This article is based on an excerpt from The Art of Teaching Speaking by Keith Folse.
I have never met an ESL teacher who doesn't want their students to talk (at the appropriate times)! An effective speaking task will absolutely result in students talking and communicating, but we still need to further define the term.
An effective speaking task will look different for every student, teacher, and class because everyone's goals are different. One class may focus on developing the ability to speak English in day-to-day life, while another class may be looking to improve their speech for a specific test.
If you're looking for more help planning activities, check out the other two articles in this series:
At the most basic level, an effective speaking task will result in students practicing English they know, learning more English along the way, and developing the confidence to use the language for their specific goals. An advanced business English student, a single mom who just moved to the States, and a student studying for the IELTS will all be looking to practice, learn, and develop confidence.
Speaking tasks can either be incredibly helpful for the goals that we identified above, or it can be a jumbled and chaotic rush of voices speaking in English and, most likely, reverting back to their native language from time to time. In order to create organized and successful speaking activities, students need to have sufficient time to prepare, speak to another individual in English, and not be restricted by the fear of saying something “wrong.”
1. An Effective Speaking Activity Includes Prep Time
Think about a time when you were asked to speak in class on the spot. Most likely, if you’re anything like me, you weren't entirely comfortable. Maybe you pulled through, maybe you struggled, or maybe you completely shut down. Individuals respond to being put on the spot in a variety of ways, and it all comes down to personality and other personal factors, not ability.
Introducing a planning time into most of your speaking activities will make that activity more effective. It will give students time to think of and incorporate language they already know and it will increase their confidence when it comes to actually participating. Preparation allows all of your students to speak, not just those who are most confident, prepared, or proficient. You could say it levels the playing field. All of your students will be able to showcase their abilities without the fear that comes along with being put on the spot.
Planning before a speaking task can take a variety of forms, none of which have to take more than 5-10 minutes. You can introduce vocabulary that your students may need to use during discussion, have them write a simple opinion statement, take a few minutes to think of their opinion, watch a video on the topic, or elicit vocabulary from images.
Adding 5 minutes of planning time on the front end of a speaking activity can make a world of a difference. Without preparation, students have to think of their answer or opinion and simultaneously produce the language needed on the spot. Beginner or low-intermediate level students will especially struggle with this.
2. An Effective Speaking Activity Requires Two-Way Info Flow
I would argue that a lot of discussion tasks involve two people, but don’t require two people. What I mean is that many times a student is asked to share an opinion or experience with another student, and the other student doesn’t even really have to listen.
In a one-way speaking task the information flows in one direction. One student has information that they share with the other student. However, a two-way speaking task has information flowing in both directions. Both (or all) students have to share information with and receive information from the other student(s).
When students are required to actually pay attention to what the other student is saying, they practice both listening comprehension and speaking practice. Additionally, they participate in what is called negotiation of meaning. This negotiation occurs when students don’t understand something and must seek clarification. It stretches their language ability much more than when they simply take in what they already know.
So, how do we create two-way speaking tasks? It’s actually not very difficult to change a simple discussion question, a traditionally one-way activity, into a two-way language exchange. Take your discussion question and ask the student who is listening to write down three facts that the other student stated or summarize their story or experience. It’s that simple.
The best part of two-way speaking activities is that they really don’t take any extra time, as compared to a one-way task, but they drastically improve communicative ability and often result in students learning new language due to the negotiation of meaning that occurs.
3. An Effective Speaking Activity Has a Goal
When you first read the terms ‘open-ended’ and ‘restricted’, the former has a much more positive connotation. However, the connotation can be deceiving! Before we dig into why that is, let’s define these terms.
An open-ended task has an infinite amount of solutions. Think of discussion questions that ask students to share experiences, stories, or opinions. On the other hand, a restricted task has one or a finite amount of answers. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a right and wrong answer, but rather that students must work towards a conclusion.
According to Keith Folse, “...research shows that adult learners tend to produce more language when there is only one finite solution to the task.” I guess you could say, the task becomes more focused and driven because there is a goal or conclusion to reach.
If you’re having a hard time imagining a restricted task, check out the following activity.
After reading ¾ of a short story, students are asked to finish the story in a paragraph or two. When students are completed with their ending, they get together in partners or small groups to share their answers and create a new ending together. Then, the small groups read their story endings to the whole class and vote on which they think is most likely. The teacher then reads the actual ending to the story, and students discuss what they got right and what surprised them.
As opposed to a discussion task which might simply require students to share how they think the story will end, the above activity requires students to use language to work together and create a single ending to the story, which is then compared to the real thing. Your adult learners will end up using more spoken English when negotiating their final product than they would from simply sharing an opinion.
I am naturally inclined towards more open-ended tasks, but a restricted task allows students to work together and become more confident when using English to collaborate. Plus, it’s just more complex and interesting to participate in!
Speaking activities can be hit or miss. It's a great opportunity to practice spoken English in a safe and controlled environment, but sometimes they just feel like time-fillers.
Creating an effective speaking activity doesn't have to be difficult. Including just one of the elements above can change the entire learning experience for both you and your students.
I Want to Hear From You!
How do you encourage your students to talk more?
Do you have any tips or tricks up your sleeve that you can share with the rest of us?