Δευτέρα, 17 Σεπτεμβρίου 2007

Teaching Speaking to students

Eirini Myrsini Papani

Listening is undoubtedly a neglected skill in English language teaching. Unfortunately, speaking is also not given the importance it deserves, despite the undisputable fact that “it is one of man’s most complex skills, unique to our species” ( Levelt, 1998:1 ). Unsuccessful syllabi, bahaviouristic models and traditional approaches to teaching only achieved to create “silent” or “pseudocompetent” students.

During the last two decades, however, the fresh insights of the communicative approach into the nature of speaking and classroom communication oiled the wheels of talk, engaging students in meaningful interaction and viewing language, not, anymore, as an end in itself, but as a useful instrument. Of course, there is still a long way to go until it will be completely realized (by teachers and material designers) that especially now, in the era of globalization, it is necessary to mould confident and competent speakers of the international language.

In the light of the above, the purpose of this paper is to reflect on the theory and application of criteria for the teaching of the speaking skill. At first, a specific teaching situation is described and evaluated (with references to the coursebook situation) and some recommendations are tried for the improvement of the teaching of speaking by making use of the criteria. A description of a speaking lesson (lasting one teaching hour) follows and justification is provided for the choices of the teacher, as far as input, activities and methodology are concerned. The paper ends with the evaluation of the specific lesson and the drawing of conclusions.
1. Description of the teaching situation

Students’ and teacher’s profile

The teaching situation described here takes place in Grade 6 of a state primary school in Mandra of West Attica. The 11-12 aged students are 20 in number (12 girls and 8 boys) and are all Greeks except 3 Albanians. Luckily, the number of the students, as well as the seating arrangement (there are 5 blocks of two desks put together in each, where 4 students are seated) are ideal for group activities. All learners are monolingual, except for the Albanians who are bilingual. It is difficult to say which is the Albanians’ L1 and which the L2, as the L1/L2 dichotomy is problematic and fails to describe the sociocultural reality. (Sifakis, 2004). English is taught as a foreign language, so, according to Kachru’s categorization, the teaching situation belongs to the expanding circle (i.e. the periphery) (Kachru, 1985). All the students have been learning English at the state school since Grade 4, but it is a mixed ability class with competence levels ranging from elementary to pre-intermediate, since some of them are taught English at private English schools, too, while others are not. It can be easily understood that a mixed ability class demands from the teacher good preparation, adequate support and the provision of appropriate tasks. At the beginning of the school year students were given a needs analysis questionnaire. According to some of the results, they were found to be motivated and willing to learn the language. They seem to know (at least most of them) the purpose of studying English and prefer working in groups rather than alone. They enjoy the lessons more, if supplementary materials and aids are used in the classroom (photos, videos, DVDs, CDs, etc).

The teacher is a non-native user of English with a teaching experience of 6 years with adults and young learners in private and state schools.

Curriculum and coursebook situation

English in Grade 6, according to the curriculum, is taught 3 hours per week (each teaching hour lasting 45′). The material used is Funway 3 (coursebook and workbook). Funway 1 and 2 were used in the two previous grades. The teacher is provided with the tapes, necessary for the listening activities and the “teacher’s book”, which contains the tape scripts and the answers to the tasks. Very helpful, indeed, is proved to be the definition of the aims and the objectives, which guides the teacher in the organization of the lessons. Suggestions about teaching approaches and methodologies and additional activities are also included and contribute to teacher’s better preparation.

Critical view on the speaking activities of the coursebook

Having a look at the coursebook of Funway 3 it can be said that a satisfactory number of speaking activities is provided, since it is in the workbook where language is mainly practised. There is a variety of speaking activities ( role-plays, simulations, memory games, information gaps, discussions, etc) and speaking seems to play a quite important role in the educational process. Undoubtedly, the coursebook differs from those books that the material designers provided us with during the previous decades. The table with the contents of the coursebook informs the reader about the topics of the speaking activities. According to it, the students should: 1) talk about themshelves and their immediate environment, 2) talk about future arrangements, 3) compare people and things, 4) talk about past events, 5) express opinions and beliefs, 6) give advice and make suggestions about food, diet and health, 7) talk about holidays, 8) describe experiences and 9) recall school events .

However, and surprisingly enough, although the aim of the activities is said to be the development of the students’ speaking skill and communicative competence, it soon becomes clear that many of them are created to give practice to the new language, rather than to engage students in real life interaction. Students often are called to “speak in order to learn”, instead of “learning to speak” (West,2000,unit 2:11). So, the aim of these activities is accuracy, instead of fluency (Brumfit,1984; Bygate,2001; Hughes,2002 ). Of course, it would be unfair to say that the activities resemble those used by Audiolingualism. What is claimed here is that the material designers should have followed more tightly Johnson’s principles for the creation of speaking activities (Johnson, 1982) or Nation’s features of them (Nation, 1989).

