Category Archives: Speaking

A little bit of pressure does you good?

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Speaking in English is something that many students find stressful or anxiety provoking. They can fear making mistakes, failing to understand the person they’re speaking too, or simply drying up. So shouldn’t we try to make speaking activities as stress free as possible?

There are certainly benefits to making sure students are well prepared, that they have the necessary language, that they have a clear idea of what the task demands. However, there are also some good arguments for not trying to remove all stress, and even adding some pressure at times

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Filed under classroom management, motivation, neuroscience, Speaking, Teaching methodology

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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Filed under Discourse, functions, Speaking, Uncategorized

A collection of lesson plans

Over the last few months I have been writing lesson plans for the British Council Teaching English site. Here is a collection of links. All materials are free to use.

Is Slavery a Thing of the Past? [click on the lesson title for lesson plan and materials]

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Designed to raise awareness of the UN’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons, this lesson begins by asking students to consider what they know about the issue, then takes them through a process of learning more before concluding by asking them about what they have learnt, and how their understanding might have changed.

The lesson involves plenty of speaking, a vocabulary focus, which pre-teaches topic related vocabulary later found in the text, a jigsaw reading and a focus on passives.

Unsung Heroes [click on the lesson title for lesson plan and materials]

This lesson, devised for International Women’s Day, will help to raise awareness of some not very famous, but nonetheless important, women.

The lesson begins by asking students to think of well-known people that they consider to be heroes. It is likely that many of these will be men, so the students then go on to learn about 5 remarkable women in a jigsaw reading activity.

The students discuss these women’s achievements, and learn some useful vocabulary for talking about social issues. There is then a focus on relative clauses, before the final task of writing about another female hero, using the vocabulary and relative clauses where appropriate. For a 50-60 minute class the writing stage could be done at home.

Get to know the neighbours [click on the lesson title for lesson plan and materials]

This lesson for adults and teenagers at a minimum A2 level is designed to develop fluency skills.

Students are led through a series of activities to create profiles for imaginary characters who live in the same neighbourhood. The lesson then brings these characters together at a neighbourhood party, where students can practice asking and answering simple questions about work, family, hobbies and so on.

As well as developing spoken fluency, there are opportunities to expand vocabulary (personality adjectives) and some useful questions for making small talk.

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Filed under classroom ideas, Grammar, Materials development, Reading, Speaking, Vocabulary, Writing

More ice breakers for the ELT classroom

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For many of us it’s that time of year again when we are about to start new classes. Learning a foreign language can be stressful, so we want our students to feel at ease with each other, and with us. But how to break the ice? As a follow up to a previous post, Breaking the Ice, I’ve collected together even more ideas.

Activities for students to find out more about each other

As I mentioned in my previous post, it is important to be sensitive about these kinds of activities, because with a new class, some students may not want to share too much. One way round this is to always let them select what topics they are happy to talk about.
Perhaps the best known ice breaker in ELT is Find Someone Who (described in my previous blog post). A variation on this, which gives the students more topic control, is to give each student a card and ask them to write 5 facts about themselves that they think others in the class will probably not know. For example, my Grandfather was born in Estonia, my favourite ice cream flavour is pistachio etc. Divide the class into two teams, and then collect in the cards. Pick a card from Team A, and read out the clues, one by one. Team B try to guess the person in as few clues as possible.

Or let students choose the questions they want to answer. Start the activity by getting students to write at least two getting to know you type questions onto post it notes. For example, What is your favourite way to waste time? What are you going to do this weekend? What’s the best/worst thing about your job/school? Put all the post it notes onto the board, and let students come up and select one they would like to answer. They then stick the post it note to themselves and mingle asking and answering. Answering the same question more than once is likely to encourage fuller and more fluent answers each time, but whenever they are tired of answering the same question they can come back and choose a different question, or even write their own if nothing appeals.

Or let students find out about you instead. There are some ideas in the previous post, here, but you can also just give them, say, ten minutes, to ask anything they want to (you don’t have to answer). When the ten minutes is up, they have to write down what they found out. This gives you a good idea of how strong their listening and writing skills are.

Activities to just have fun

I would probably avoid anything too individually competitive with a new class, to avoid potential embarrassment, but co-operative activities can work extremely well to start the bonding process.

A simple activity is to give each student a piece of a jigsaw as they come into the room (you can easily make your own simple jigsaw with an image stuck onto card). Once they are seated, explain that they need to work together to complete the jigsaw. There are just two rules- all discussion must be in English, and only the person holding each piece can put it in the jigsaw. Once they have finished, you can then do something with the completed image- perhaps they write a description of the scene, or roleplay a discussion between two characters in the image.

Another fun activity is to put students into groups of about four and give each group the same newspaper (free newspapers from public transport are good for this). Then ask the students to find and give you different bits of the newspaper, which you have previously selected. For example, an advert for shampoo, an article about a new shopping centre. They should take in in turns to find the section (with help from their team-mates) and then rip it out and bring it to you. (Make sure that nothing you ask for is printed on the back of something else you listed).

Or you could try a teacherless task. All these ideas would work well with adults or upper secondary students. For further ideas try this post from Svetlana Kandybovich and Walton Burn’s new e-book, 50 activities for the first day of school.

 

 

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Filed under classroom ideas, ice-breakers, Planning, Speaking, Working with groups

A favourite speaking activity

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© Copyright Zorba the Geek and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

A link to my latest British Council blog, with one of my favourite speaking activities. It’s a favourite because a) it’s really flexible and can be done with any level and at any stage of the course (though it works particularly well for a first lesson or a cover lesson), b) it takes very little or even no preparation if you’re good at thinking on your feet, and c) students always enjoy it.

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CrowdWish: a free downloadable lesson

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A free downloadable lesson, about a new online service, CrowdWish, which invites people to post their wishes on their website. Every day people vote on the most popular wish, and CrowdWish will grant it!  Students start by discussing some wishes taken from the site, then read a short text about what the site aims to do (so don’t tell them at the start of the lesson!)  There is then a focus on some useful idioms, before going on to watch a video in which the founder of the site, ‘pitches’ his idea. Students then look at the grammar used with ‘wish’, particularly at the use of ‘would’ when you want someone else to change their behaviour. Finally the students come up with their own wishes and vote on them, like on the site. You could even try and grant the top wish if you’re feeling creative..

The lesson would be suitable from B2  upwards, as the video is quite challenging in places. A transcript is provided.

(lesson plan covers to 5.24 only)

Download lesson plan PDF here:  ELT Resourceful – Crowdwish

Look here for more free downloadable lessons

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Filed under Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, Listening, Speaking, Vocabulary

You’ve got to have a dream: a free downloadable lesson

Photo Credit: Arya Ziai via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Arya Ziai via Compfight cc

A free downloadable lesson, based around a Russian advertising video for shampoo. Despite what is aims to sell, the video is actually quite inspiring, with the story of a girl who succeeds against the odds through pure grit and determination. Students start by watching the video and trying to guess what it is trying to advertise (so don’t tell them!). They then try to reconstruct the story in pairs, watching the video again to check their ideas.  The lesson then goes on to focus on a range of linkers used to give reasons or results, make contrasts and show when something happened.  Students then work with some vocabulary to describe personality, and then put it all together by writing the story of the video, using the linkers and the vocabulary where appropriate. Finally, there are some quotes about success for them to discuss.

The lesson would be suitable from B1 upwards.

Download lesson plan PDF here:  ELT Resourceful – You’ve got to have a dream

 

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Filed under Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, Speaking, Vocabulary, Writing