Teaching language skills Part 2: Are your students speaking with their mouths or with their minds?

Speaking is central to use of language. Of all the skills we use when we learn, most cultures describe proficiency in another language as the ability to ‘speak’ it, with communication made through any mode of speech or writing being equated with ‘saying’ something. However, in most settings where English is taught, speaking skills are underdeveloped in students due to large class sizes and limitations on teachers’ time and resources. Speaking is less objectively testable than reading or listening comprehension, or even writing, as it is more transitory and nebulous, depending on many non-linguistic aspects of communication such as attitude, confidence, body language and facial expression. This article aims to explore the various skills which go to make up performance in spoken language, with the aim of suggesting some ways of ensuring that these are covered effectively by language educators in their ESOL classrooms.


Speaking is more than just saying words out loud


In many classrooms, I see teachers preparing ‘speaking’ activities through role-play. Fantastic, I think - taking on a role in a situation is a really good way of building flexibility and spontaneity with speaking, as students immerse themselves into different communicative events and use their language to navigate through the activity.


However, when the speaking stage comes around, the teacher hands out a written dialogue for the students to read out in groups of two or three as a script. My heart falls. ‘But the students were speaking’, says the teacher after the lesson. Yes, they were making language-based noises with their mouths, but were they really speaking?


The difference between reading out loud from a script and performing in a situation with the social conventions, language and ideas that come from your communicative brain is enormous. The processes which enable us to speak effectively in situations we have never been in before, performing tasks with people we’ve never met before and dealing with the unpredictable language of other people as it arises, are deeply complex and require a broad set of linguistic, paralinguistic, social and cognitive sub-skills.


These sub-skills enable us to communicate with flexibility, judging the language requirements of situations, planning and constructing messages so that they are appropriate to the situation we are in, taking the dominant or passive role in interaction as appropriate depending on levels of expertise, status or emotion which arise. All this at the same time as putting forth accurate, comprehensible messages which our co-communicators have to understand as they are meant.


So, in order to develop effective speakers in another language, it is not enough to focus on accuracy of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation alone. Yes, these are the cornerstones of a comprehensible message, especially for learners, but if information is never produced in a communicative situation where the speaker is a proactive user of the phrase or structure being taught, we cannot truly say that we have been working on its use in terms of speaking skills. The skills involved in independently selecting, incorporating and communicating newly-learnt items in communicative contexts is essential for the development of effective spoken communicators, no matter the situation where they are speaking.


Speaking with purpose


The first step to developing speaking skills with a group of language learners is to ensure that the items in the messages you teach do not appear in a vacuum. All language happens in the context of other language in situations, meetings between people, texts or recordings, so in order to start thinking about spoken language, define a clear purpose for the students to speak towards.


Going back to the role-play example above, without some kind of control over the situation, language and interaction taking place, the purpose of the students’ speaking is restricted to getting through the dialogue and pronouncing the words accurately. In fact, pronunciation practice is the only real purpose of most ‘reading aloud’ tasks that are set in the language classroom, whether the teacher knows it or not.


A truly communicative speaking purpose could be the same as a language function: how to request things politely, for example, or how to ask for clarification. Investigating the language we use to perform these functions, presenting some different choices of phrase for students to use, then putting them into constructed ’situations’ where they have to reformulate or reconstruct the language they learn for different end results, can help students to build flexibility and confidence with their spoken language. In these more spontaneous task types, learners have to do more proactive work to make their language fit the situation they are in, a key skill related to choice, spontaneity and flexibility with language that is key to effective speaking.


Take a language function that relates well to a spoken event - asking for clarification is a commonly taught function, including phrases such as ‘sorry, could you say that again’, ‘I didn’t catch that’ or ‘could you repeat that, please?’. These phrases are really useful for learners and can serve them well, but if you have ever led a speaking task between students with this kind of phrase, it tends to get robotic and unthinking pretty quickly, with one student asking and the other simply repeating what they said the first time. In real life outside the confines of the language practice task, however, speakers ask and provide clarification in all sorts of different ways by using intonation, shifting stress, reformulating information and asking focused questions to get to the right message as intended by the speaker. A clarified message rarely takes the same form as the original, unless the listener simply didn’t hear what was said the first time.


This is an example of how a seemingly effective language task can miss the interactional mark and lose the opportunity for students to take control of the interaction they have with others, even when they don’t fully understand.


Example: My son and I recently went to a beach in a protected coastal reserve on the South coast of the UK. We were chatting to an ecologist who was walking the same direction as us, who told us that the government had recently cut spending on sea defences, aiming to return more of the area to its natural, tidal state. We spoke for about ten minutes about the millions which the defences cost, and how some residents living close to the coast had protested against the change to protect their property. My son seemed puzzled and asked why the residents didn’t simply build new ones, why it was such an issue for a few days’ work, and why they cost so much before realising that the issue was large-scale defence against the waves of the sea, not pieces of wood around the properties. He had spent the last five minutes of the conversation thinking we were talking about cedar fences, not sea defences. The clarification finally came when the ecologist stopped in his tracks and stressed ‘no, SEA defences. Not CEdar FENces!’.


