What exactly do we mean by speaking skills?

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A couple of weeks ago I received a comment on the blog from a teacher who asked me to write a post about speaking skills. This is what she said:

‘The other day I was asked to observe some students doing a short peer teaching session. They were supposed to “teach a speaking skill”. Each group decided to do a group discussion activity. When I asked them what speaking skill they had tried to focus on, they were really puzzled; in fact, they had no idea what I was getting at. They said their aim was ‘fluency’. But to me it’s a very generic skill. How do you teach ‘fluency’? What is ‘fluency”, anyway? I assume it’s a culmination of numerous sub-skills. So, what could these micro-skills be?’’

I realised that she was absolutely right. In the same way that we often try to develop listening skills by practising listening, developing speaking skills is often just seen as giving students an opportunity to speak.

Practice is important of course, but, as the teacher asked, what are the microskills involved in speaking?

First of all, we need to identify what exactly we mean by speaking. Brown and Yule (1983) distinguish between primarily interactional (conversation) and primarily transactional (transmitting information) functions of speaking. Jack Richards has added a third broad function- talk as performance- which would include such things as presentations and speeches.

Each of these three types of speaking could be more or less formal, depending on the context of the talk, who is taking part in the talk and the power relations between them.

So, when teaching speaking, one of the key things that we need to do is to identify what kind of speech we are hoping students will produce, how formal it is likely to be and what kind of exponents* it might be useful to teach them.

Coursebooks often have ‘Useful Language/Phrases’ boxes with sets of functional exponents for students to use in a speaking task. Teaching these sets of phrases is helpful in developing fluency because as we start to use these chunks of language automatically we are able to use them as what Scott Thornbury describes as ‘islands of reliability’. We can skip from one automatized phrase to the next, filling in the gaps with our own ideas and language.

[See my post on Activating the useful language box in your coursebook for some ideas on how to get students to internalise and use these kinds of phrases.]

Depending on the needs of your students there are literally dozens of different functions that you could focus on. More interactional functions might include expressing likes and dislikes, comparing, agreeing and disagreeing, giving your opinion, expressing surprise. More transactional functions might include asking for directions, ordering food in a restaurant or checking into a hotel. Performance related functions could include summarising what you are going to say, or what you have said, moving onto the next section of your talk, giving an example to support your argument etc.

I would argue that teaching these chunks is very much part of teaching the speaking skill. However, we should also be looking at teaching communication skills, which may or may not involve using relatively fixed chunks of language.

For example, to have a conversation with one or more other people students will need to be able to:

  • Decide whether they need to use more casual or more formal language.
  • Be able to join in the conversation, which may include interrupting without seeming rude. We can teach interrupting phrases, but we also need to teach them how to use them appropriately and with the right intonation.
  • Be able to back-channel- nodding, making supportive noises and also using short words such as Really? or question tags, e.g. Did you?
  • Check that they have been understood, using such phrases as ‘Do you see what I mean?’ ‘Do you follow me?’
  • Rephrase if they haven’t been understood.
  • Check they understand. E.g. ‘I’m not quite sure if I understood that correctly. Did you mean…?’
  • Change the topic politely and at the right moment.
  • Take a balanced role in the conversation- not hogging, and not saying too little.
  • Use politeness strategies appropriately, such as hedging (see post here), being indirect, apologising and so on.

Students will not necessarily be able to transfer these strategies from their first language, partly because the rules of engagement may be different, and partly because they are too occupied with speaking accurately, or with making a good point. Therefore we need to focus explicitly on them, and they are, in my opinion, also a key part of teaching the speaking skill.

To summarise, I don’t think we can ever say that we are ‘teaching fluency’. Instead we need to drill down a bit more and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What kind of speaking are we teaching?
  • What are the learners trying to achieve? (build a relationship, get a nice meal?)
  • What are some useful phrases for this kind of speaking?
  • What degree of formality is likely to be appropriate?
  • What impact will intonation have and what kind of intonation might be appropriate?
  • How will the students be interacting with each other and what might they need to know, do or say to make the communication work smoothly?

 

*An exponent is a piece of language used to perform a language function. For example:

Salt!

Give me the salt

Pass me the salt, please.