The above statements will become more clear if we have a look at some samples of speaking activities (see Appendix I ).

The first activity examined is from unit 6, page 67 (see Appendix I, page 18 ). It is a role-play, which, according to Littlewood, is a communicative activity with emphasis on social interaction (Littlewood,1981). West characterizes role-plays as “reality techniques” (West, 2000,unit 3:8). However, the dialogue between the parent and the sick child becomes controlled, since students are provided with a number of phrases, which they should use (eg “I feel”, “I’ ve got”, “You should”, “You shouldn’t”, “You could”,etc). It is a “speak to learn” activity, rather than a “learn to speak” one ( modal verbs are taught in the same unit). Johnson’s principles are not followed at all, while from Nation’s features of communicative activities we have only the roles.

The second activity examined is from unit 3, page 35 (see Appendix I, page 19 ). It demands students’ free production ( learners can use any language they want ). However, the activity is not challenging and students may wonder why they should talk, for what purpose and to whom. Johnson’s principles as well as Nation’s features are not followed.

The third sample provided is a memory game from unit 4, page, 40 (see Appendix I, page 20 ). Undoubtedly, students enjoy this kind of activities a lot and are more willing to participate in the educational process. An information transfer principle is followed, as they are asked to use clues from the picture and from what they have said to complete a list with safety rules in the following activity. There is an outcome from the activity (i.e to remember as many things as they can), some steps, which increase the speaking time, and, of course, the feature of challenge, since they must observe the picture for only one minute. Unfortunately, the students are not engaged into group or pair work, but, instead, they are called to work alone, without interacting with their peers.

1.4 Recommendations for effective speaking

In cases such as the above described it is the teacher who should intervene and, as a “strategic thinker, strategic actor and reflective practitioner” ( Schön, 1987; Wallace, 1991; Papaefthymiou – Lytra, 2003 ) , will take remedial action adapting the coursebook activities to meet his/her students’ communicative needs. The teacher should become a material designer or a provider of extra material, if it is necessary. It is of high importance to engage learners in real life situations and face-to-face interactions making use of a variety of communicative activities and reality techniques ( such as role-plays and simulations ). Emphasis should be given at activities with a macro-level focus, considering sociolinguistic parameters of age, gender, topic, setting, etc (Riggenbach, 2003), as well as at those which highlight the parasegmental features of stress, rhythm, intonation, etc ( Pennington and Richards, 1986 ). It would be very useful, indeed, if the teacher exposed students to authentic talk through the appropriate, authentic listening input. Interpretability (i.e the knowledge of what an expression signifies in a particular sociocultural context ) must be one of the basic teacher’s aims. As Mckay correctly observes “it is often missed that it is people, not language codes, that understand one another” (Mckay, 2002:53 ). The activities should aim at fluency, not at accuracy, and it is important to be interesting, with topics relevant to learners’ needs, interests and preferences. Games can be proved to be an invaluable “instrument” in the learning process, while discussions, if well organized, and information gap activities are very challenging, too. Johnson’s principles and Nation’s features of the communicative activities can help the educator towards a successful lesson-planning. Group or pair work must be preferred and any kind of audio or visual aids should be used to activate learners and raise their interest. It is the teacher’s responsibility to motivate and encourage the students, especially the “weaker”, and to help them develop metacognitive skills and compensatory strategies ( Dornyei,1995 ).

1.5 Evaluation of the speaking situation

Having in mind the above described techniques, methods and criteria, the teacher of the specific teaching situation tries to proceed into their implementation, in an effort to interweave theory with practice. Hard work is demanded by the teacher, since educated herself in a rather traditional way, needs to constantly experiment on new methods and approaches, sometimes with success and sometimes without. A path to failure, however, can often be as helpful as a path to success, if continuous self-assessment follows.

Speaking is not neglected, as it plays a basic role in the educational process. However, what is observed is that some students do not feel very confident when dealing with speaking activities. They feel more “safe” when reading or writing, rather than when, for example, they are asked to express their opinion or to talk on a topic. The “weaker” students often remain silent and reluctant to participate. These students are more confident with controlled activities and when working in pairs or in groups. They perform better when an interactional discource (or “interaction routine” ) is demanded (Bygate,1987:22-26; Brown and Yule,1983 ) and they produce mainly “short turns” ( Brown and Yule 1983:16-17 ). The use of L1 is very often when co-operating with their peers or when asking for help and clarification.

