Speaking is one of the hardest skills for a language learner to master. In this post, Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, shares four simple tips to help get even the most hesitant students speaking in class.
Getting students to speak in class may be the most difficult task many teachers face. I remember a group of adult pre-intermediate students, all of whom had previously studied at least 6 years of English. They had little difficulty with the grammar exercises or the vocabulary. Reading texts were easy and although they were nervous about listening, it presented little difficulty.
But, when I asked them to say a sentence from the grammar exercise we had just completed, without reading it, the whole class went into a panic. I was shocked. Then I remembered that for these students a simple slip of the tongue and you can have the whole class laughing at you.
So, how can we help these students to overcome the difficulties of speaking in class?
1. Talk to them
Ask them how they feel about speaking. Is it important to them? What are their difficulties? This will let them know that you are aware that you are asking them to do something that is not necessarily easy. Maybe the class can share some ideas on how to deal with this. Mention to them that actors study their lines before they perform in a film or a play. Emphasise that they have to do a scene many times until they get it right. This should re-enforce the need to practise before speaking in class. This conversation will usually relax them and give them the confidence to try.
2. Start with the familiar
Correcting grammar and vocabulary exercises is a familiar activity in most classes. It is also a great opportunity for students to hear their own voices in a foreign language. They have had time to prepare as they completed the exercise and they have had an opportunity to make any corrections as the exercise is corrected in class.
Most teachers go on to another activity once the answers have been confirmed. I suggest using the completed exercise as the first speaking practice activity. Give each student a number corresponding to a sentence. Then, allow them to practise it individually for about a minute. Now, ask them to close their books. Elicit the sentences randomly. If a student forgets, they can simply open their books and look at it again. However, they cannot look at it as they are saying it.
As this gets easier for them, give them a time limit of five seconds, holding out your hand and counting down. This, of course, will add pressure. Explain to them that this is necessary because their speaking needs to become automatic. Remind them that if this were easy, they wouldn’t need to do it in class. Joke that the world won’t end if they make a mistake.
3. Use the board
As students get used to speaking, increase the challenge by increasing the distance between them and the English they will need to use. As we increase the difficulty, we are also going to give them more preparation and practise before they have to speak.
Assuming the same type of exercise as described above, ask students to come to the board and write the sentence correctly. They cannot take their books to the board with them, they must write it from memory. Any mistakes will show them the parts of the language that they still find difficult. If students are very nervous about doing this, allow them to come up in pairs, so they can help each other.
Once all the sentences have been correctly written on the board, elicit them from different students. Obviously, all they have to do is read from the board. Now, take the board eraser and wipe it across the sentences diagonally. Elicit the sentences again. Students will still be reading, but now there are gaps in the sentences. More importantly, with the eraser still in your hand, they can see the direction this activity is taking. They focus more.
After eliciting the sentences a second time, take the eraser and wipe it across diagonally in the opposite direction. Elicit again. Do this 2 or 3 more times, erasing horizontally and then vertically. The erasing of the sentences leads students to focus more each time, helping them to remember. Listening to the other students also helps them with any doubts concerning language and pronunciation. My students usually continue looking at the board for words that are no longer there.
4. Using pictures
You can also use pictures for the same type of activity as described above.
Take this picture for example.
Ask students to look at the picture for about a minute without telling them why. Look at your watch to re-enforce the time limit. Then, hide the picture so they can’t see it.
Now, ask them to tell you about the picture. What can they see? What is happening? Who are the people in the picture? Ask them to write the information on the board. Now ask them to open their books and look at the picture again for another minute. They should confirm the information on the board, make any changes, and add anything new. With the corrected sentences on the board, you can follow the procedure described above. This activity is a bit more challenging as the sentences may not follow the pattern that grammar and vocabulary exercises usually do.
What do you do to encourage your students to speak in class? Share your tips in the comments below!