Could you pass me the salt, please?

I wonder if you could possibly pass the salt?

All these exponents have the same function- getting someone to pass the salt- but they obviously vary in terms of formality and when you could use them without causing offence. Intonation would also play an important role.

 

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Climbing above the teaching plateau

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How can we continue to challenge ourselves and grow as teachers? In my latest post for the British Council Teaching English site, I suggest ten questions that could help you climb above the teaching plateau.

Read the article here.

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Left handers

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Another lesson plan designed for the British Council Teaching English site, this lesson, aimed at higher level learners (C1+) explores what it is like to be left handed – the advantages, the disadvantages and the prejudices left-handed people may face.

The lesson begins with an optional video, and then leads into a reading text in the style of an online article. Students carry out two exam-style tasks – matching summaries to paragraphs and identifying if statements about the text are true or false.

After some discussion of the content of the text, students focus on  grammar showcased in the article – relative clauses, reduced relative clauses and present participle clauses. This should review what students already know and add a little more to their understanding of the area.

If time, students can then go on to write about another group who often experience prejudice, using relative clauses where appropriate.

Aims:

  • Raise awareness of the issues related to being left-handed, and consider prejudice in general
  • Develop the skills of reading for gist (multiple matching) and specific info (true/false)
  • Encourage students to justify/back up their answers to true/false questions.
  • Review defining and non-defining relative clauses and look at reduced relative clauses and clauses using present participles instead of a relative clause.
  • Develop listening skills though an optional video lead-in
  • Develop writing skills and practice using relative clauses accurately and appropriately thought an optional writing activity.

 

The lesson materials can be found here. 

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Filed under Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, IELTS, Materials development, participle clauses, relative clauses

Smoking stinks

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A free lesson plan, which I wrote for the British Council Teaching English Teens page.

This lesson begins by focusing on some anti-smoking posters with students discussing the message and effectiveness of each one. They then learn some vocabulary to talk about four key reasons not to smoke: (health, cost, the impact on your attractiveness, and the impact on others). Students then choose one of these reasons and write a paragraph about it, using the vocabulary as appropriate.

As an optional final activity, the students design their own anti- smoking poster and present it to another pair or to the class.

Click here for the lesson plan and student’s worksheet.

Aims:

  • Raise awareness of the many reasons not to smoke, or to give up smoking.
  • Extend students’ vocabulary to talk about health risks and other issues connected with smoking. E.g. bad breath, anxiety, blood pressure.
  • Develop students’ writing skills through writing a paragraph (using vocabulary) about one negative aspect of smoking.
  • Encourage peer feedback and correction on writing.
  • As an optional final task, develop students’ oral fluency as well as their ability to work together to design a poster and present it to their peers

 

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5 ways to celebrate women in ELT

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Maybe you’ve noticed, maybe you haven’t, but recently a lot of initiatives that aim to raise awareness of gender equality, and to celebrate women have been popping up. I’m excited by this, and to show my support I’m hosting my first ever guest post, from Claire Venables. Claire has been in ELT since 2001. After a decade in Europe she moved to Brazil where she is involved in the creation of EFL programmes for young learners and training for teachers. She is also a founding member of the Voices SIG, which promotes gender equality and career development for women in ELT. Her guest post is below: 

Recently CUP released survey results for the question “Who would you invite for dinner?” These were the results:

CUP survey

Now, while I agree that a night out with any of these people would be fascinating, I am surprised that only 1 of the 5 people in this lineup is a woman.  Once again, we have to ask the question, ‘Where are the women in ELT?‘ Why don’t they come to our minds when we are asked questions like these?  We can — and we must — do better than this at keeping women’s profiles as visible as the men’s.

I’ve been able to come up with my own top 5 list of recent initiatives which celebrate and support women in ELT!

  1. The Fair List began in 2012. Since then, they have been celebrating the achievement of gender balance in plenary speakers, presenters or speaker panels at ELT events in the UK.  The website also offers a range of resources for women, such as mentoring, videos and tips for women wanting to become speakers.