Fortunately, the rest of the students seem quite willing to speak the target language, without being afraid of making mistakes. They especially enjoy participating in role-plays, simulations, information-gap activities and games. It is these students and the teacher who help the “weaker and reluctant” overcome their hesitations through pair and group work.

2. Description of an original speaking lesson

In the first part of this paper we described the theoretical background that a teacher must possess and referred to the various techniques, methods and criteria which ensure an effective and successful speaking lesson. But what really happens the moment that the teacher is called to proceed into the implementation of this theoretical background?

The description of the following original speaking lesson, lasting one teaching hour, is an effort to interweave theory with practice. The success of the specific choices will be clear only when the previously defined aims will be finally satisfied.

2.1 Students’ profile

The students’ profile was described with details in the first part of the assignment (see 1.1 ). It is only added here that the day of the tape-recording of the lesson 4 students were absent.

2.2 Description-rationale of the specific speaking lesson (aims and stages)

The practice of the speaking skill is the main focus of the specific lesson, which is divided into three stages; the pre-speaking stage, the while-speaking stage and the post-speaking stage (see Appendix II, page 28 )

In the pre-speaking stage, lasting eight minutes, advance organizers are used to introduce students to the topic. One activity with three steps aims at raising the learners’ interest and at activating relevant content schemata and vocabulary on books. Students are involved in a listening and a guessing process, too.

The while-speaking stage lasts 22 minutes and contains two activities; one role-play and one simulation. The learners practise in asking for information and in offering help by providing information. They, also, practise in making suggestions and in presenting argumentation in order to persuade.

In the post-speaking stage, lasting 15 minutes, one activity with two steps aims at making students willing and active guessers, at practising narrating briefly a story and at transferring this story in a written form.

All the activities, excluding 1a, are based on pair and group work. According to Michael Long and Patricia Porter, group work motivates learners and promotes an affective climate in the classroom. Students feel more confident and the weaker are helped by their peers. The quality of their talk is much better, as they perform without the pressure that the teacher’s continuous presence causes to them. Moreover, it is proved that group work increases language practice opportunities and the talk time for each student (Michael Long and Patricia Porter, 1985 ).

While the students are working together on the activities, the teacher monitors them, facilitates the process by giving explanations, discreetly listens to their discourse and intervenes, when it is necessary. While and after their performance she gives feedback and encourages them.

What was intended by the teacher was the production of both transactional and interactional discourse ( Brown and Yule, 1983 ). The transactional discourse or Bygate’s “information routines” are produced when students provide information, predict and narrate, while the interactional discourse or the “interaction routines” are produced when, for example, students, while role-playing and simulating, ask politely for help, thank for it, offer to make suggestions ( Bygate, 1987 ).

2.3 Description-rationale of the speaking activities

A general description of the specific lesson was given at the previous sub-section. In this one, an analysis of the activities will be tried, in accordance to Johnson’s principles ( Johnson, 1982 ) and Nation’s features of communicative activities ( Nation, 1989 ).

The activity in the pre-speaking stage ( see Appendix III, page 31 ) has three interrelated steps ( Nation’s “procedures” ). We could say that 1b and 1c are challenging ( Nation’s “challenge” ), since the students try to guess correctly.

The first activity in the while-speaking stage ( see Appendix III, page 32 ) is a role-play between a student and a librarian ( Nation’s “roles” ). The student gives information to the librarian ( Johnson’s “information gap” ), in order to help him put the books on the correct shelves ( Nation’s “outcomes” ) and solve the problematic situation ( Nation’s “challenge” ). The student who performs the role of the librarian keeps notes on his role-card ( Johnson’s “information transfer principle” ).

The second activity of the same stage ( see Appendix III, page 32 ) is a simulation ( Nation’s “roles” ). One student gives information to another ( Johnson’s “information gap” ) about a book, in order to persuade him ( Nation’s “challenge” ) to buy it ( Nation’s “outcomes” ).

The activity in the post-speaking stage contains two interrelated steps ( Nation’s “procedures” ). Each student in a group of four is given a picture. Combining the information taken from the pictures ( Johnson’s “jigsaw principle” and Nation’s “split information” ), they try to imagine the end of the story ( Nation’s “outcomes” and “challenge” ). Then, they are asked to write it in a short paragraph ( Johnson’s “information transfer principle” and “task dependency principle” ).

While planning the lesson, the teacher tried to avoid creating “speak to learn” or tightly controlled activities, in order to provoke unplanned discourse and engage learners into real-life, free communication.

2.4 The classroom discourse-evaluation

As it was mentioned above, the unplanned discourse was one of the teacher’s intentions. However, the specific lesson, described earlier in this paper, implies that students are not ready to produce real-life speech. This is probably because they did not have much practice on that till now, or because, most of the times, they are not exposed to authentic, genuine listening input. Moreover, the teachers, both in state and private English schools, educated themselves in a rather traditional way, insist on creating non-communicative and examination-type activities.

