Literally speaking! Ten ideas to get ELT students talking.

I spoke at the City of Glasgow ESOL conference in June.  I literally spoke about speaking.

Speaking is arguably the most important skill in English.  Without the ability to speak confidently, students can’t access social, educational and employment opportunities.

So how do we help our students improve their speaking skills?  Here’s ten ideas.

1. Engaging topics

If students want to talk about something, they’ll speak.  If students don’t want to talk about something, they won’t.  This seems simplistic but I don’t speak about things I don’t want to speak about, so why should we expect them to!?  If someone or something annoys me, I’ll talk about it.  If I don’t relate to a topic or know anything about it, I won’t talk about it.  Simple. Get them engaged.

2. Annoying topics

In short, annoy them (just a little).  Ask them about their pet hates, their least favourite words (in any language), or anything else they can moan about (including politics).  Let’s be honest, as much as we like pretending to be positive, we all love a good moan!

3. Relevant topics

When selecting relevant topics, think about what they need.  My students are much more engaged in role plays about calling the emergency services, arranging a building repair or preparing for a job interview than speaking about some famous person they’ve never heard of!  You can download a sample lesson on building repairs here.

4. Devote class time

Speaking can often be taken for granted in class. The majority of schemata activating warmers and free practice activities are spoken. This year, my college decided to trial speaking skills classes.  For one hour each week, students could attend a skills class based on whatever they needed to work on the most.  This really allowed them (and me) to focus on improving fluency, accuracy, pronunciation and register with the students that lacked confidence in their speaking abilities.

5. Give planning time

I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog post, but I’ll say it again because it’s important. Jon Hird, a lecturer at the University of Oxford, did some fabulous research and found that giving students time to plan before a speaking task significantly improves their fluency and accuracy.  Students who planned before a speaking task paused less during the interaction and were 11% more accurate than those who did not plan.  I have adopted this with my pre-intermediate+ students ever since seeing his talk.  I did, however, trial this with my beginners and was met with mostly blank stares – so when teaching beginners, scaffolding, drilling and pre-teaching vocabulary and lexical chunks is key.

6. Have a purpose

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I’m a big fan of project based and task based learning.  Giving students an immersive task and getting them to work together to achieve a shared goal really gets students talking.  Think about giving them some paper and sellotape and asking them to build a bridge together, or some spaghetti and marshmallows and have them compete to build the tallest tower in the class, or get them to do each other’s hair and nails or teach each other to cook something from their country.

7. COLA: Create Opportunities for Language Acquisition

I think this is so important that I’ve already blogged about this and I’ve even created my own acronym for it. Students that are good speakers use their English outside the classroom.  They work, volunteer or get involved in social clubs and community groups.  We, as teachers, need to encourage them to get out and about.  We can do this by holding discussions about hobbies, interests and local places where they can practise their English or referring them to websites like meetup.com and bringing in adverts for local opportunities.  More ideas on my previous blog post. 

8. Relaxed atmosphere

A relaxed atmosphere is crucial. If a classroom is quiet, play some music so that less confident students don’t feel anxious about others overhearing their conversation. Try some breathing exercises with the class before they start.  Smile and give encouraging feedback.  And think about your pairings; asking the weakest and strongest students in the class to work together may only result in the confident student dominating the conversation and the less confident student feeling inadequate.

9. Focus on one thing at a time

I have recently been learning how to swim front crawl more efficiently.  I know that I need to focus on my body rotation, on looking at the lane ropes when I breathe (and not the ceiling), on engaging my core, on keeping my arms wide, on a strong catch, and on my head position when I exhale.  If I think about all of this at the same time whilst swimming, I end up swimming more slowly.  When encouraging students to speak, it’s also wise to give them just one thing to focus on; their pronunciation of the recently learned vocabulary, the one single grammar point they studied that day, using only formal language, being polite, etc.

10. Variety of activities

Variety is the spice of life.  Here are some of the activities that I used with my speaking skills class this year: role plays, information gaps, presentations, dramas, discussion questions, storytelling, find someone who, drills, interviews, speed ‘dating’ conversations, immersive activities and using pictures (describing what they see, ordering events, predicting the past and future, giving the people in the picture a voice, etc).

How do you teach speaking skills?  Any ideas you’d like to share?

If you’d like more excellent ideas, tips and tricks about teaching speaking, why not check out Ben Goldstein’s course on ELT Training Library

Getting Started with Teaching Speaking

Managing the Classroom during Speaking Tasks

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