  2. In 2015, English Australia started an initiative called ‘The Women in Leadership’, as a way to encourage discussion about women who work in leadership roles in the ELICOS (Australia’s English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) sector. The program has continued to grow and this year they are offering another round of webinars with influential female leaders from the area. On their website, you’ll find slides, recordings and interviews from previous events, on topics like personal branding, work-life balance, and assertive communication.  There is also an opportunity to become a speaker at one of their events, so what are you waiting for?

  3. The Women in ELT facebook group was started in December of 2016.  In just a few months this closed women’s group has gained over 800 members.  It was started with the objective of offering a space where women can feel comfortable to share, support and exchange ideas and opinions with each other.  If this sounds like a group that you’d like to participate in, you can find them here.

  4. Voices SIG, which is part of Brazil’s English teachers’ association BRAZ-TESOL, was launched on April 1st of this year. It’s the first Special Interest Group promoting gender equality in ELT and, in a country where violence and discrimination against women is so high, this is a big step in the right direction.  The group works to provide opportunities, training and networking to help women develop their careers in any direction they choose.  If you would like to join them or even start your own local SIG, you can contact them via their facebook page.

  5. Coming up in May this year, there will be a  mini-conference where Nicola Prentis will give a talk which looks like a first in ELT.  It maps the history of the industry from the point of view of the women who shaped it. The event is called ‘Celebrating Women in ELT: Reflect, empower, act’ and is on May 5th, the day before Innovate ELT in Barcelona. Places are limited, tickets cost 60€ and include a discount on the main conference entry. Follow the links for more information and how to buy.

The contribution that women have made, and continue to make, to ELT is something we can all celebrate. I hope more initiatives like these ones appear and inspire the next wave of women in ELT to take that jump and change their own futures and the future of our industry.

Claire Venables

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Tips and techniques for CELTA teaching practice

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I’m an advocate for CELTA. It isn’t perfect, and you certainly can’t consider the job finished when you pass, but in my experience it’s an excellent way to pick up a lot of skills quickly.

The intensive course is just that- intensive. In fact, I once had a trainee who’d been in the SAS, who said CELTA was harder. But whether you’re doing the intensive course, an online or blended or part-time course, there are a lot of things to learn. In fact,

‘Being a new teacher is like trying to fly an airplane while building it.’
Rick Smith, Conscious Classroom Management, 2004, p.44

With this in mind, I’ve just produced my first self-published book, with the-round.com . It’s called the CELTA Teaching Compendium. A compendium is ‘a detailed collection of information on a particular subject, especially in a short book’ (Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners) and in this particular compendium, I’ve set out to provide a quick, easy reference to all the key practical teaching skills taught in CELTA.

If you’re a trainee, you could think of it as being like having your CELTA teaching practice tutor available for questions any time of the day or night. If you’re a CELTA tutor, you could recommend sections to read, either as follow-up to your feedback, or in preparation for teaching practice.

The contents are listed alphabetically, so that the reader can dip in and out. Whenever another key skill is cross-referenced, there’s a link to take you to that section.

Clearly there’s in fact no ‘right’ way to teach. However, the suggestions and tips in this book are based on years of teaching and training teachers. I was also lucky enough to get feedback and further suggestions from a very kind group of CELTA tutors: Ricardo Barros, Viacheslav Kushnir, Anthony Gaughan, Natalia Ladygina, Marie Pettigrew and Zach Pinson.

You can see it on the round here, and the book is available for purchase at $4.99/£4.19 on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and Smashwords. I hope you find it useful, and I’d be delighted to get any feedback or the offer of a review.

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Filed under classroom ideas, Planning, Teaching methodology

‘The Syrian Malala’: a free downloadable lesson

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A free downloadable lesson about the issue of girls’ education, and the work of Muzoon Allmellehan, a young refugee from Syria, who is campaigning for girls to be allowed to learn.

The lesson starts with a few statistics about the education of girls, and a short video to provide some background information.

The students then read an article about Muzoon, and carry out an FCE style multiple choice exercise. There is also a focus on guessing meaning from context.

Finally the students use the information they have learnt over the lesson to write a short essay about the topic.

 

Download lesson plan PDF here: ELT Resourceful – The Malala of Syria

Look here for more lessons about gender issues:

Some lesson plans on gender equality

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Filed under Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, FCE, Reading