The students’ discourse, while performing the activities, lacks discourse markers (e.g well, actually, etc), which, according to Hudges, prevent the talk from being unnatural (Hughes, 2002). Characteristic is, however, the talk of the first pair which performed the role-play between the student and the librarian. Trying to imitate real-life speech, they added fillers in their discourse. Of course, the result was rather scripted, probably because they had rehearsed many times the whole dialogue before their final performance. Here is the transcription of their talk:
can you help me to put the correct books on the correct shelves
of course and i can
what can i put on the shelf with ++ er + with the romantic stories
on the shelf with the romantic stories you must put +++ jane eyre ++ and ++ romeo and juliet
oh +++ er ++ what about detective stories ++ what can i put on that shelf
oh +++ er +on ++ on the shelf with the detective stories you must put ++ sherlock holmes and the + mysterious death
on ++the ++ shelf of +++ er ++ thrillers
er +++ you must put dr +++ jekyll and mr +hydes
oh ++ very nice +++ er ++ what about ++ fairy tales +++ er + bring me ++ a book to put on that shelf
on the shelf of fairy tales you ++ must put + alice in ++ wonderland + oliver twist and gulliver in + lul ++ liliput
+ and adventure stories
++ oh ++ on the shelf with adventure stories twenty thousand leagues +++ you must put twenty thousand leagues under the sea
+ oh + thank you faiy +++ er ++ i m grateful to you
It must be mentioned here that the students who performed the above dialogue, are of a higher level, in comparison to the other students.

As it is expected by learners of a Grade 6 level, short turns are mainly produced. In the following sample of discourse, which is from the activity of the post-speaking stage, the teacher intervenes to facilitate the students in their performance:

Student A : romeo couldn’t be far ++++ from juliet ++++ far away from juliet ++++ and so drank a poi ++ a poison

Teacher : poison

Student A : yes + a poison ++er +

Teacher : then what happened +++ yes

Student B : ++ er ++ he died

Teacher : he died ++ and juliet saw him dead +++er + and she wanted to die with him +++and how did she die

Student C : i took a knife

Teacher : she took a knife

Student C : and i died

Teacher : she

Student C :she died

Teacher : she died ++ she killed herself with a knife

Student D : ++ er + then ++ er

Teacher : they

Student D : they died +++ er ++ romeo and Juliet together

Teacher : they were both dead at the end

Student D : ++ yes

Interesting is, also, the students’ interlanguage while rehearsing. The following is a characteristic sample. While monitoring, the teacher listens to a pair working on the second activity of the while-speaking stage:

Student A : interesting

Student B : ok ++ how much does it cost

Student A : er ++++ it’s not ++++ cheap +++ it’s only four pounds

Teacher : not cheap or not expensive

Student B to student A : giati eipes only four pounds +++ not expensive ++ katalaves

Student A : a nai

Teacher : it’s not expensive ++ den einai akrivo

The above sample proves that group and pair work gives opportunities to the students to think on their mistakes. Of course the use of L1 is inevitable, even for the teacher, especially when students seem confused :

Teacher : did you understand what to do

Student A : ti eipate

Teacher : katalaves ti prepei na kanoume

Student A : +++ nai

Teacher : kai esy alexandre

Student B : to katalava

Teacher : wraia

Another sample of discourse has to do with the “ time on task” :

Teacher : are you ready

Student A : yes

Student B to student A : no ++ perimene

Teacher : ok ++ one more minute

Some examples of teacher’s discourse while praising and giving feedback are the following:

very well
that’s right
yes ++ that’s correct
it was nice ++ indeed
wraia ( use of L1 )
When organizing the lesson, the teacher used the following discourse:

let’s go on
let’s go to the next activity
let’s listen to another pair now
work in groups
work in pairs
which pair will start
would you like to read for us
To sum up, students tend to perform better, when asked to produce an interactional discourse, which demands short turns. They do not seem very confident when speaking, but, luckily, group work makes them feel “safe”. They often use L1, especially when they want to avoid misunderstandings. Teacher’s talk is simple and sometimes resembles learners’ talk.


The traditional behaviouristic models of teaching speaking fail to mould competent and confident speakers of the English language. What they achieve, instead, is to create silent students, unable to interact, to express themselves, to communicate. It is the educators and the material designers who will bring fresh insights into the classrooms following the demanding, communicative path of teaching and provoking real-life discourse.


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20) West, R .(2000) The Teaching of Speaking Skills in a Second?Foreign Language. Volumes3&4. Patra: HOU.

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