TEFL Q and A, Chapter 7: Teaching Speaking Skills

Q: You've just explained the importance of listening skills and how to help students develop them. But what about speaking skills? Don't teachers already get students to speak when they teach them vocabulary, grammar, and speech functions?

A: Yes, that's true. However, most students need to be prepared for specific situations that are not usually covered by those areas you mentioned. Also, most students want to become more fluent, and you can help them in this area by, as I said before, creating the best conditions for developing fluency.

Q: Do you find that some students speak much more than others in such speaking lessons?

A: Yes, and you have to try to make sure that each student has an equal chance to speak.

Q: How?

A: Well, if you think that Antonio has had more than his fair share of speaking, you can say "Thanks, Antonio!" and raise your outstretched hand, palm down, towards him. However, if you think that the reticent Yuko wants to say something, you can say "Yes, Yuko?" and lower your outstretched hand, palm up, towards her. It's really important that you speak loudly and clearly enough. Doing so gives your students a clear signal.

Q: Is it all right just to have a simple, unstructured conversation with my students?

A: Absolutely. I'm sure they will appreciate this from time to time. But don't forget that some students will not feel very confident doing this, and you need to find a way of increasing their confidence (before they speak in front of the whole class).

Q: How can I do that?

A: One thing you can do is a ranking exercise. You get each student to put a list of things in order of importance for them. They do this without speaking. Then the students get together in groups to compare their rankings and perhaps come to a group decision. Finally, the group decisions can be compared and discussed as a class. Can you see how this would be less threatening than having a whole class conversation about, say, the environment, without any preparatory stages?

Q: Yes, I can. Could you give me an example of a topic for a ranking exercise?

A: Sure. Tell your students that they are going to do an exercise in which they have to prepare to leave the area where they currently live. They have the following criteria to consider when deciding on a new place to live: the mentality of the local people, the standard of living of the local people, the climate, the political situation, and the environment. Students then have to rank the criteria in order of importance before they discuss the topic in groups and, finally, as a class.

Q: Can teachers do anything other than these ranking exercises?

A: Actually, there are plenty of things teachers can do. Another thing that works well with more advanced students is debates. You can divide a class into two groups--one group supports the motion, the other opposes it. They prepare their arguments and then come together for a formal debate as a class.

Q: That sounds like it needs a lot of setting up.

A: Yes, but it's a great exercise.

Q: You mentioned the need to teach students how to speak in specific situations. What do you mean by this?

A: Well, many students may have to give talks in their future studies or jobs. You can help students prepare for this task by eliciting and teaching key bits of language. For example, you can discuss the language of introducing, listing, exemplifying, and concluding (which should be useful for all manner of talks).

Q: But wouldn't students be tempted to simply write out their talks and read them aloud verbatim?

A: They might, but you should really encourage them not to do that.

Q: How?

A: By getting them to write notes (instead of prose). Such notes would contain sections, points, and examples, but no complete sentences.

Q: Are there any special delivery techniques that would make such a talk more effective? Anything that would be useful for all students?

A: Yes, you can help your students use pauses and intonation at key moments in a talk.

Q: What key moments?

A: For example, when they're moving from one section to another. Here they can say, "So much for...(pause)...and now let’s move on to...." This transition helps the audience take notes much more effectively.

Q: OK, but how should students plan their talks?

A: It really depends on what type of talk it is. But if a talk takes the form of an argument (rather than, say, a report), you could encourage your students to use this structure:

  • introduction
  • expression of own opinion
  • expression of contrasting opinion (plus a statement of why it's flawed)
  • conclusion

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