Overcoming the Speaking Headache: A Speaking Project Idea
Maria-Araxi Sachpazian RSA dip/ TEFL (hons) is a graduate of the Department of Philosophy and Education of Artistotle University of Thessaloniki and a holder of the RSA Diploma. She works as a lecturer at CITY college, the International Faculty of the University of Sheffield and she is the owner of a business and academic support e-company, Input on Education. She is the current chairperson of TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Northern Greece. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Out of all the skills and elements of the language system teachers are asked to teach, the productive skills, speaking and writing, are the ones which pose the greatest headache. It is often said that both speaking and writing might be determined by talent and personal qualities of the learner, rather than on the actual teaching the teacher delivers in class. This renders them almost ‘’unteach-able’’ which in 21st century terms of ELT is not acceptable.
This article aims to examine the challenges both teachers and learners experience when faced with speaking, which is going to be the focal point of this article. We will examine the importance of speaking as a priority in learning and discuss the characteristics of successful speaking activities. Finally, a suggested project idea will be presented as an example that can easily be applied in classes at level B2 and upward.
The idea of speaking in a foreign language can make some learners freeze or break out in cold sweat. There are many reasons why this might happen. One usual suspect is the extent of exposure and rehearsal opportunities (Harmer 2007, p. 123) learners have had during their learning career. The ability to respond to what another person is saying or asking us, appropriately (referring both to register and content) and in a timely manner, relies on our experience of the language and the communicative context (Thornbury 2005, page 89). This level of automaticity in L2 or communicative readiness can only be achieved when learners are often asked to speak in L2, rather than provide mechanical single-word responses. The difference between the two has been clearly described by Thornbury, when he refers to speaking-as-a-skill tasks, in contrast to speaking as part of practice tasks (Harmer 2007, page123). Unfortunately, if teaching time could be represented as a pie chart, we would probably notice that the latter and more restricted kind of speaking gets the largest chunk of our time. Mysteriously though, teachers do expect learners to make the transition from the guided, single-word answers in the more creative, free speaking with little practice time. This is too hard to attain, though, if we do not provide the proper support framework and time for in-class practice. The reason behind the failure of this leap is that free speaking (contrary to writing which is quiet and supposedly planned) entails the learners’ ability to master two equally important strategies: decoding the message of the other speaker and then encoding a new message which is fluent and accurate enough to be understood. In speaking the delivery of the message gives the speaker immediate feedback usually very visible of the faces of the people who might have trouble figuring out what the other person is trying to say. From this short and general description of speaking we can also see one more element of challenge cropping up: the personality of the speaker.
In the last thirty years most ELT classrooms have been dominated by group work and pair work, both of which promote not only learner autonomy but also what we have recently come to call 21st Century Skills. The idea of speaking being a social activity has also been highlighted by changes in the speaking tests of most accredited exam boards, which see speaking as a task to be examined in pairs of students, rather than single students. Admittedly, in the 1990s this seemed like an excellent idea and indeed work in groups has enriched our language classes, but perhaps we have neglected the needs of those learners who do not like being in the spotlight, who do not enjoy sharing ideas and who take longer to come up with ideas. Those learners are usually people who do not enjoy speaking in any language but unlike with their L1 when as native speakers they do not have to prove the level of their knowledge, in L2 they do have to be given time in class and a strategy to follow so as to demonstrate their level of English.
Another factor that makes teaching speaking a headache is that speaking tasks are by definition time-consuming and messy. The question that follows this realisation is whether speaking in L2 is actually what happens in class during speaking. In monolingual classes, such as those we have in Greece, teachers are criticised that during group work, learners tend to speak in Greek. In classes with mixed nationalities, we tend to notice that when students are put in mixed-nationality groups, they lose their motivation as they prefer to be with their friends. In addition to these, teachers are often accused that the level of speaking tasks is usually geared towards the strongest learners of the groups, which renders speaking demotivating for the rest of the class. Seen in this light, speaking becomes an elitist activity for the strong students of the group, while the rest of the class try to catch up. Unfortunately, though, speaking is a priority for all learners no matter how they are planning to use their English. It is the one skill that will definitely be used in a very public way by all who claim to speak English.
When discussing the weaknesses of working in groups, we also need to point out that it can easily lead to certain weaker learners ‘’hiding’’ behind the stronger ones in the group, which renders work in groups counterproductive. These students end up being the ‘’writers’’ or ‘’designers’’ but when the time comes, they speak in L2 much less than their classmates. The importance of the individual long-run has been stressed by accredited exam boards, which always include such a stage in their speaking exams to give each student the chance to articulate their own message.
Seen through the eyes of the learners, speaking seems to be even more complex. Learners are constantly stressed by their inability to balance range of structures with speed and accuracy of delivery. They also claim that they run out of ideas and they cannot think of new ones as they are struggling to keep the pace of delivery unchanged. Some other, more ‘’bubbly’’ students face the opposite problem: there are so many ideas in their heads that they cannot control or combine them probably. Thornbury refers to this students’ attentional capacity being split (usually unequally) between planning and articulation (Thornbury 2005, page 29).
Characteristics of successful speaking activities
Thornbury mentions that when learners find a notion too hard to express, they avoid it completely (Thornbury 2005, page 30). This avoidance strategy or avoidance behaviour (Hedge 2000, page 265) involves abandoning the message one wanted to express and becoming less ambitious. Therefore, the problem is eliminated but the learners are left feeling that they cannot achieve the communicative goals they have set, which can be contrasted with achievement behaviour (Hedge 2000, page 265). Perhaps this is what happens in ELT classrooms in which the L1 takes over L2. Learners who should have been given more room to practice what they learn in order to activate (Harmer 2007, page 123) the language chunks (lexical or structural) they have acquired, are given less time because speaking seems just too unattainable. A direct consequence of that is that learners get used to trying out only exam inspired tasks, they are seldom asked to pose questions and are deprived of individual long-runs. This threatens the learners’ sense of confidence and security, as well as their chances of becoming independent speakers.
