example 1: photographic competition (upper intermediate to advanced)
In the following activity, students have to discuss criteria before reaching a final decision. They also have to be able to give reasons for their decision. The activity begins when students, working in groups, are told that they are going to be the judges of a photographic competition in which all the images are of men. Before they see the four finalists, they have to decide the criteria they are going to use to make their choice. Each group should come up with five criteria. While they are discussing this, we can circulate, listening in on the groups’ discussions, helping them out of any difficulties and feeding in words and phrases such as ‘contrast’ and ‘make a strong impression’, if this is necessary. We will also make a note of any language problems we may want to study later in remedial exercises. The students are then shown the four finalists for the competition. In their groups, they have to choose the winning photograph. But they cannot do this just on the basis of which one they like best. They have to use the criteria they have previously agreed. Once again, we can go round the groups helping out, cajoling or sometimes correcting where this is appropriate.
Finally, the groups have to report back on their choices and say exactly why they have chosen them - which criteria made them choose one above the others. This can develop into a longer whole-class discussion about what masculinity means, or about photography and how it has been changed by the invention of digitised images, etc. This speaking activity works because students are activating any and all of the language they know to talk about something other than learning English. They have a purpose for their speaking (designing criteria, making a choice). But the activity also allows us to feed useful words and phrases into the discussion while, at the same time, giving us a lot of examples of student language. We can use these later in study sequences, where we both look at some of the mistakes the students made, and also help them to say things better or more appropriately.
Example 2: role-play (intermediate to upper intermediate)
Many teachers ask students to become involved in simulations and role-plays. In simulations, students act as if they were in a real-life situation. We can ask them to simulate a check-in encounter at an airport, for example, or a job interview, or a presentation to a conference. Role-plays simulate the real world in the same kind of way, but the students are given particular roles - they are told who they are and often what they think about a certain subject. They have to speak and act from their new character’s point of view. The following role-play sets up a dramatic situation and then gives the participants’ role-cards which tell them how they feel and what they want to achieve.
The teacher presents the class with the following situation:
Last night the Wolverhampton Trophy was stolen from the Wolverhampton Football Club
Headquarters at around 9:30 in the evening. The police have brought in a youth for questioning:
They believe this youth stole the trophy.
The suspect is being interviewed by two police officers. The suspect’s lawyer is also present.
But because the suspect is not yet eighteen, a parent is also present.
When the teacher is sure the students understand the situation (including, for example, the
meaning of ‘trophy’), the class is divided into five groups: suspect, police officer 1, police
officer 2, lawyer and parent. Each member of the group is given the role-card for the part
they are to play. The role-cards are as follows:
You are seventeen and a half years old.
You did steal the trophy, of course, but you don’t think the police have any proof.
You want to know where the police got their information. When they ask you what you were doing last night, you’ll say you were with a friend.
You enjoy being silly when the police ask you questions. You get angry when the lawyer tries to stop you doing this.
Police officer 1
The suspect was seen leaving the club house at around 9:30 by two other criminals,
Ben and Joey, but you can’t tell the suspect this, because that would put Ben and Joey in
danger. So the only thing you can do is to keep asking the suspect different questions about
what they were doing last night in the hope that they’ll get confused and in the end and confess.
You have had enough of teenage crime in your area. It makes you really mad. Anyway, you want to get home. Unfortunately, you get angry rather quickly. When your police colleague tells you to calm down, you get really angry.
Police officer 2
The suspect was seen taking the trophy by two other criminals, Ben and Joey, but you can’t
tell the suspect this, because that would put Ben and Joey in danger. So the only thing you can do is keep asking the suspect different questions about what they were doing last night in the hope that they’ll get confused and in the end confess.
You like your partner, but you get really worried when they start getting angry since this doesn’t help in a police interview situation, so you try to calm your partner down. But
whenever a suspect’s mother or father tries to say that their beautiful child is really to blame for something, you get really irritated.
Your job is to protect the suspect.
You try to stop the police asking difficult questions – and you try to stop the suspect saying too much.
You think your child is a good person and that if they have got into any trouble it isn’t their fault. Your partner (suspect’s mother or father) was sent to prison and the suspect is very upset about this.
If you think the police are being unfair to your child, you should tell them so – and make sure they realize it isn’t really your child’s fault.
