So you want to speak English …
Most students come to the UK in order to speak better English. However, what is it exactly that they want to improve?
- Range of vocabulary?
- Specialised vocabulary?
- Presenting skills?
What they mean greatly affects what should be taught.
If fluency is required, then an emphasis can be placed on practising extensive speaking activities, teaching how to link ideas together, how to pause while gathering thoughts.
If it is pronunciation, is it a matter of working on individual sounds, word stress or intonation? Also to what extent do learners in fact want to have ‘perfect’ pronunciation? Usually learners are happy to make some compromise between their mother tongue and some notion of BBC, Oxford, standard, Queen’s, international, educated English etc.
It is worth considering how much you would really want to speak French or Japanese like a native speaker. Adopting an accent raises issues of personal identity and most people feel very uncomfortable trying to make all the sounds (and faces!) associated with other languages. This should perhaps be borne in mind when we as teachers are correcting pronunciation.
If it is accuracy, it raises the question of what and how to correct.
If someone’s speaking is limited by a small vocabulary, should we not help them with vocabulary building, reading and listening for reinforcement, circumlocution and suggestions for organising their words? If their requirements are very specialised then we need to research that area of vocabulary and determine how to present and practise it.
A Business English client may request help with presentations. This is not only a linguistic issue but one of body language and good preparation.
Shy learners (and here one is tempted in particular to think of some Japanese) may have studied English for many years, be able to write with some ability and read quite well but find that speaking English is terribly difficult. What is vitally important here is to provide a warm, patient environment where the shy speaker can gain confidence and hence practice. Correction should perhaps be kept to a minimum and the emphasis should be placed on recognising small successes and encouragement.
Effective teaching is about working out what you need to help the learner with. No single way of teaching, no single method or approach is going to be sufficient for all students and all needs. Over time try to build up an ‘arsenal’ of techniques and materials that you can deploy when appropriate.
Ideas for Student Speaking Activities
General topics for conversation and discussion
Everyday familiar subjects usually work better for lower level students. More abstract and philosophical issues may require a higher level of ability (but as always it depends on the student!). Photographs or pictures can be used as warmers for the following:
Family and friends
Vocabulary areas: character, interests, occupations, habits, location, houses
Vocabulary areas: memories, favourites, travel agents, hotels, people, culture, surprises
Vocabulary areas: festivals, history, geography, regions, accents, food, likes and dislikes, media
Vocabulary areas: leisure time, heroes, events, time sequencing, historic moments
Vocabulary areas: money, business, finance, predictions, cause and effect
Don’t overdo but allow for sufficient practice time. Drilling can be fun!
Asking and requesting (Could I …etc
Apologising (I’m really sorry …etc
Offering (I’ll …etc)
Agreeing and disagreeing (I see what you mean but…etc)
Hesitating (Well, er, um etc)
Refusing (I’m afraid … etc)
Many course books have dialogues that can be used for fluency and pronunciation practice (stress, linking, intonation). Adapt and extend them as necessary. Remember to change roles and practise sufficiently. Try writing your own!
Example topics and situations:
Talking about the weather
Meeting someone on a train or at a party
In a cafe or restaurant
Complaining in a shop
Using substitutions and extension in the dialogues can provide humour and variety. Sometimes the more absurd the dialogue the better.
Can I help you?
Yes, I’m looking for a new TV. Do you have any?
Yes, how about this one. It is the latest Sony high definition model
It’s nice but we need something bigger. Do you have any 50 inches across?
We have this one
It’s also nice but the TV we are looking for must have a gold remote control……
Substitute: car, house, hotel room, horse etc etc
Using your telephone
Your student can call a variety of places eg
- tourist information centre
- sports centres
You can pre-teach key vocabulary and structures. After the call (which you may be able to listen to on speakerphone) you can discuss whether the call was successful, listening difficulties, new vocabulary etc
A few props can work wonders. Pretending to be someone else can be quite liberating for learners. Role plays can be more or less controlled.
Job interviews eg dream job
TV/Newspaper interview eg famous person
Hotel problems eg poor service
Restaurant eg angry customer
Using an empty chair in the room to represent a particular person (friend, relative, boss, doctor etc) can be a good way to add to role play potential. A jacket put over the chair is a good prop to use. Discussion of the person is made more real by the chair and any props. A speaking activity could develop as follows (leave long pauses for the student to reply):
Teacher: Did I tell you about my boss?
Student: No, what’s she like?
Teacher: She’s a bit strange.
Student: Why, do yiou say that?
Teacher Well, ……………….
Student is shown a photograph, video clip etc. for 10 seconds. After the photograph etc is taken away, you can ask the student to describe the content. Because of the uncertainty involved, this activity is quite could for practising ‘I think..’, ‘There might be..’ etc.
Another game is to select a different country and a different object to take with you. When it is your turn you have to come up with a new country and a new object and then remember all the previous objects. As the game progresses it gets more difficult to remember all the objects.
‘I went to Iceland and in my bag I put a mobile phone, a bar of chocolate, an umbrella, a big cheese sandwich, a newspaper and a map.’
You can use audio, video and text to set the scene and then the activity is for the student to predict what is going to happen next. If you use audio or video, you only need to play it for a very short time. If you are using a text (eg graded reader), you can give the student half a page at a time. After the predictions have been made, you can compare with what actually happens.
Assorted topics, tasks or vocabulary (eg noun, adverb, verb, expression) are written on small cards. The learner turns over a card and has to talk for 1 minute on the subject of the card, do the speaking task or use the item of vocabulary. Very useful for recycling previous lessons.
The same kind of game can be played by producing your own ‘snakes and ladders’ grid and writing in the topics etc in each square and using a dice and counter. You can take part too, rather than just checking/correcting.
Student prepares a short presentation on a particular topic (10 mins max). Laptops can provide visuals. Best if talk is related to previous lessons. Preparation can be done outside of lesson time.
Quizzes or questionnaires can be an interesting way to dig deeper into a particular subject area or practice a structure.
Try making your own
What is the biggest, longest, oldest, smallest, dirtiest …?
What would you do if …?
Tell me 6 words connected with the subject of (clothes, fashion, colour etc)
Show student 2 pictures/photographs that are similar but not exactly the same. Can be used to practise comparatives, ‘more’, ‘less’ etc.
All manner of things can be ranked.
Eg. Jobs, countries, hobbies, films, songs, languages, cars, historical periods, companies, cities
They can be ranked in terms of best, worst, creative, most/least expensive, most/least rewarding etc.
Good for practising agreeing and disagreeing.
Learners have 20 yes/no questions to guess your job, occupation, country, hobby etc
Jill Hadfield, Communication Games (Longman). Beginner, Elementary and Intermediate levels.
Adrian Wallwork, Discussions A-Z (Cambridge University Press). Intermediate and Advanced level.
Penny Ur, Discussions that Work (Cambridge University Press)