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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

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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Filed under classroom ideas, CPD, 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

Some lesson plans on gender equality

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The American dictionary, Merriam Webster recently tweeted, ‘Lookups for ‘feminism’ spiked today. It’s “the belief that men & women should have equal rights and opportunities.” It is believed that this was in response to Kellyanne Conway’s (a top Trump adviser) remark that “It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in a classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male..”

Feminism is not about being anti-male, but it is about recognising that, despite the strides that have been made in certain parts of the world, women are still very much disadvantaged. This doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen to men, or that men aren’t discriminated against too sometimes, but that there is still a lot of work to be done to make things equal.

I’m a member of a new group on facebook, Women in ELT, (set up by Nicola Prentis) and the stories I have heard from my fellow female teachers around the world (more than 600 members so far) would make your hair curl. It’s only open to women teachers (which has been controversial), but if you’re one, just put in a request to join.

The great thing about this group, and the great thing, in my opinion, about Trump’s election, is that it is waking people up and pushing them into standing up for what they believe. And that includes me. I hope I don’t get a backlash, but I think it’s something I’ll have to risk.

So here are some lesson plans you could use to look at feminism and gender equality with your classes and wake them up too. Some from me, and some from some very talented teachers I’ve met through the facebook group. I’ll add more as I find them.


Women in Science– the lesson begins by challenging some stereotypes and asking students to consider why there aren’t more women in science. They then read a text which provides some possible reasons, and discuss how these relate to their own opinions.

The lesson then focuses on reference words, and how they link a text together, before a final speaking tasks about different jobs and gender.


Unsung Heroes– 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.


Labels– the lesson is built around a viral advertising video which focuses on the idea that women are not treated equally in the workplace, being judged differently from men for doing the same things. The video has no dialogue, just a soundtrack.

The lesson starts by looking at the words used in the video to ‘label’ men and women. For example, persuasive vs pushy. It would probably work best not to tell the students the topic of the video at this stage.  Students then watch the video and answer a couple of simple comprehension questions.

They then go on to read an article about the video, which discusses the issue in more depth, and also how suitable it is to use an advert selling a beauty product to discuss a feminist issue.

Finally the students discuss their own opinion of the message of the video and consider other viral videos they have seen which promote a message.


A conversation lesson about self love– by Cecilia Nobre. Cecilia says, ‘When I first came across Jessamyn’s story, I thought it was gutsy and moving. She is a yoga teacher who has become an Instagram star for her body-positive message and for showing the world that Yoga teachers can come in all shapes and sizes. I tend to plan my lessons around topics that interest me first, and I then reflect on whether my students might also connect and engage with these topics.

Most of my sources are authentic and this one is no exception. I essentially based all of the tasks on Jessamyn’s impressive Facebook profile; she posts interesting news articles, videos, photos and different sorts of media items.

This topic couldn’t be more relevant: self-love, self-acceptance, self-esteem, fat shame are currently hot topics in the mainstream media. She talks about her body insecurities and I believe that 98% of all women can relate to this, in one way or another – and certainly some men too. Therefore, your adult learners might have dealt with these issues at one point or another during their lives – so why not bring the topic into the classroom?’

The Women’s March Vienna 2017– by Katy Simpson on her site, myenglishvoice.com. Katy says, ‘My English Voice is all about helping people to make their voices heard. So we were very excited to join in the protests on Saturday, 21st January 2017; it was a historic day for people around the world who feel their voices are not being heard.Up to 2 million people took part in protests around the world in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. There were marches in 161 cities across all seven continents the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States. (Source: The Guardian). This lesson is about the march in Vienna, Austria.’

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Filed under classroom ideas, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Materials development

36 questions to fall in love

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A free downloadable lesson, particularly suitable for Valentine’s Day, but usable at any time of the year, about 36 questions which might make you fall in love.

The lesson starts by discussing different views of love, before the students read a short text, giving the background to an experiment where strangers asked these questions to see if they would fall in love.

The students then watch a video of two strangers getting to know each other by asking these questions, and see how they become closer as the interview progresses.

