Getting Students to Speak

speaking students

Sometimes as teachers, we think we have these wonderful lessons planned and at the end of the class we walk out thinking ‘What just happened?’. The class hasn’t responded in the manner we thought they would and all those great speaking activities we had planned have produced very little speaking. This is a topic I hear teachers discussing regularly, with a lot of them taking it quite personally.

The thing we as teachers need to remember is that students have to do two things in every speaking task:

a)      think of the content of what to say, and

b)      think of the grammar and vocabulary with which to say it.

Our role as teachers is to help the students as much as we can to do this, and as any teacher knows, the best way to start is to raise student interest in the topic. Here are some examples of teachers I have observed trying to get students interested in the topic of the lesson:

Teacher 1: We’re going to listen to a story of an Italian couple, where a woman killed her husband. Now, do you know anyone who has killed their husband? Or wife?
Teacher 2: Today’s topic is pollution. Who can tell me something about pollution?
Teacher 3: Work in groups of three and tell each other about the worst day of your life.

OK, points for trying, but I think we can all see why these were met with stunned silence or embarrassed whispering:

Teacher 1 – How likely do you think this is?

Teacher 2 – How interesting do your students find the topic of pollution?

Teacher 3 – How many bad days have you had in your life and how much time would you need to come up with the worst one?

The three examples above show clearly some things we should consider when trying to get our students to speak. Below are some more that might be of use:

  • Grab students’ attention – pictures, realia, genuine questions (E.g. Where in Brisbane can I have a really nice meal?)
  • Pairwork first – this will normally give students more courage to contribute in front of the whole class
  • Thinking time – some topics/questions will require thinking or planning time before students start speaking
  • Tangible tasks – give students something to aim for e.g. come up with 5 ideas OR speak about this for 2 minutes
  • Instructions – make sure your instructions are clear and logical, use a quick demo or check students’ understanding
  • Seating arrangement – rearrange as required. Choose the layout that best suits the needs of the activity. Do not rush this stage!
  • Materials – if materials are required, decide whether every student needs one or whether one per pair/group might be enough – students will ‘have to’ talk to each other
  • Look enthusiastic – if you look like you are doing the activity just to fill in some time, students will notice. If you’re keen, there is more chance your students will be too.
Dave Fox is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer who has worked in Australia, the UK and Europe

Dave Fox is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer who has worked in Australia, the UK and Europe

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