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April 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Coaching Spoken and Written Performance with ESL Learners

Emmanuelle Betham, M.Ed. (Applied Linguistics) is an Educator/Coach, Company Director, and author of An Introduction to Coaching for Language Learning (2018, Amazon Publishing), the I Realise series (2019-21, Amazon Publishing) and numerous articles on Education and Parenting. She is a native French speaker who specialises in Language and Communication (for Business, Family, Self-Management and Performance), facilitating Confidence, Resilience and Growth – including in the acquisition of English and French as Foreign Languages. Email:  



In my previous article, Coaching Reading with ESL learners, I made parallels between the exercise of reading and listening, which are both receptive skills. Similarly, it makes sense to consider similarities and differences in the practices of these two expressive skills: speaking and writing.

To a certain extent, listening and reading can be considered more passive activities than speaking and writing which necessitate a more active engagement, which is why we call them performance. These skills of speaking and writing demand presence and concentration on the spot and tend to generate more stress on the learners. So firstly, we need to acknowledge that learners are often worried about executing spoken or written performance. This is where a coaching approach is key, as it aims to develop a fifth skill, which is the skill of thinking. Thinking, also called mindfulness or consciousness, allows the learners to free themselves of limitations such as fear, which could otherwise slow their progress for an unnecessary long time. Thinking is not one of the traditional four skills practised in the language classroom (listening, speaking, reading and writing), yet coaching involves working on thinking as a skill in order to enable the fast acquisition of the four traditional skills.


Fear of speaking and/or writing

Although speaking and writing are both skills of output, people usually fear one more than the other, and that can create a block on either mode of expression. The live performance aspect of speaking and the permanent printed evidence that writing offers often pose problems for people. These anticipated difficulties generate anxieties, which are more strongly felt when the exercise is to be performed in a second language, in which we are less fluent and have less self-confidence. And unfortunately, anxiety clouds our objectives and leads us to do the wrong thing.

When asked what they would like to be able to deliver, learners always come up with the same answer: a clear message that says precisely all they want to say and no more (they want to avoid misunderstanding). They are more concerned about the content than the form. However, more often than not, when I watch them practise, I see them worry about form so much that they never get to content. They lose sight of their objective. They cannot speak and get frustrated because they are worried about finding the ‘correct’ words. Or they write one word, then rub it out, consult the dictionary, write another, and so on, until eventually their text or letter does not read in the way that they intended it to. This is why a coaching approach focuses first on the use, the engagement and the development of the thinking skill.

The thinking skill

In the practice of the ‘active’ skills of speaking and writing, a ‘receptive’ attitude is encouraged. This is done by engaging the learner’s rational thinking not only onto ‘what they want to say’ but also equally onto ‘what the other/s may hear/feel’.

As learners practise a skill and discover how to think rationally and stick to their intentions, I encourage them to explain how they do it. This way, we can talk about what worked well or not so well for them. When working on the thinking skill successfully, I once helped a participant come up with three rules for speaking and/or writing. They felt these rules enabled them to engage their rational thinking and deal with the fears described previously. They found them to be very useful and liberating so I thought I would share them with you so that you can perhaps apply them, or encourage your learners to make up their own.

Three rules for speaking

When you talk, you may want to think FAN simultaneously: Focus, Adapt, Now.

  1. Focus – Say what you mean by focusing on the clarity of your message, and on how you want to feel, as well as on how you want other people to feel. Express your ideas without worrying about language, vocabulary or grammar.

  2. Adapt – Test what you are saying, watch the people you are talking to, and react to what you see. Notice your listeners’ reactions/responses or lack of them, and respond to them. Explain, use examples, use any language you have, or any other way of communicating if required (like miming or showing) to represent accurately what you want to say.

  3. Now – Now means ‘don’t wait’. Apply rules 1) 2) and 3) at the same time. You really don’t want to be thinking about anything else than your message or doing anything else except noticing how it is received. The way to do that is to ‘be present and connected with the people you’re speaking to’, as the meaning of what you say is in the response you get – it’s co-constructed. 

Thinking guidance summarised in three simple points can help learners stick to their intentions and deliver a clear message. FAN addresses the urgency factor of the speaking performance.

Almost the same set of rules was made up for practising writing, with a difference due to the fact that writing allows more time for reflection (the delay factor), but requires an even higher level of accuracy (the permanency aspect).


Three rules for writing

The rules for writing are FAB, which is not only short for Fabulous, but also a mnemonic in the form of: F for Focus, A for Adapt and B for Be congruent. Unlike FAN, FAB is not performed simultaneously, but in three subsequent steps.

  1. Focus – First, write what you mean by focusing on the clarity of your message (its content not its form), on how you want to feel and want other people to feel. Write down your ideas without worrying about language, vocabulary or grammar.

