Why is speaking a foreign language so difficult, and how can we help our students do it better? Teacher and editor Emma Fox explains why speaking is so challenging and offers a range of activities and techniques you can take straight to the classroom.
When it comes to speaking, we shouldn’t be surprised that’s it difficult. Imagine our astonishment if a baby started commenting on the weather or contributed to a discussion. Yet we all know that a baby cries to get what he or she wants – there is an instinctive need to speak and be understood. So, why exactly is speaking so challenging, and, from a teaching perspective, how can we help our students improve it?
1. Speaking socially
Speaking isn’t all about knowing the words, saying them correctly and putting them in the right order, which is tricky enough. And it doesn’t just ‘come naturally’. Speaking is inextricably linked with social norms and practices, which includes the ability to match up the right language with the appropriate non-verbal cues. For example, I remember how rude my daughter seemed when she didn’t say ‘hello’ to her nursery teachers. I realised that we don’t know how to greet people instinctively. Once I explained what we do (we smile, we look someone in the eye, we say ‘hello’) and why we do it (to make our presence known to that person), she was better equipped at giving a new social interaction a go. There are countless social situations we might find ourselves in, which means we have to process and then select the correct verbal and non-verbal language. On top of that, we have to do it almost instantaneously!
2. Fear of speaking
Many of us have found ourselves in situations where we have had to speak and ‘felt the fear’. If the fear comes from a natural shyness, children and adults alike need time to ‘warm up’ and get comfortable before they can speak. Social situations can stress us out, and we worry about what we might, or might not, say. Worse still are the more formal events, such as presentations, where we’re really put in the spotlight. And what about speaking in a different language? I studied Spanish for years, which included living in Spain for nine months. I had, as 1Stephen Krashen describes in his hypothesis, a High Affective Filter. I felt anxious about my inability to participate in conversations, and I worried about making mistakes. It seemed that I was never going to learn to speak Spanish, and this was down to my anxious state of mind.
In summary, speaking, whether it be in our own or a different language, is hugely complex and it can be a scary thing to do. This doesn’t paint a particularly appealing picture for our students wishing to improve it. How can we help?
Are you comfortable?
Many of your students will also have a High Affective Filter, so it’s important to create a safe classroom environment.
1. Don’t be a language pedant
For speaking activities, allow your students to make mistakes and focus on meaning. Over-correction will only chip away at their confidence.
2. No pain, no gain
If your students are reluctant to participate in a speaking activity, point out the need to accept that some discomfort is necessary. An athlete wouldn’t complain about a training session if it meant that he or she could run faster, or jump higher. Our students have to 2get comfortable with being uncomfortable and we need to encourage them to take risks with language. Conversely, the more uncomfortable situations they put themselves in, the more comfortable they’ll become!
What are you talking about?
1. Get interested
Find out what your students are into. Regardless of what you think are relevant speaking topics, your students will be able to speak much more about the stuff that interests them. Think about having a time or section of your class where your students choose and direct the speaking topic.
2. Venture off-piste
At times, we can get caught up in the coursebook unit we have to get through, or the exam we’re preparing our students for, at the expense of exploring a genuine speaking opportunity. Be prepared to go off-piste at times. This will enable your students to experience some spontaneous and meaningful speaking.
Using drama techniques can improve your students’ confidence in speaking, and they also develop essential life skills such as teamwork, problem solving, and critical and creative thinking. As well as role play, consider:
Everyone loves a story – so ensure that storytelling becomes a part of your class.
- Tell your own stories to the class, for example You’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday …
- Watch videos of storytelling. This will help raise your students’ awareness of the multiple aspects of storytelling, including clear enunciation, expressing different emotions (through voice and facial expressions), vocabulary range, intonation, etc.
- Ask students to retell a story in their own words.
- Use story boards, picture prompts or a single image to help initiate or guide a story.
To help develop spontaneity, use improvisation games such as:
A word at a time story
- Sitting in circle, a student starts a story using one word only. The next students provides the next word and so on, until a story is told.
I’m in charge
- Using a microphone (real or pretend), ask a student to give an order that the rest of the group has to follow. Switch the mic over to another student quickly, so that the order changes. Keep doing this until all the students have been ‘in charge’.
