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Teaching Speaking: Suggestions for the Classroom

Robert Sanborn Brown & Paul Nation
Kyoto City University of Arts & Victoria University, Wellington

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This article will assert that in speaking classes students must be exposed to three key items: (1) form-focused instruction, that is, attention to details of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and so forth; (2) meaning-focused instruction, that is, opportunities to produce meaningful spoken messages with real communicative purposes; and (3) opportunities to improve fluency. Elements of all of the above should be present throughout a speaking program, with emphasis on form-focused instruction at the elementary levels and, as the learners progress, on meaning-focused instruction at the higher levels. This paper will also discuss different types of errors and how to work with them to help learners.

Form-Focused Speaking

When learners first begin to speak in another language their speaking will need to be based on some form-focused learning. An effective way to begin is to base speaking on some useful, simple memorized phrases and sentences. These may be greetings, simple personal descriptions, and simple questions and answers. These can be practiced in Repetition drills. The teacher says a phrase or sentence several times and then asks the learners to repeat. Some learners can be called on to repeat individually, and then the class may repeat together. Because it is helpful to give learners quite a lot of repetition practice in beginning level courses, the teacher needs to find ways of varying repetition activities to keep the learners interested. Here is a list of possible ways to vary repetition. As an example, use the sentence "Where is the train station?"

1. The teacher varies the speed. The teacher says the sentence slowly and the learners repeat. Then the teacher says the phrase a little faster until the phrase is being said at normal speaking speed.

2. The teacher varies the way of choosing who is to repeat the sentence. The teacher says the sentence and points to the first person in the first row to repeat it. The teacher says it again and points to the second person in the first row. Then the teacher starts pointing at people at random so that the learners cannot predict who will be the next person called on. This variation can also include choosing individuals or choosing the whole class to repeat the sentence. Another variation of this kind is to get the learner who just repeated the sentence to call the name of the next person to repeat the sentence.

3. The teacher can vary the content of the sentence. That is, the teacher can substitute a word for one of the words in a sentence. So instead of only saying "Where is the train station?" the learners might also be called on to repeat "Where is the Post Office?" This is called a Substitution drill.

4. The teacher varies the way the substitution is signaled to the learners, for example, on the board there may be a substitution table like this:

Where is

the station?
the post office?
your house?
the bank?
the hospital?

At first the teacher points to the words "the station" on the board and says "Where is the station?" The learners repeat. The teacher points to the next substitution, "the post office," and says that and the learners repeat. After doing this for a while, the teacher just points to the substitution and does not say it, but the learners have to say the whole sentence. After doing that for a while the teacher does not point but just says the substitution.

5. The teacher may vary the way of choosing the substitution. At first, the teacher chooses the substitutions in the same order as they are written on the board. Then the teacher may choose them in random order so that the learners cannot predict what the next substitution will be.

The Role of Drills

The skill of a teacher in carrying out a drill lies in learning when to vary the activity so that the learners do not become bored by it. Skilled teachers make continual, small variations so that the activity is always challenging, smooth, and interesting. The activity can be taken a step towards a more meaning-focused activity by getting the learners to choose their own words to substitute for words in the model sentence.

The 1970s saw the first steps away from (among other teacher-centered approaches) audiolingualism, a method of teaching that sees the role of the teacher as "central and active . . . [who] provides models, controls direction and pace" (Nunan, 1992, p. 195). In this methodology, teacher-centered drill activities play a large role in the curriculum. With the rise recently of more student-centered approaches -- ''which are characterized by the involvement of the learner, and the utilization of information about the learner in all aspects of the curriculum" (Nunan, 1992, p. 144) -- repetition and substitution drills have come to be considered old-fashioned and (worse still) not useful for language learning. While acknowledging the contribution that audiolingualism has made, Stern (1991) essentially argues against its use: "It's theoretical base was found to be weak. But also in practical terms its hopes had not been fulfilled. Empirical research did not conclusively establish its superiority, and teachers using audiolingual materials . . . complained about the lack of effectiveness of the techniques in the long run and the boredom they engendered among the students" (p. 465). Moreover, on the role of the teacher in the classroom, Widdowson (1992) writes: "It is widely accepted that is undesirable to force learning into conformity with the teacher's preconceived ideas, and it is preferable for the teacher to adapt to the learner rather than the reverse" (p. 261).