  2. Adapt – Second, test what you are saying. Check what you wrote on your paper/screen, to see if the language represents accurately what you want to say. Check your grammar, check your spelling.

  3. Be congruent – Finally, mean what you say. In other words, make sure you honestly believe it. Talk with passion. Keep your promises. Or to use a couple of English expressions: ‘walk the talk’ or ‘practise what you preach’.

The pure engagement of this kind of thinking has the very important effect of avoiding the unhelpful interference of unwanted negative thoughts about the quality of one’s performance while they are performing writing or speaking.

I will come back and give you more details on coaching writing, but let me start with speaking.



Many common issues with expressing yourself in a second language are linked with the fear of making mistakes and being misunderstood. This is intensified in speaking when learners often feel that their language is not good enough to express what they are able to in their own language. They often think that they will sound stupid and that they will be judged not on what they say but on their linguistic ability. So, a coaching approach is necessary to address this, to give learners the ability to use anything in their power to make themselves clear and personable. When language is lacking, it is all the more important for speakers to use their imagination and charisma to convey their message, to stay connected with their audience and to stick to their intentions. For successful speaking stems from inner-clarity and appropriate self-confidence.

In terms of speaking, pronunciation is often an issue, one that affects clarity and confidence, and learners are usually overwhelmed with diverse unidentified vocal aspects and unsure of what they need to work on.



Before we help learners with pronunciation, it is important to clarify what we are talking about.

Clear pronunciation involves the following:

  • Knowing how to (physically) make a particular sound 

Many English single sounds do not exist in other languages and learners will need to learn how to make them using their lips, tongue, palate, teeth, jaws, and throat.

  • Clarity of sounds, giving them the right length, which applies to native speakers too: not mumbling.

  • Syllable stress

Unlike other European languages, which tend to emphasise the first part of each word, the English word emphasis varies and can be on any syllable, at the beginning, middle or end of a word. As with all other pronunciation issues in English, supported by little logic but a lot of variation, the acquisition of syllable stress takes a lot of practice for ESL speakers. My suggestion is always to meet each word like a new friend to whom we would say ‘Hello, what do you mean? What do you look like? And how do you sound?’ (at least there is no gender to be bothered with in English)

  • Musicality and rhythm

The English language is not melodious like Roman languages but it is very rhythmical and measured. I find it useful to have learners practise reading an English text on a regular beat, or step. Do not hesitate to move around!

  • Intonation 

One aspect of intonation is pretty international and covers speaking speed and pauses, and sentence stress, such as a rise towards the end of a question, a constant high in an exclamation, or a drop at the end of a simple statement. But most importantly for ESL speakers, in clear spoken English, intonation also includes emphasizing key words. It is good listening practice for ESL learners, especially those who share their fear of not understanding everything, to listen to news articles or speeches and take note of all key words.

The following are not traits of pronunciation: 

  • Tone 

Tone is used to express emotion as in all languages.

  • Accents 

There are already a large variety of accents in the native English-speaking world (American, British, Australian, Kiwi, Indian, South African – the list is long), even within countries (Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Liverpudlian, London, West country – the list is even longer). Additionally, non-native speakers from all over the world speak with their own accents (usually influenced by their native language, the other languages they speak and of course the native English model they learnt from). With all speakers of English, native or not, as long as the pronunciation is clear, accents are not a problem and need to be acknowledged as part of someone’s charm and personality. It is especially important for learners to understand this.

Indeed, there is a limiting belief amongst learners, which needs to be addressed. For the fact that they have an accent in English (and they are right about that, everybody has one) does not mean that they cannot improve their English pronunciation.

Once all these aspects have been differentiated, the learner can recognise the exact nature of their struggle relating to pronunciation, and that is the first step before natural practice can take its effect.

The next step is probably to overcome the fear of the ‘performance’ aspect of speaking.


Oral communication and spoken performance

Spoken performance does not necessarily mean giving a speech or a presentation; it also refers to how we perform in every day oral communication with others. Nevertheless, I must emphasise that in speaking there is often an element of live performance, which is daunting for most people, especially for non-native speakers whose self-confidence is often further reduced by their opinion of their language level and speaking ability.

Much of the coaching required for successful spoken performance is portrayed throughout my book (Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, 2018) and the projectable classes it offers on the subjects of Presentations and Self-Confidence. To use language effectively and with appropriate confidence, learners will need to develop an awareness of their own thinking and be guided to practise choosing interpretations that ‘work’ (please refer to Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, 2018, chapter X.3, Seeing ‘what works’).

