In this article from the archives of English Teaching professional magazine, Scott Thornbury says that learning how to speak is as important as learning what to say.

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The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.



Knowledge and availability | Awareness-raising | Appropriation | Autonomy | References


How do you convert a seemingly inert knowledge of words and grammar into fluid speech? This is probably the single most perplexing dilemma facing language students, as the following genuine statements attest:

‘This is the problem: I have been learning English long, but I can’t speak. I understand the conversation but I can’t answer immediately as I like.’
‘The problem is to speak English with other people face to face. I can’t find words. I always use the same sentences.’
‘Sometimes I use English in my work and this is always a painful moment for me in which my heart is in my boots and I despairing search the words.’
‘I know I need to practise my speaking a lot. During all my life, I have been doing grammar and reading, but nobody has taught me how to speak English. I think that this skill is always forgotten when someone teaches English.’

This last comment is astute, and a glance at the speaking component of many coursebooks will confirm that speaking activities are often simply exercises in vocalizing grammar, as if this were all that were needed. Unhappily, it is not, and there are plenty of first-hand accounts that suggest as much. For example, the researcher Andrew Cohen kept a record of his experience studying
Japanese in Hawaii. The teaching programme was very form-focused; that is to say, most of the time was spent studying and manipulating isolated grammar forms. Cohen comments:

‘I learned a lot of linguistic information about Japanese but did not perceive myself as acquiring much language at an automatized level, which inhibited me in my limited efforts to have conversations with Japanese tourists in Waikiki ...’

Anchor Point:0Knowledge and availability

Cohen’s experience reminds us that knowing ‘a lot of linguistic information’ is no guarantee that it will be available when you need it. And this raises two fundamental questions facing teachers
of speaking:

  • What linguistic information is required for speaking?
  • How can this information be made available for use?

I’ll deal with each of these questions in turn.


First, let’s look at the transcript of an advanced learner recounting a shopping experience (from data collected by Gairns and Redman):

A: It happened I think two years ago, I went to a shop. It was Saturday, I usually do my shopping on Saturday. So I went to a shop to buy shoes, and I went to that particular shop in which I found my pair of shoes.
B: Expensive?
A: Yeah, quite expensive.
B: How much?
A: About forty to fifty pounds, something like that. So I went there, it was full of people and I tried on the shoes that I liked, so I decided to buy them. So I bought them. I went home after that, but it was almost the end of the day, the shopping day, so it wasn’t left a long time for the shops to close, so when I went home and decided to try on the shoes again, I saw that in the bag were two left shoes. So I had, well, it was quite an expensive pair of shoes, so I tried to go back to the shop and exchange them so although I knew that they will exchange them, I was a bit worried. But I was late and the shop was closed already and I had to go on … next day on Sunday to get the proper pair of shoes.

What is perhaps not obvious at first glance is how effective the learner is with a relatively narrow range of linguistic resources. For example, of the 85 different words she uses in this 200-word story, all are in the top 2,000 most frequent words in English, and the vast majority (90 per cent) are in the top 1,000 band. Because of repetition, these 85 words are spread quite thin, some of them (such as shoes and shop) being recycled five or more times. Moreover, the content words (i.e. the ones carrying the information) make up only 40 per cent of the text, the ‘padding’ being provided by the high-frequency grammar words (such as that, to, was) that make up the other 60 per cent of the extract.

On the subject of grammar, you’ll notice that there are not many complex sentence constructions in the extract. Rather, most of the talk is built up incrementally by joining together a succession of clause- or phrase-length units with a handful of common linkers, such as and, but and so. What the transcript doesn’t reveal is the fact that these units match the way the talk is segmented into ‘runs’, each separated from the next by a pause:

It happened | I think two years ago | I went to a shop | It was Saturday | I usually do my shopping on Saturday | So I went to a shop | to buy shoes | and I went to that particular shop | in which I
found my pair of shoes | ...

This speaker’s average length of run exceeds five words, and it is this capacity to produce long runs which, more than anything, conveys an impression of fluency. Fluency is not so much speaking fast as pausing less. One way that speakers achieve this effect is by deploying a battery of memorized formulaic ‘chunks’. These chunks provide ‘islands of reliability’ on which the speaker can rest while planning the next run. Another way of buying planning time and giving at least an illusion of fluency is to disguise pauses by filling them. The commonest pause fillers are uh and um, and vagueness expressions like sort of and I mean. There’s a good example in the extract:

‘About forty to fifty pounds, something like that.

To sum up, the speaker achieves an acceptable level of fluency because this is what she knows:

  • a core grammar: this is probably much less extensive than the full range of structures she has actually been taught in order to reach her advanced status, since coursebook grammar is essentially a grammar of writing (a grammar of sentences), not of speaking (a grammar of utterances)
  • the linkers and, but and so
  • a core vocabulary of 1,000 to 1,500 high-frequency items: these will cover 90 per cent of her day-to-day needs
  • a core ‘phrasebook’ of multi-word units (or chunks), including time and place adverbials (two years ago, the end of the day, that particular shop) and vagueness expressions (something like that).

