Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Getting Students to Speak

Getting students to speak for any length of time can be challenging. In many countries, speaking does not form part of the classroom culture and ‘teaching’ grammatical structures is seen as more valuable. However, in many internationally-recognised exams such as IELTS and First (FCE), students are expected to speak at some length about a range of topics, describe photos and answer questions. In real life they also have to be able to communicate their ideas effectively. 

What can we do in class (and what can we encourage our students to do outside class) to help them prepare for these exams – or just improve their general fluency? Below are some activities that I use and/or encourage my students to do on their own.

Who, where, when, why, how, how often, what?

Give out / show the students a series of photos (flickr is an example of a website where you can a whole range of interesting photos you could use). To model the activity, choose one photo yourself and, with your group, brainstorm the answers to the questions in the above (in the title!). 

With the photo on the left, the activity would go something like this:
Where is the photo set? In a classroom / in a school
What can you see in the classroom? Desks & chairs
Who would sit in the chairs? Students
What are they doing? Sitting an exam
Why are they sitting an exam? To go to university / to apply for a job
When would they do the exam? At the end of the year / in the middle of the term
How often would they do exams? Every year / every term etc

Students would then be asked, in pairs, to talk about the photo for one minute. Hopefully, the brainstorming session would help with ideas and vocabulary.

Following on from this, ask pairs to choose another photos. They write questions related to their photo (similar to the ones above) which they pass on to another group. This group then talks about the photo for 1 – 2 minutes, using the questions they have been given to help them. 

If the students are asked to do this type of activity on a regular basis, they will hopefully become more effective at coming up with ideas and this should help them during the speaking part of their IELTS or First (FCE) exam. 

The Dice Game

Start by saying the alphabet quickly. The students tell you when to stop and then give you a word in English beginning with the letter that you stopped at. Write this word on the board. Repeat 6 times and then number the words 1 – 6. 

The students then roll a dice and have to speak for 1 minute (or 2 with stronger students) about the word which corresponds to that number. They cannot pause or repeat ideas and have to continue speaking until the end of the time limit. 

I would suggest modelling the activity with the students by speaking for 2 minutes about a word of their choice. As you speak, ask students to interrupt if you start repeating yourself. 

You could also elicit language for ‘buying time’ such as ‘what I really mean is….’, ‘it’s a kind of thing / place/ person which / where / who…’.  This will help them during their own speaking turn. 

The Interruption Game

In pairs, each student has 3 minutes to describe their weekend starting at 12 noon on Saturday. Their partner’s objective is to stop them getting to 5pm on Sunday by interrupting / asking questions. 

The teacher should model the activity first and it should go something like this:
Teacher: On Saturday, at 12 noon, I had lunch.
Student: What did you have for lunch?
Teacher: I had cornflakes and a cup of tea. Then I got dressed.
Student: What did you wear?
Teacher: I wore a pair of jeans and a TV shirt. Then I …
Student: What colour was the t-shirt? ………………..

As the grammatical focus is on past tense questions, you should make sure that your students are familiar with these and, with weaker groups, perhaps even make a poster of question starters, such as ‘When did you / What did you…?,  to help them.

Sentence Frames

When doing any speaking activity, it is always useful to provide your students with ‘sentence’ frames (typical expressions that they might need to do the activity). So, for example, if they were going to define words to each other in pairs in order to review vocabulary, they will need the sentence frames below:

It’s a person who / place where / thing which ……(etc)
It begins with (the letter)…..
It is the opposite of………
It is similar to…..

If, on the other hand, they are going to describe their favourite actress, they will need different ‘frames, such as:

She is…… (tall / dark-haired / British)
She starred in………..
She won a(n) (Oscar / Bafta)
She is married to / is going out with / went out with……

Once again, if students have a series of expressions to hand, this will certainly help with their fluency.

What can students do outside class to improve their speaking?

Ideally, students would have English speakers to talk to outside class or would be able to do a language exchange with English speakers wanting to learn their own native language. However, this is so often not the case so what can they do? 

Get your students to turn the sound down on the TV and then try and describe what they can see (without stopping). If they come across something that they can’t describe, they either have to paraphrase or check the word in a dictionary.  This activity is great for developing fluency as students have to describe the images in real time and can’t prepare what they want to say. If they use something from a website, they can then go back and listen to what the broadcaster actually said and compare it to their own efforts.

These are some of my ideas for getting students to speak.  Does anyone have any other activities that they like to use with their students?


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