The use of drills, however, should be seen as merely one kind of form-focused activity that needs to be balanced with other types of form-focused activities, as well as with meaning-focused and fluency development activities. Drills play a useful part in a language course in helping learners to be formally accurate in their speech and in helping them to quickly learn a useful collection of phrases and sentences that allow them to start using the language as soon as possible. As their proficiency and experience in the language develop, most of these sentences and phrases may be re-analyzed and incorporated into the learners' system of knowledge of the language. Language use based on memorization can be the starting point for more creative use of the language.

Meaning-Focused Speaking

In addition to form-focused speaking, language learners should also be exposed to and given opportunities to practice and use meaning-focused communication, in which they must both produce and listen to meaningful oral communication. An example of a meaning-focused activity for beginning students is Speaking by numbers. Each learner is given a number and a topic. The topics could include family, money, coming to school, a color, future goals, travel, work, and so forth. The learners can think about their topics for a minute or two and then the teacher calls a number. The learner with that number then says two or three sentences about his or her particular topic. The speaker then calls a number and the learner with that number has to ask the speaker a question or two related to the topic just spoken about. When the question is answered, the questioner calls a number and the person with that number asks another question. This continues three or four times and then the speaker calls the number of a new person who will speak about the topic that she or he was given.

This is a meaning-focused speaking activity because both the speaker's and the listeners' attention is on the message being communicated.

Developing the Learner's Knowledge of Language Items

A problem in meaning-focused speaking activities is making sure that the activity is actually developing the learner's knowledge of language items. There are several ways of using speaking to increase the speaker's control of the language items.

1. The meaning-focused speaking activity follows some form-focused instruction. That is, the teacher presents some new vocabulary or grammatical features, gives the learners some practice, and then uses a meaning-focused activity to help the learners use and remember these items.

2. Before the learners speak on a topic or take part in an activity, they work in pairs or groups of three of four to prepare. This gives the learners the chance to learn new items from each other. Here is an example using a Same or different information gap activity. In this kind of activity the learners work in pairs. Learner A has a set of small numbered pictures. Learner B has a similar set except that while some of B's are exactly the same as A's, some are different. They should sit facing each other so that they cannot see each other's picture(s). Learner A describes the first picture and B listens and then says if her picture is the same or different. If it is the same they both write S next to their picture; if it is different they both write D. Then Learner B describes picture number 2 and they decide if the pictures are the same or different. After they have done five or ten pictures, they can change partners so that Learner A works with a new Learner B. Before the activity begins, all the Learner As can get together in groups and help each other describe their pictures. All the Learner Bs do the same. When they have had enough preparation and practice they form Learner A and B pairs and do the activity.

3. The learners are given topics to talk about. They prepare at home, using dictionaries, reference texts, reading sources, and so forth. Here is an example called Newspaper talks. Each learner has to choose a short and interesting article from an English language newspaper to present to the class. The learner must not read the article aloud to the class but must describe the main points of the article. The class should then ask the presenter questions.

4. Many speaking activities involve some kind of written or picture input in the form of a worksheet. In the Same or different activity this is two sheets of pictures. In a Ranking activity or a Problem Solving activity, the worksheet contains written data about the situation, what to do, and possible choices. In a "Who Gets the Heart" activity, for example, a group of three or four students must decide from a list of several possible candidates who is to receive the only available heart for transplantation. None of the patients will survive without the new heart. They are a Nobel Prize winner in medical research (a 59 year old male with no family), a homemaker of three (32 year old female), an Olympic athlete (24 year old female, married with no children), an Academy award winning film director (female, 37 years old, two children), and a 45 year old homeless male. The students must rank in order which of these people is most deserving of the heart. Then, each student presents his/her case to the group. Based on these presentations, and the ensuing discussion, the group must choose one candidate for the transplant. Then, each group must present its conclusion to the class as a whole.

