The Language Teacher
Let's Talk About Me
Lake School of English, Oxford
In my experience, teachers get excited about a lesson when they feel that their students have communicated on a level that goes beyond "going through the motions," when they have engaged with the topic on a personal level. We need to set up personalised speaking activities which encourage students to talk about the things that matter to them, rather than playing roles and exchanging invented information.
The kind of speaking task that I am going to describe here is an extended speaking activity which provides an opportunity for students to tackle a longer piece of discourse and to develop their speaking skills. Learning English is like learning a musical instrument—you can't spend all your time playing scales and exercises: You also need to learn whole pieces in order to see how music is organised.
The Set Up
The topics need to be meaningful to virtually all your students. They should be subjects about which most people have something to say: a close friend, a memorable New Year's celebration they have been to, the best city they have ever visited, the last time they went dancing, or a time they laughed a lot. However, even though the topics are universal, many students will find it difficult to think of what to say on the spur of the moment. They may not be able to elaborate without some kind of framework to follow; they will need to have their memories jolted, their ideas "activated."
This is achieved by careful preparation of a series of leading questions designed to trigger ideas. Eight to ten questions are ideal.
For example, these might be the leading questions to get students to talk about a memorable New Year's celebration:
- What year was it?
- What was the weather like?
- Where were you?
- Who were you with?
- What did you wear?
- What did you eat and drink?
- Did anything special happen at midnight?
- What time did you go to bed?
- Why was it so memorable?
- Would you like to celebrate in the same way again?
Give your students a list of leading questions to read and ask them to tick the questions they can or want to answer. This allows them to take control of the activity and also means that shyer students can avoid matters they feel are too personal.
Then give them planning time to think about both what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. Be on hand to help them and encourage them to use dictionaries and make notes, but discourage them from writing out what they will actually say. The planning stage need not take more than ten minutes, but students are more likely to be adventurous and use more complex language if they have had time to think about it. Research has shown that students who plan for tasks attempt more ambitious language, hesitate less, and make fewer basic errors. Foster (1996) writes, "Planning time allows students to devote attention to both form and content, rather than forcing them to choose one at the expense of the other" (p. 135).
After the preparation time, ask students to work in pairs and to talk to each other.
Ask students to listen to you reading the leading questions aloud. Tell them to close their eyes if they wish to and just listen and allow thoughts to come into their minds as you speak. Read the questions aloud, slowly, in your most hypnotic tones, pausing for a few seconds between questions while the students' memories are activated. Some classes will find this a more involving process. It also allows you to adapt the questions to your class, adding new ones or missing out ones you think are inappropriate. After the reading, give the students time to prepare in detail for the speaking task and then put them in pairs to talk to each other.
This is not the kind of speaking task that requires students to use target structures as in the "free" stage of the PPP (Presentation, Practice, Performance) approach. Rather, in line with a task-based model of language teaching, it may be followed by you the teacher recounting your experiences on the same topic. Alternatively, you might play a recording of native speakers performing the same, or similar, tasks for students to listen to. As the students are already personally engaged with the topic, they are likely to be receptive to the new language they are exposed to in this way.
Experience has shown us that asking students to repeat a task a second time is well worthwhile. When students do this type of activity for the first time, tell them that you are going to ask them to repeat the same thing with a new partner in a later class. This will not only reassure them that you are doing it deliberately, but, more importantly, it will mean that they can dedicate some time and thought to preparation. Students appreciate the opportunity to do the same thing in their second language, and research has shown that given this opportunity they become more adventurous and more precise in the language they use. The first time the students do an anecdote activity, they are more likely to concentrate on content; repetition of the task means they have more time to process the language, increase the range of vocabulary, and use more syntactically complex language.
In Uncovering Grammar, Thornbury (2001) writes:
Simply getting the learners to repeat the task, with different partners, or in the next lesson, is a way of producing more grammatically complex language. Having done the activity once—as a kind of rehearsal—learners now have more spare attention to devote to the form of their output.
When you repeat the task, it is a good idea to mix the class so that each student works with a new partner. If you are still worried that your students may be reluctant to repeat the same task, move the goal posts: For instance, tell them that you are going to record them this time. It is a real boost for the students to hear themselves (or even better, see themselves on video) and notice the improvements in their performance the second time round.
Now, over to you to write some leading questions to suit your class—then stand back and watch them start speaking!
Foster, P. (1996). Doing the task better: How planning time influences students' performance. In J. Willis & D. Willis (Eds.), Challenge and change in language teaching (pp. 126-135). Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann.
Thornbury, S. (2001). Uncovering grammar. Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann.
Vaughan Jones is a teacher, trainer and ELT materials writer. He has lived and worked in the UK, France, Spain, and Japan. He teaches at the Lake School of English, Oxford and is also a part-time lecturer at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of Inside English.
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