- A student says one word and another student responds with a different word. Categories can be used for this game, for example topic groups (colours, countries, animals, etc), associated words, words starting with a letter of the alphabet, and so on.
- Show a muted scene from a film/TV show for the students to ‘dub’ spontaneously.
Ask your students to say the same phrase or act out conversations in different ways (loudly, quietly, joyfully, angrily, etc). This will help raise awareness of how intonation can change meaning. It can also help your students understand that the way we say things, not just what we say, impacts the listener positively or negatively. In addition, non-verbal facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust are the same across cultures, so encourage your students to think about how they are expressing these emotions both verbally and physically.
You can find lots of drama techniques online. Have a look and give some a go!
A speaking tool box
1. Transactional and functional language
Encourage your students to build a bank of appropriate phrases that can be used in transactional and functional scenarios. Rather than just focusing on typical transactional dialogues that take place in shops, at school, etc, introduce situations where speakers might feel a 3sense of failure, frustration, anger, rejection, worry or fear. Make sure they have the language that allows them to express these emotions, as well as language for apologising, showing forgiveness, sharing, making requests, and asking for and offering help. A focus on these situations can empower your students to articulate their feelings and show empathy, which will make them better communicators overall.
2. Formal speaking scenarios
More formal speaking scenarios might include 4introducing yourself and your family, giving instructions, giving recommendations, reporting and recounting a story. In addition, focus on structuring speaking by covering language that helps introduce, transition, summarise and conclude.
3. Conversational language
Conversations, rather than simple dialogues, might involve asking your students to solve a problem, come up with a proposal, make plans and organise. Help your students focus on phrases that can be used to facilitate these conversations, such as giving suggestions, expressing opinions and inviting responses.
5A speaking checklist
An effective lesson should include the following:
- identifying target language and practice of it
- analysis of model dialogues/conversations/discussions
- planning (individual, pairs, groups)
- focus on pronunciation and intonation
- analysis and implementation of appropriate body/non-verbal language
- reflection and constructive feedback
Are we listening?
An enormous part of speaking is our ability to listen. The following can help develop your students’ active listening skills:
- ‘Stop listening’ (awareness raising): Student 1 talks about something they’re really interested in. Student 2 stops listening after 30 seconds. This can lead into a discussion about the effect of not listening.
- ‘Me, me, me’ (awareness raising): Student 1 talks about something that happened to him/her. Student 2 interrupts and turns the conversation to himself/herself instead. Follow up with the impact of just talking about yourself.
- A student gives a presentation, and the audience members each have to ask a relevant question.
- Student 1 describes an experience (e.g. a holiday). Student 2 has to summarise it.
- Analysis of body language that encourages the speaker to continue talking.
- Analysis of strategies to keep the conversation going (asking relevant questions, paraphrasing, elaborating, agreeing/disagreeing, etc).
These are just a few ideas to help develop a strong focus on speaking in class. Ultimately, speech is a unique and powerful tool that allows us to express our needs, hopes and desires. If your students learn to use it effectively, they can ensure that their voices are aren’t just heard, they’re listened and responded to as well.
1 Stephen Krashen, Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, 1981 www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/sl_acquisition_and_learning.pdf
2 Peter McWilliams
3 Examples taken from www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Shyness-in-Children.aspx
4 Examples taken from Global Stage Language Books, Levels 1–6 (Take the Stage speaking lessons)
5 Focus areas taken from Global Stage Language Books, Levels 1–6 speaking lessons
About the author
Emma Fox studied English Literature and Spanish at Cardiff University. After gaining the Trinity CertTESOL certificate in 1998, she taught at an international school in the UK before moving to Madrid to teach in a private language academy. As well as teaching both adults and children, she also completed the Trinity Diploma, and developed and delivered teacher training sessions.
In 2005, she returned to the UK to start a career in ELT publishing at Macmillan Education, specialising in primary content. She is now a freelance editor.
Find out more about Macmillan’s Global Stage course here: www.macmillanenglish.com/courses/globalstage
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Advancing Learning: The challenges of speaking