A great piece of native-speaker confusion, but also the type of misunderstanding faced by language learners when they come across a new term in English, especially if it sounds similar to another known word. The way that my son dealt with it was not by using any of the set phrases exemplified above, but to engage with the information and ask proactive questions to sift through to the real issue being discussed. His questions brought him closer and closer to the clarification he needed, and he was in control of these, showing himself to be an effective communicator who can use his voice to solve a communicative problem.


If the purpose of a speaking task is to find clarification, ask students to go beyond simple set phrases and use their questions, comments and reformulation language rather than asking for repetition. This will open up a much wider range of speaking skills and help them to become more empowered, proactive communicators.


Speaking with appropriacy


Another way of ensuring that students speak with purpose is to start with the communicative event itself, and think about what kind of language is appropriate or expected in that setting. Most everyday communicative situations are mostly predictable. Imagine it’s your turn to go to the window at a post office or bank, and you can pretty much script what the interaction sounds like between the participants, depending on the job at hand. Turns are ordered and follow a pattern of functional ‘speech acts’ which follow each other towards the outcome of the event - posting the parcel, depositing the cheque or whatever. These acts contain phrases which are appropriate for those events, and which can be taught accordingly by function.


Rather than having students read out a pre-written dialogue as a ‘role-play’, give out maps of the turns between a customer and a waiter, a driver and a parking warden, or whatever, and have the learners produce the appropriate language for each turn in the interaction, for example:


Waiter: GREETS customer

Customer: GREETS waiter

Waiter: OFFERS a drink

Customer: ACCEPTS and ORDERS drinks

Waiter: OFFERS to tell the customer about the specials

Customer: REQUESTS some time to look at the menu

Waiter: OFFERS to help if needed

(waiter leaves)

(waiter returns)

Waiter: ENQUIRES if customer is ready to order

Customer: ENQUIRES about the size of the steak

Waiter: INFORMS the customer about the steak


etc. etc.


In a functional role-play such as this, the choice of what language to use rests with the students, not the textbook, and every dialogue will be different as learners find different ways to ask, answer, inform, etc. to get the meal that they want.


Performing this activity twice or three times, with different groups of students, highlights that whatever specific food you order, or whatever the food on the menu, the interaction follows a set pattern. Knowledge of these patterns allows for more flexibility of language as every sentence spoken by the waiter becomes less of a surprise and more mental space is freed up to listen, respond and work towards the desired outcome confidently.


As a follow-up task which works well for any role-play activity where learners perform a dialogue more than once, a good way to keep everyone on their toes is to hand out ‘emotion’ cards which dictate how the participants in the situation feel and therefore speak. An angry waiter dealing with a shy customer will be a very different conversation as compared to a bored waiter dealing with a frustrated customer. Adding emotional variables into role-play brings out some beautiful, spontaneous and hilarious (even more authentic than can be achieved from a textbook) situations, language and interaction through spontaneity and reaction to different spoken prompts.


We have looked at some everyday events and interactions here, but when you consider any communicative event as having expected roles, responses, structures and language, you will find that what is true in the restaurant or post office is equally true in the English language speaking exam. Exam settings are designed with specific language skills in mind, so by identifying those skills and having students practice organising, formulating and reformulating their messages in different ways accordingly, a level of spontaneity, control and confidence can be brought out, enabling test-takers to perform to a much higher level.


In summary, speaking as a language skill is much more than students saying the words you teach out loud. It requires flexibility, confidence, a pro-active spirit, the ability to reorganise and restate messages and speak around unknown language to get the information across. These are all skills which can be practised through language play, quick-thinking speaking activities and tasks which give learners the control over their own language choices to fit the setting where they are participating.


In case you missed them, you can read Part One and Part Three of this series of blog posts



Tom Garside is a teacher trainer and education developer who works with trainee teachers on his blended Trinity CertTESOL course, which is delivered at partner locations around the world. He also consults for international schools and universities, helping teachers and tutors to develop their skills in their local teaching settings and advising on curriculum development in language and content areas. He has written a reader-friendly e-resource for developing teachers: TESOL, A Gateway Guide, and a pronunciation teaching resource pack: Pronunciation Card Games, as well as a teacher development resource based around peer observation tasks.


Contact tom.garside@languagepointtraining to organise a training event at your centre, or to take part in the Blended Trinity CertTESOL course that Language Point runs or Sign up to the Language Point newsletter ‘From the Training Room’ for articles, resources and offers on Language Point products.


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