The worksheets contain vocabulary and phrases that may be new to the learners and which will be necessary or useful in the speaking activity. For example, in the Ranking activity, the vocabulary in the list of items to rank will need to be used by the learners. Those items which generate the most disagreement over the ranking will likely result in the greatest amount of vocabulary learning. According to Joe, Nation and Newton (1996): "Negotiation of word meaning indicates that an item is noticed and that the learner has a gap in his or her knowledge. Items which [are] negotiated [have] a much greater chance of being learned than items which were not negotiated" (p. 3). If the teacher gives careful thought to the placement of new vocabulary in worksheets for speaking activities, there is a very good chance that the vocabulary will be learned during the speaking activity. If the worksheet uses pictures, some of the pictures or parts of pictures can be given labels that can be used in describing the pictures.

5. Some speaking activities encourage learners to ask each other about the meaning of unfamiliar words or constructions. This seeking and giving of explanations is called negotiation. There are similarities between this type of activity and the Same or Different activity in that each learner in a pair or group has different pieces of information for completing the activity. These kinds of activities are given lots of different names including jigsaw tasks, two-way tasks, information gap, and so forth.

We have looked at five different ways of making meaning-focused speaking tasks contribute to a learner's knowledge of language items. Language can be learned through production (speaking and writing) as well as through reception (listening and reading), but this learning needs to be planned.

Development of Speaking Fluency

Fluency in speaking is the aim of many language learners. Signs of fluency include a reasonably fast speed of speaking and only a small number of pauses and "ums" and "ers." These signs indicate that the speaker does not have to spend a lot of time searching for the language items needed to express the message.

4/3/2 is a useful technique for developing fluency and includes the features that are needed in fluency development activities. First the learners choose a topic or are given a topic with which they are very familiar. The first time that learners use this technique it may be best if the topic involves recounting something that happened to them. This is because the chronological order of the events will make it easier to recall and repeat because the time sequence provides a clear structure for the talk. The learners work in pairs. Learner A tells a story to Learner B and has a time limit of four minutes to do this. B just listens and does not interrupt or question Learner A. When the four minutes are up, the teacher says, "Change partners"; learner A then moves to a new Learner B. The teacher says "Begin" and Learner A tells exactly the same story to the new partner but this time has only three minutes to tell it. When the three minutes are up, the teacher says "Stop. Change partners." With a new partner, Learner A now has two minutes to tell the story. During the three deliveries of the same story, the B learners do not talk and each listens to three different people. When the A learners have given their talk three times, the B learners can now go through the same sequence, this time as speakers.

Research on this activity shows that the learners' speed of speaking increased during the talks (as measured by the number of words per minute), the hesitations they make decrease (as measured by hesitations per 100 words), and surprisingly their grammatical errors in the repeated parts of the talk decrease and they tend to use several, more complex grammatical constructions in the last of the three talks than they did in the first talk (Nation, 1989, p. 381).

The features in 4/3/2 that help the development of fluency are the same features that occur in activities to develop listening fluency.

  1. The activity involves known vocabulary, grammar, and discourse.

  2. The learners have a high chance of performing successfully at a higher than normal speed.

  3. There are repeated opportunities to do the same thing.

Here are other techniques to develop speaking fluency that involve the same features.