In their groups, students discuss the role they are going to play | What kind of questions will they ask if they are police officers” What will they say if they are lawyers (e.g. ‘You don’t have to answer that question’)?, etc. They discuss what the other people in the situation are likely to do or say. While they are doing this, the teacher goes round the class clearing up any doubts the students might have and giving them language they think they might need. This pre-stage is vital for getting students in the mood for the activity.
Students are now put in new groups of suspect, two police officers, lawyer and parent, and the role-play gets going. The teacher goes from group to group, helping out and noting down any language that is worth commenting on later. When the activity is finished, the teacher tells the class what he or she witnessed and works on any persistent mistakes that occurred during the role-play.
A variation of this kind of detective activity is the game Alibi. The teacher invents a crime - probably related to grammar or vocabulary the students have been learning - and, say, three students are sent out of the classroom to concoct an alibi about what they were doing when the crime was committed.
The three students are now called back one by one and questioned by the rest of the class. When the second student comes in, the class tries to find inconsistencies with the alibi of the first of the three. The same happens when the third student of the three turns up. The class then highlights the inconsistencies and guesses who the ‘criminal’ is. Of course, it doesn’t actually matter who they decide on since the game is simply designed to have students ask and answer, using their questions and answers as fluently as possible.
There are differing views about whether students gain more or less benefit from simulating reality as themselves or, conversely, playing the role of someone else in the same situation. When students simulate reality as themselves, they get a chance for real-life rehearsal, seeing how they themselves would cope (linguistically) in such a situation. Giving students a role, on the other hand, allows them to ‘hide behind’ the character they are playing, and this can sometimes allow them to express themselves more freely than they would if they were voicing their own opinions or feelings. The best thing to do is to try simulations with and without roles and see which works best with a particular group.
Example 3: the portrait interview (almost any level)
The following speaking sequence shows how portraits can be used to provoke questions and answers which can then develop into a very involved conversation. The amount of conversation will, of course, depend to a large extent on the level of the students: at lower levels they may ask questions like ‘How old are you?’ to the people in the portrait whereas at higher levels the questions (and answers) may be significantly more complex. This kind of activity can work well with both children and adults. The activity develops in the following way:
Stage 1 - students are put into three groups. Each group gets for example copy of ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ by Jan van Eyck - or a large version of the painting is projected onto a screen.
Stage 2 - each group selects either the man, the woman or the dog. They have to look at the picture carefully and then come up with as many questions for their character as possible. Every student in the group must make a copy of all the questions produced by the group. (One group of advanced students produced questions for the man such as, ‘How long did it take to have your picture done?’ and ‘What is written on the wall?’. For the woman they put, ‘Why don’t you replace the missing candles in the chandelier?’ and ‘Why is your room so untidy?’ and for the dog, ‘Why don’t you run from such a dark room?’ and ‘How did they manage to keep you in that position for such a long time?’)
Stage 3 - students are put in new groups of three (one from each of the original three groups). Each student in the group takes on the identity of one of the two characters they did not prepare questions for. The student with the questions for them interviews them, and the other student has to follow up each answer with a subsequent question.
Stage 4 - three students are chosen to play the different characters. They come to the front of the class and are interviewed in the same way.
Quite apart from its intrinsic appeal as an activity which provokes students into looking more closely at a work of art (which is satisfyingly ambiguous in many respects), this speaking sequence works extremely well because of the speaking and interaction it provokes. In the first place, the original groups activate their English knowledge as they talk to each other to plan and negotiate the questions they want to ask. In the second place, when playing one of the characters in the picture (in small groups), the students have to come up with answers (however profound or amusing), and think of follow-up questions when they have heard an answer from one of the others. This acts as a rehearsal for the interview in front of the whole class. The teacher will now have a lot of language use to comment on, and can work on the questions or any of the answers that came up if appropriate. This kind of activity is suitable for almost any age group, including younger learners, who often find imaginative role-play like this very enjoyable. And there are many other possibilities: for example, we can have students react to anything that is said to them as if they were one of the characters in the picture. We can get them to talk about their typical day (as one of the pictured characters). We can ask them to have the conversation that two portraits have with each other when the museum lights are turned off and the doors are shut!
