Tag Archives: functions

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

How to activate the ‘Useful Language’ box in your coursebook.

From New Total English Intermediate- Pearson 2011

A common feature in many coursebooks is the ‘Useful Language’ box. This is usually a collection of phrases which the authors consider may be useful for an upcoming speaking activity. A ‘useful language’ box is potentially a great idea because the tendency in speaking activities can be for students to simply stay safe and just use what they already know. Providing this language gives us the opportunity to scaffold their learning and encourage the learners to stretch themselves a bit.

However, in practice, there are two recurring problems.

  1. What do you actually do with the Useful Language box? Just getting students to read through it certainly isn’t enough to get them using the language.
  2. There seems for many students to be a reluctance or inability to use the language straightaway (see this recent conversation on Pearson ELT Community). And if they don’t use it straightaway, what are the chances of them locating and using it at a later date?

I think most people would agree that for students to use new language:

– They need to process the language in some way, work with it, not just be shown it.

– They need to know exactly how to use it in and in what context.

– They need to need to use it.

A good place to start with ‘useful language’ is by having it come out of a recording, rather than just being on the page. With the example above, from New Total English Intermediate, students have been listening to a short presentation, with follow up questions, and, after carrying out other comprehension based tasks, they listen again and tick the phrases they hear being used. They then prepare and give their own mini-presentations.

This approach works in terms of providing context, and it also means that there is a model for pronunciation, which is often very important with functional language (more later). However, there is still, I feel, something missing between identifying the phrases and being expected to use them.

Contextualisation

If the ‘useful language’ came from a recording, students will already have some idea of how they can be used in context. If not, you will, I think, need to provide some. Live listening can be good way of doing this (see my previous post for details). Essentially, you provide the model, ideally recording yourself so that it can be replayed. With the example of useful language given here, you might ask a confident student to give a short presentation on a very familiar and unthreatening topic and warn them that you will ask lots of questions! You can then play the recording back and start to work with the language, as discussed below.

Other ideas for processing the language

Categorisation

Exactly how you do this obviously depends on the language, but, for example, with the language box above, you could ask students to divide the first section into phrases to use when you don’t understand, and phrases to use when you want more information. If the categories aren’t clear-cut, so much the better as this will force students to discuss why they have chosen to put a phrase in that category- and thus create more processing.

Phrase completion

Useful language boxes often have phrases with elllipses (…….), so that students can complete them however they choose. Fine, if they have the faintest idea how to complete them! So, one task could be to give them a context, and ask them to write a completion for each phrase. For example, with this useful language box, you could give a short talk yourself, or use the recording, or use a short video and ask students to prepare questions using the stems. This will also help you to see whether they are able to use them grammatically. As an example, I think many students might struggle with completing ‘What I’d like to know is…’ because of the emphatic structure used.

Dictation

Rather than showing them the useful language box, try closing the book and dictating the phrases. You could add some challenge by mixing up the phrases and asking them to decide where in the box they belong (in this example, in ‘Asking for clarification or more information, or in dealing with difficult questions)

You should make sure that you dictate the phrases in a natural way, as complete phrases, with appropriate intonation, and normal features of connected speech. This will then have the added bonuses of providing a further model of how to say the phrase, and raising awareness of connected speech. For example, some students may well write down ‘What I like to know is..’, rather than ‘What I’d like to know is..’, giving the opportunity to focus on the ’ ‘d’ they didn’t hear.

Writing dialogues

You may have noticed that the activities so far are more focused on writing than speaking, which may seem odd when these phrases are provided for a speaking activity. However, writing can be a good way of bridging the gap between new language and speaking. In ‘How to teach Speaking’, Scott Thornbury points out, ‘Inevitably, because of the constraints placed on mental processing by the demands of real-time speaking, learners tend to rely on a very narrow repertoire of memorized expressions in face-to-face interaction…it may sometimes help to reduce the processing demands on them..one way of slowing down processing is to turn the speaking task into a writing one.’

The following two ideas both come from this book:

–          Paper conversations. Learners have a conversation, but, instead of speaking, they write the conversation on paper. The teacher can then easily monitor and make suggestions for improvement.

–          Rewriting. Students can be given a simple dialogue and asked to rewrite or modify it to use the new language.

Work on pronunciation

As mentioned above, pronunciation is particularly important in using functional-type phrases. They need to be delivered fluently, as a chunk, or they are likely to sound a bit odd and artificial. Intonation is also often extremely important. Think about the phrase, ‘Are you saying…?’  This needs to be delivered with the right intonation, or it could sound pretty aggressive!

So students need a good model- either a recording, or the teacher- and they need to practise drilling the phrases, getting their tongues round the connected speech and using the right intonation.

A fun way of working on intonation is to ‘say’ the phrases using just ‘Mmmm, mmmm’. Students have to guess which phrase you are saying. As they become more confident, they can do this themselves in pairs.

Using the ‘useful language’ in a speaking activity

After time spent processing and preparing, students should be much more likely to use the language in a follow-up speaking activity anyway. However, there are a few ways to encourage this further.

– As described by Antonia Clare in the Pearson ELT discussion I mentioned earlier, you can write phrases on cards and hand out a few to each student. They need to try to put ‘their’ phrases into the conversation as naturally as possible. If the other students feel it wasn’t natural, they could have to take the card back.

– A certain amount of pressure, such as recording the conversation or giving a presentation to the class can encourage students to focus more on using the new language.

– Similarly having an observer in the group, whose job it is to notice when people use the ‘useful language’ can help to focus the mind.

– Depending on the language and the teaching context, students can be asked to go away and ‘notice’ any of the phrases being used in conversation over the next week (on TV, eavesdropping at the bus-stop etc).

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Speaking, Vocabulary