Our reality is created from the inside out (The Inside Out Revolution, M Neill, 2013), and our experience is dictated by our thoughts. So, the initial work with a coaching approach is to become aware of these thoughts, decode them and verbalise them, which is a true expression of the self and a meaningful language practice.  

How one performs in any situation depends on how one perceives the situation, so it is often paramount to reframe it. Perception creates fear, and fear creates confusion, hence the need for a perceptual change and clarification: For example, when you are giving a presentation, you are indeed giving something that you have (– if do not have it, you cannot give it). One cannot explain clearly something they do not understand themselves. And you are giving a present (-ation). Hence a presentation is for the benefit of others. It is not about you (the performer=the giver), it is about the receiver/s. 

To illustrate this point, I like to draw the mirrored words and indicate a movement from Me to We:




This thinking directs the speaker’s attention onto their message to the audience, where it should be. This thinking also takes the dreaded focus away from the speaker, who can then let go of fear, and interpret their physical symptoms of nervousness as being their body’s way of preparing themselves to perform successfully.

I like to suggest the learners listen to the meaning of their own message (how it may be received by the audience). I may say it in these terms:

Both in preparation for your presentation ahead of time, and during your spoken performance on the day, listen for what the audience may feel, understand, enjoy, be curious about, or question.

This thinking should guide learners both during the anticipation and throughout the conduct of their speech.

It makes sense that a coaching approach does not work on the acquisition of one skill independently from the others. Many life projects and situations, involve all skills, including speaking and writing. In the classroom, one of my favourite multi-skill activities is the Running Dictation.

The Running Dictation

The Running Dictation is a game that involves reading, memorizing, speaking (especially pronunciation), listening and writing - a natural and wholesome progression towards the practice of writing, which is why it is very relevant in coaching. Another merit of this activity is that it offers an opportunity for independent learning and physical involvement.

If you are not already familiar with this game, this is how I like to play it. The learners get into pairs, made of a runner and a writer, who will switch roles half way through the game. The teacher-coach posts a text on a wall, small and far enough from the writers so that the runners have to go back and forth to read the text, and remember as much as they can remember at a time (a sentence or less) in order to be able to dictate it back precisely to the writer. The writer writes down what the runner says. No one is allowed to touch or move the paper on the wall. If the runner forgets part of a sentence, they are allowed to return to the text and re-read it, as many times as necessary, until the whole text has been dictated. The game continues until every pair’s dictation has been checked for exactness against the original on the wall. The winners are the first pair of learners to finish with exactitude. 

It can be carried out as an exciting relay-race with a minimum of 4 learners, but can also be a fun game for a teacher-coach to play with one individual learner. 

Then of course, learners also need to practise writing alone so they can successfully compose a letter or email.


Whereas in speaking, the FAN aspects (in my learner’s rules described earlier) happen simultaneously, in writing the FAB aspects not only can, but need to, happen in three subsequent steps. When you write, there is a delay in communication (between the time when you write and the time when you will be read), which allows you to apply rule number 1 (Focus) first, and gives you the opportunity to perform number 2 (Adapt) and number 3 (Be congruent) afterwards.

So, this is what I suggest to learners who want to improve their writing:

At first, only concentrate on what you want to say. Think of your idea or message and write it down without making any corrections or changes, just write. Let your ideas guide the flow of your writing, and do not look at your words and sentences until you have written down everything you have to say – And, as they tend to find this difficult to do, I often recommend they shield their writing with a piece of paper to hide it while they are writing their message, so they can focus on number 1, and just focus on their message.

Doing this will not only help their writing but it will also give them a stronger sense of purpose and make the activity seem less lonely, therefore relieving the symptoms of ‘writer’s block’.

Once they have jotted down all their ideas and they feel their message is complete, and ONLY THEN, will I ask them to take a step back and to look at how they expressed themselves. They will now read their text with the intention of checking their language for accuracy and suitability. They will look at their writing and make changes so that the language communicates exactly what they mean – that is number 2: Adapt.

Finally, I will direct them to check again to make sure they really and honestly mean and believe what they say – that is number 3: Be congruent.

In writing like in speaking, I like to invite the learners to listen to the meaning of their own – oral or written – message (how it is received by the listener/s, or how it may be received by their reader/s). Just as in speaking, I ask learners to watch the immediate reactions of the person or people they are talking to, and act upon what they notice. Similarly in the case of writing, I ask them to anticipate what the reader may feel, understand, enjoy, be curious about, or what they may question, and address these. This way, the real purpose of the activity is achieved. A life skill is practised which is authentic and meaningful.

My hope is that other teachers and learners can also enjoy using this genuine multi-skill human approach in which purposeful thinking is identified and employed.


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Tagged  Lesson Ideas 
  • Coaching Spoken and Written Performance with ESL Learners
    Emmanuelle Betham, UK