This interview technique can work with any pictures of people - including portraits and photographs - or, for children, puppets or computer-generated characters. It can also be employed when students have worked with a reading text: they can interview the people they have read about, asking them how they feel, what they do, etc. And of course these interviews can be turned into written profiles.
When students suddenly want to talk about something in a lesson and discussion occurs spontaneously, the results are often highly gratifying. Spontaneous conversation of this type can be rare, yet discussion, whether spontaneous or planned, has the great advantage of provoking fluent language use. As a result, most teachers would like to organise discussion sessions on a more formal basis. Many of them find, however, that planned discussion sessions are less successful than they had hoped.
Something we should always remember is that people need time to assemble their thoughts before any discussion. After all, it is challenging to have to give immediate and articulate opinions in our own language, let alone in a language we are struggling to learn. Consequently, it is important to give students pre-discussion rehearsal time. For example, we can put them in small buzz groups to explore the discussion topic before organising a discussion with the whole class. On a more formal basis, we can put students into ‘opposing’ groups and give them quite a lot of time for one group to prepare arguments against a proposition (e.g. ‘Tourism is bad for the world’), while the other assembles arguments in favour.
We can help students in other ways too. We can, for example, give them cards containing brief statements of arguments about the topic (for them to use if they get stuck), or we can make the discussion the end of a lengthier process we can get students to rewrite statements (such as ‘Boys don’t like shopping’ or ‘Football is a man’s game’) so that they represent the group’s opinion, and when students are speaking, we can help and encourage them by suggesting things they can say in order to push the discussion along.
It will probably be necessary for teachers to correct mistakes made during speaking activities in a different way from those made during a study exercise. When students are repeating sentences, trying to get their pronunciation exactly right, then the teacher will often correct (appropriately) every time there’s a problem. But if the same teacher did this while students were involved in a passionate discussion about whether smoking should be banned on tourist beaches, for example, the effect might well be to destroy the conversational flow. If, just at the moment one of the students is making an important point, the teacher says ‘Hey wait, you said “is” but it should be “are”, beaches are ... repeat’, the point will quickly be lost. Constant interruption from the teacher will destroy the purpose of the speaking activity.
Many teachers watch and listen while speaking activities are taking place. They note down things that seemed to go well and times when students couldn’t make themselves understood or made important mistakes. When the activity has finished, they then ask the students how they thought it went before giving their own feedback. They may say that they liked the way Student A said this, and the way Student B was able to disagree with her. They will then say that they did hear one or two mistakes, and they can either discuss them with the class, write them on the board or give them individually to the students concerned. In each case, they will ask the students to see if they can identify the problem and correct it. As with any kind of correction, it is important not to single students out for particular criticism. Many teachers deal with the mistakes they heard without saying who was responsible for them.
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about correcting. Some teachers who have a good relationship with their students can intervene appropriately during a speaking activity if they do it in a quiet non-obtrusive way. This kind of gentle correction might take the form of reformulation where the teacher repeats what the student has said, but correctly this time, and does not ask for student repetition of the corrected form. Some students do prefer to be told at exactly the moment they make a mistake; but we always have to be careful to make sure that our actions do not compromise the activity in question.
Perhaps the best way of correcting speaking activities appropriately is to talk to students about it. You can ask them how and when they would prefer to be corrected; you can explain how you intend to correct during these stages, and show them how different activities may mean different correction behavior on your part.
What teachers do during a speaking activity
Some teachers get very involved with their students during a speaking activity and want to participate in the activity themselves! They may argue forcefully in a discussion or get fascinated by a role-play and start ‘playing’ themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with teachers getting involved, of course, provided they don’t start to dominate. Although it is probably better to stand back so that you can watch and listen to what’s going on, students can also appreciate teacher participation at the appropriate level - in other words, not too much!
Sometimes, however, teachers will have to intervene in some way if the activity is not going smoothly. If someone in a role-play can’t think of what to say, or if a discussion begins to dry up, the teacher will have to decide if the activity should be stopped – because the topic has run out of steam - or if careful prompting can get it going again. That’s where the teacher may make a point in a discussion or quickly take on a role to push a role play forward. Prompting is often necessary but, as with correction, teachers should do it sympathetically and sensitively.
Harmer, J. How to Teach English, (Pearson Education, 2007)