In the Headlines activity, students create newspaper "headlines" that will serve as the basis for the speaking activity. The learners all think of an interesting or exciting thing that has happened to them. Using a felt-tipped pen -- so that the writing is easily seen -- each learner writes a newspaper headline referring to that event. The teacher should give some examples to help the learners, such as "Burning Bed Brings Joy" and "Forgotten Shoes Never Return." Half of the learners hold their headlines up for the rest of the class to see. Those not holding up a headline go to hear a story behind the headline that interests them. Each story can be told to no more than two people at a time. When the story is done, the listeners should circulate to a second headline that interests them. The tellers will thus have to repeat their story several times. After there has been plenty of opportunity to tell the stories, the other half of the class hold up their headlines and, in similar fashion, tell their stories.

4/3/2 and Headlines rely on repetition of the same story to develop fluency. This kind of fluency is useful for predictable topics that learners may need to speak about. For example, when meeting other people learners may need to talk about themselves, about their country, about the kind of food they eat, about their travels, about their interests and hobbies, and about their experiences. Speaking fluency also needs to be developed for less predictable topics and the Say it! activity is a useful way of doing this.

In Say it!, learners work in groups of about four people. First they read a Say it! text carefully until they have reached a good understanding of it. They discuss their understanding of the text to make sure everything is fairly clear. Then they do the tasks in the Say it! grid, which is a collection of simple verbal tasks related to the reading (see the following example). One learner chooses a square for the next learner to perform, for example square B2. The learner does this task while the others observe and, when the student has finished, s/he calls a square, for example, A3, for the next learner. This continues with some learners doing the same task several times and with some tasks being done several times by different learners. Often the tasks are like role plays and require the learners to use the vocabulary that was in the reading text, but to use it in a different way. This helps the development of fluency by providing lots of associations with the vocabulary used in the task, that is the associations from the reading text and its discussion, and the associations from the Say it! role play. Although the Say it! activity does not involve large amounts of repetition, it involves preparation by the learners. That is, the learners prepare for the spoken task by studying the written text. This preparation should increase the fluency with which learners do the spoken task.

The following is an example of a Say It! activity (Joe, Nation, & Newton, 1996, p. 6). The story is called "Castaways Survived on Sharks Blood."

Three fishermen who drifted on the Pacific for four months told how they drank shark's blood to survive. The fishermen from Kiribati told their story through an interpreter in the American Samoa capital of Pago Pago after being rescued by the ship Sakaria. Kautea Teatoa, Veaieta Toanuea, and Tebwai Aretana drifted 400 kilometers from home after their outboard motor failed on February 8. They said four ships had refused to help during their ordeal. When they were picked up on June 4 they had eaten the last of a one meter shark four days before and drunk all of its blood. "I have not prayed so much in all my life," Mr. Aretana said.
1.You are Kautea. Say what helped you survive.You are Tebwai Aretana. How did you feel when the ships refused to help you?You are a sailor on the Sakaria. What did you do to help the fishermen?
2. You are Tebwai. Explain why you were in the boat and what happened after it broke down.You are Kautea. How did you feel when you caught the shark?You are the captain. Explain why you stopped.
3.You are Veaieta. Explain what caused the problem.You are the interpreter. Describe the appearance of the three men.The journey was called an ordeal. Why?

Error Correction

Some learners may experience difficulty in pronouncing certain sounds and groups of sounds in another language. Some Chinese and Japanese speakers of English, for example, have trouble with /l/ and /r/. Some learners have trouble with the beginning sounds in the words "three" and "they." Giving too much attention to the correction of pronunciation in the early stages of language learning can make learners worried and reluctant to speak because of fear of making errors.

It is worth thinking about why errors occur, because this can help teachers decide what to do about them. The study of errors and their causes is called error analysis.

For each cause listed below, suggestions for the teacher are given in square brackets.

1. The learner makes an error because the learner has not had sufficient chance to observe the correct form or to develop sufficient knowledge of the language system. [Don't correct the learner but give more models and opportunities to observe.]

2. The learner makes an error because the learner has not observed the form correctly. [Give a little correction by showing the learner the difference between the correct form and the learner's error.]

3. The learner makes an error because of nervousness. [Don't correct. Use less threatening activities -- or, if and when appropriate, joke with the person/class/yourself to lighten the mood.]