There is then a focus on question forms, looking at some slightly more complex questions. This would be suitable from B1 upwards.

Finally the students choose some of the questions that they are happy to answer, and discuss them in pairs (falling in love definitely not obligatory!)

[NB. Be aware that at around 4.19, Cam gives a couple of examples of swear words.]

Download lesson plan PDF here: elt-resourceful-36-questions-to-fall-in-love

Look here for more lessons suitable for Valentine’s Day: 

https://elt-resourceful.com/2013/02/10/to-r-p-salazar-with-love-free-downloadable-lesson/

https://elt-resourceful.com/2013/06/19/secrets-of-a-long-and-happy-marriage-free-downloadable-lesson/

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Filed under classroom ideas, Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, Materials development

Effective and efficient techniques for giving feedback on writing

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Marking written work can be incredibly time-consuming, and it’s disheartening when you see the students glance quickly at your detailed comments and put the piece of writing away in their bags never to be looked at again.

So, what can be done to a) reduce your workload as a teacher and b) encourage students to actually learn something from your feedback*?

We all know that it’s important to get students to take responsibility for their own work and many teachers use a correction code to encourage students to self-correct. This can be useful, but you still need to be selective.  Too many corrections/comments can lead to the student feeling overwhelmed and demotivated, and/or the student not knowing which of these areas are high priorities.

Be selective

  • Choose one or two areas with the whole class that you will focus on for this set of written work only. For example, if it is an opinion essay, you might choose to focus on text organisation. Or you could choose a grammatical area, such as articles, that the whole class finds difficult. Instead of the teacher choosing these areas, you could negotiate them with the class before they start or after they have written the work but before they have handed it in.
  • Ask students to individually select two areas they want you to focus on as you mark their work. They could either write these at the bottom of their work, or highlight sections that they don’t feel as confident about.
  • Focus on just one or two (anonymous) pieces of work that you look at with the whole class. Take it in turns so that everyone has this opportunity. Especially with a monolingual group, it is likely that many of the issues will be the same for most students.
  • Just correct one paragraph of each student’s work. Then ask them to self-correct anything similar in the rest of the piece.

Of course, with all these approaches it is important that the students understand that not highlighting something doesn’t automatically mean that it is correct, but that you are being selective.

Set aside time for students to respond to and act on your feedback

In the UK this has the lovely acronym DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time). If we don’t want our carefully thought through feedback to be ignored, DIRT is vital. However, it is unlikely in most contexts that you will have sufficient class time for students to sit and re-draft the whole pieces of work in class. Again, be selective.

So, if you have just marked one paragraph, students could work on that one paragraph in class, and then look at the rest at home. Or, if you have just marked errors with articles, you could write a selection of errors on the board for the class to correct, and then ask students to correct just one paragraph of their own work in class. Or if they have asked you about a particular section, give them time to work on rewriting that section in class, in response to your feedback.

Once students are familiar with the DIRT technique, you can write DIRT activities on the bottom of their written work. For example, ‘Find at least three sentences where you have used ‘and’ and ‘but’ and change them to use more complex linkers’ or ‘rewrite paragraph 3 and make sure that the tenses are used correctly.’

Extensive feedback that students do nothing with is, quite frankly, a complete waste of everyone’s time, so why not experiment with some of these ideas?

 

*Of course, feedback is not only about pointing out what could be better, and it is also important to point out what went well.

You can find another post on written feedback here:

https://elt-resourceful.com/2013/02/06/responding-to-students-writing/

 

 

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Filed under classroom ideas, Correction, Uncategorized, Writing

Motivating adults with truly grown-up content

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Our approach to adult learners needs to be quite different from teaching younger learners, and even teenagers. In my post for OUPELTGlobalblog.com, here, I look at how we can use the life experience of adults to provide more motivating and engaging lessons.

I also recently presented at BESIG in Munich on how the principles of adult learning, or andragogy, can be applied to teaching Business English, especially as the skills required in the workplace change so rapidly.

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Filed under motivation, Uncategorized, Working with groups