In addition, she can probably call upon:

  • some strategies, such as the use of the formulae: it’s one of those things that…, what do you call it? to get around the fact that occasionally there will be words she doesn’t know
  • again, to cover gaps in her knowledge as well as to reduce thinking time, some common vagueness expressions, such as a thing, that stuff, … or something
  • as well as some common linkers, a handful of discourse markers, i.e. ways of indicating the direction the talk is taking, such as well, you know, I mean
  • one or two all-purpose quoting expressions, of the he said … and then I said ... type
  • some formulaic ways of performing common speech acts (such as greeting, thanking, promising, etc.)
  • some standard backchannel devices, i.e. the things we say when we are listening to another speaker, such as Really? You’re kidding! etc
  • the strategic use of intonation to segment the flow of speech into meaningful units, to flag new topics and to signal the ends of turns.


So, now we have a rough checklist of the knowledge-base that is required for day-to-day speaking. The next question is: how is this knowledge made available for use? Essentially, to ensure availability for use, there are three processes involved:

  • Learners need to become aware of features of the target knowledge-base.
  • They need to integrate these features into their existing knowledge-base.
  • They then need to develop the capacity to mobilise these features under real-time conditions.

Anchor Point:1Awareness-raising

For the first of these processes I borrow, from cognitivist learning theory, the term awareness-raising. One way to raise learners’ awareness of features of spoken language is to expose them to recordings of speaking, and to study the transcripts of these recordings. For example:

To focus on discourse markers: script or improvise a conversation that includes some common discourse markers, such as well, so, oh, I mean, right and anyway. Leave these out of the transcript and ask the learners to restore them, checking with the recording to see if they are right. Alternatively, record two versions of a conversation, one with the discourse markers and one without. Before handing out the transcript, play the conversations and ask the learners if they notice any difference between them. Then play them the two conversations again while they read the transcript.

Having established the difference, ask them to comment on what effect the discourse markers have. Then supply them with the transcript of a dialogue that has no discourse markers, and ask them to insert them where they think they are appropriate.

Anchor Point:2Appropriation

In order to integrate this new knowledge into their existing knowledge, learners need to appropriate it. Appropriation is a term borrowed from socio-cultural learning theory, according to which all learning – including the learning of a first and a second language – is mediated through interaction. This typically takes the form of assisted performance, whereby a ‘better other’ works with the learners, providing a supportive framework (or scaffold) within which learners can take risks and bit by bit extend their current competence. Over time, skills which are first other-regulated become self-regulated. Central to the notion of a transfer of control is the idea that aspects of the skill that once ‘belonged’ to the teacher are made the learner’s own – they are appropriated.

Practised control

In fact, appropriation might best be thought of as practised control. This contrasts with what is commonly known as controlled practice. Controlled practice is repetitive practice of language items in conditions where the possibility of making mistakes is minimized. Typically this takes the form of drilling. Practised control, on the other hand, involves demonstrating progressive control of a skill where the possibility of making mistakes is ever present, but where support is always at hand. To use the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle, it is like being allowed to pedal freely, but with someone running along right behind, just in case. In practised control, control (or self-regulation) is the goal of the practice, whereas in controlled practice, control is simply the condition under which practice takes place.

One way of gaining control over a speaking task is to repeat it, but in conditions where other-regulation is progressively relinquished. One simple but effective way of doing this is through the use of dialogues. For example:

Disappearing dialogue: the text of a dialogue is written on the board (or is projected using an overhead projector). Learners practise reading it aloud in pairs (either open or closed), and then the teacher starts erasing sections of it. Initially these sections may simply be individual words, but then whole lines can be removed. By the end of the activity, the dialogue has ‘moved’ from the board into the learners’ memory. They can then be challenged to write it out from memory.

Anchor Point:3Autonomy

Finally, learners need to be able to marshal their newly-acquired skills and deploy them unassisted and under what are called real operating conditions. That is, they need to achieve autonomy in the skill. Autonomy in speaking requires that the speaker is able to:

  • work fast, be spontaneous, and cope with unpredictability
  • anticipate and plan ahead
  • ignore inessentials, and carry out the task using minimal means
  • be accurate
  • be versatile, i.e. perform a range of different speaking tasks about a range of different topics
  • be reliable, i.e. perform the task equally well under different, even adverse, conditions.

In classroom terms, this means learners need to experience the challenge of talking under real operating conditions – that is, being given opportunities to talk freely about subjects of their own choice. A teacher in the USA, Gisela Ernst, describes how she does this through the use of what she calls talking circles:

‘The talking circle is a total group activity that generally takes place at the beginning of the 45-min conversational English class. Almost every day, teacher and students gather in the talking circle to share and discuss experiences, anecdotes, news, special events, introduce the weekly theme, and the like. Although the teacher might open the discussion by suggesting a general topic, the overriding assumption is that the talking circle provides a place and an audience for students to discuss anything of interest to them.’

To sum up, I have sketched out what I see as being the essential knowledge base for speaking – a knowledge base, incidentally, that is not beyond the range of relatively low-level learners. I have also outlined a three-step programme for transforming this knowledge base into the skill of speaking. It begins with awareness-raising activities, where learners are either presented with or discover for themselves features of spoken language. This is followed by appropriation activities where learners gain control of these features, before achieving full autonomy as independent speakers in a range of different spoken genres.

Anchor Point:4References

Cohen, A, ‘Developing pragmatic ability: insights from the accelerated study of Japanese’ in Cook, H et al, New trends and issues in teaching Japanese language and culture University of Hawaii 1997

Gairns, R and Redman, S, data collected for Natural English, OUP 2002

Ernst, G, Talking circle: Conversation and negotiation in the ESL classroom, TESOL Quarterly 28/2 1994