4. The learner makes an error because the activity is difficult, that is, there are many things the learner has to think about during the activity. This is sometimes called cognitive overload. [Don't correct. Make the activity easier or give several chances to repeat the activity.]

5. The learner makes an error because the activity is confusing. Use of tongue twisters, for instance, for pronunciation can be confusing. [Don't correct. Improve the activity.]

6. The learner makes an error because the learner is using patterns from the first language instead of the patterns from the second language. [Give some correction. If there has been plenty of opportunity to develop knowledge of the second language, then some time should be spent on correction to help the learner break out of making errors that are unlikely to change. Errors which are resistant to change are sometimes called fossilized errors and imaginative correction is often needed to break the fossilization. If there has not been a lot of opportunity to develop knowledge of the second language, correct by telling the learner what to look for when observing people using the second language. This is called consciousness raising. It does not actually teach the correct form but makes the learner more aware of what to look for to learn it.]

7. The learner makes an error because the learner has been copying incorrect models. [Correct the learner and provide better models.]

This range of causes shows that the teacher should not rush into error correction, but should consider whether the error is worth the interruption and, if it is, the teacher should consider possible causes and then think of appropriate ways of dealing with the error.

Pronunciation Correction

The teaching and correcting of pronunciation to learners who are past the age of puberty is often a difficult task. The audiolingualism method argues that native-like pronunciation is one of the most important aspects of language proficiency. However, as Ueno reports: "The research on this issue [whether specific instruction can improve students' pronunciation] is inconclusive. In a recent survey . . . almost half of the recent experiments on this subject show no improvement in students' production of target-language sounds" (Ueno, 1994, p. 1). There is some hope that specific pronunciation instruction may be effective in improving students' perception or overall comprehension of the target-language. Moreover, to use a sports metaphor, a beginning tennis player must "develop and automatize basic muscle skills necessary to perform the new physical tasks. Similarly, a language learner must practice the new motor skills involved in producing the sounds of the target language" (Ueno, 1994, p. 2).

The following are simple suggestions for correcting pronunciation.

1. Say "What?" and see if the learner is capable of self-correction.

2. Give the correct form for the learner to copy. If the learner cannot copy it after two or three attempts, then some explanation and guidance may be needed.

3. Explain how to make the correct form and, if necessary, what is wrong with the error. For example, to make the /th/ sound as in "then," say "Put your tongue between your teeth and make a long sound." A variation on this is to tell the learner to look at what you are doing and say, "Put your tongue like this."


In this paper it has been asserted that in speaking classes there must be (1) some attention to the formal aspects of speaking such as pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and the appropriate use of the spoken language; (2) opportunity and encouragement for learners to produce meaningful spoken messages where the messages have real communicative goals; (3) opportunity for the learners to gain truly fluent use of what is already known. There must be an appropriate balance of these three elements in a speaking program. At elementary levels, emphasis should be placed on form-focused activities; at higher levels, a correspondingly greater emphasis should be placed on fluency activities. All of these parts, however, should be present at each stage of an effective speaking program.

Joe, A., Nation, P., & Newton, J. (1996). Vocabulary learning and speaking activities. English Teaching Forum, 34 (1), 2-7.

Nation, P. (1989). Improving speaking fluency. System, 17 (3), 377-384.

Nunan, D. (1992). Designing tasks for the communicative classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stern, H. H. (1991). Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ueno, N. (1994). Teaching English pronunciation to Japanese English majors: A comparison of suprasegmental with segmental oriented teaching approaches. Unpublished dissertation, Temple University, Japan.

Widdowson, H. G. (1992). Innovation in teacher development. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 13, 260-275.

Paul Nation can be contacted at: English Language Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, P. O. Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand.

Robert Sanborn Brown can be contacted at: 27-8 Jazuka, Uji, Uji-shi, Kyoto. 611. Tel/Fax: (h) 0774-22-3880.

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