Admittedly, successful speaking activities need to combine many elements. For instance, they need to give learners the chance to apply the spoken grammar they have learnt, practise the pronunciation features of the language, play with new communicative routines and use gambits to introduce new ideas. Finally, learners need to try out their own communicative strategies. Successful speaking activities need to give learners opportunities to learn more through feedback and get used to the uncharted waters of communication, which in real life is expected (Thornbury 2005, page 117). Learners will engage with a topic that appeals to them in greater depth than with a topic that does not touch them. Finally, we need activities which include a game-like element of competition. Activities which allow learners time for preparation are preferable since they help learner see speaking as an opportunity for teamwork and cooperation, not as an activity for the select few.
Example of a project idea for B2 level and upwards
Level: B2 (and upwards with necessary adaptation)
Age of Learners: 14+
Group Size: 10-14 students
Learners are put in groups of 3-4, depending on the size of the group. They are given the context from the beginning. They are told that they need to interview their teacher (alternatively a guest in the class) and find out what this person likes doing in their free time, when travelling, when relaxing. Learners are asked to work in their groups and brainstorm questions for their interview. This gives the teacher a chance to monitor and spot any grammatical / structural inaccuracies that need to be addressed before the learners start the interview. Each group is given the same amount of questions (4-5). Learners are told that the interviews are public so the other groups can use information from the questions the other groups have asked. During the interview, learners take notes.
Once the interviews are complete (and in many cases in a second lesson), learners are told how they will use this information. Groups are given envelopes with information about an imaginary trip the teacher / guest is going to take. If the learners and the teachers all come from the same country, the teacher needs to give them different destinations. If the learners are from the same one but the teacher / guest is from a different one, learners could be asked to suggest alternative trip ideas to their own country. The aim of the task is for the students to use the information in the envelope (which includes the country, if necessary, the dates of the trip, the duration of the trip and the budget) and combine it with the information they have collected about the teacher / guest. They will have to use the internet on their phones and create a budget-conscious trip custom-made for the teacher/guest, based on what these people enjoy doing.
Students will have to prepare a Power Point Presentation (it could also be a poster) and make sure that they all present at least one of the slides/ aspects of the trip. At the end of the final lesson when all groups have presented, the teacher/guest will have to choose the trip which s/he will actually ‘’buy’’ and pay the winning team by giving them chocolate.
This project idea requires (depending on the number of students in the group) about three 90-minute lessons and it is best done in a computer lab at its final stage, so that learners can have their own work station and computer. If a computer lab is not available, the learners will have to prepare the project presentation at home using their computers. One of the things that make this project idea so easy to use is its flexibility, so different teachers can adapt it to their own teaching context. Regarding my own teaching context, I first tried this activity in an international summer school about four years ago. My students at the time were very competent and mature teenagers from Kazakhstan, whose level of English was B2+ - C1. Since then I have been using this project idea with international groups making necessary adaptations to accommodate the level of the learners and it has never failed to work.
The greatest advantage of this project idea is that combines speaking, with other skills such as reading and listening, which is a very realistic to look at speaking. In real life we never speak only for the sake of speaking. Usually, we read or listen and react to the information received. This project engages learner deeply as they do not make snap decisions in a whimsical way. On the contrary, learners need to explain how they have taken the information from the interview and the envelope and use it to explain their rationale regarding the choices they have made. This project idea has a deeper personal meaning for learners, since in our case they were presenting alternative trips to Kazakhstan for me, they were very interested in promoting their country and showing me how exciting it would be to visit Astana. If students come from different countries, the fact that they try to ‘’lure’’ the teacher to their country, makes the game-like element of the project even more pronounced.
Regarding preparation time, this activity gives learners the chance to work in groups at many different stages doing different tasks. As the whole project revolves around a a five-day trip, it is easy to have all team members present separate entities in the form of days of the trip, so all team members get to speak. Another exciting feature of this project is that it works great as an ice-breaker between learners who know each other, but do not know the teacher at all. Working with questions at B2+ level gives teachers the chance to revise grammar, without making the learners feel bored or show that we underestimate their knowledge. Finally, this project idea features some strong 21st century traits such as the realistic use of the internet to check hotel prices, make (fake) ticket reservations, which gives learners the chance to demonstrate their digital literacy in an almost real-life context.
It is easy to see that in such a project all students can participate equally and nobody would remain silent. Regarding the language of communication within the teams, I have opted to be rather relaxed about it, pointing out to learners as I monitor that the more they speak in English during preparation time, the easier it will be for them to present their ideas. This seems to work better than me pretending to be a policewoman and chasing those who do not speak English during preparation stage. As learners have a long time to prepare their questions and the actual preparation, no one is actually put on the spot or surprised and for most of them it becomes a personal bet to convince the teacher to choose their trip. This personal investment makes this project idea fresh and also relevant as it gives learners time to interact with information and then present ideas through speaking for more than one or two minutes. The gain is great for the teacher as well since s/he is given ready-made budgeted holiday plans is some great countries in the world!
Harmer, J., (2007) How to teach English, Harlow, Pearson Longman.
Hedge, T., (2000) Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, Oxford, OUP, pages 256-297
Thornbury, S., (2005) How to teach Speaking, Harlow, Longman.
Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.
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