Getting your students “speaking” – Some Strategies.

conversation1It isn’t easy to get students speaking sometimes. But it is well worth it! It is truly the road towards a fluent, confident speaker of English.

I remember when first confronted with a “silent” class. They were really passive and not willing to speak. After lots of trial and error I finally came into class gagged! (yes, I was brash and bold in those days!). I continued with the lesson as normal but there wasn’t any speech from me. Soon enough, the students couldn’t stand it and they started speaking! Not terribly lots but a beginning. And more than anything, I broke the crust and now it was all creme de la creme…….

With the coming of the Communicative Language teaching approach, instruction began to focus less on grammatical form and more on meaning. Part of this new emphasis on meaning meant that instruction would have to emphasize “communication”- 2 or more people negotiating and exchanging meaning.

Oral Interpersonal Communication was pushed into the spotlight. Students were expected to use functional, situational, everyday language in class. The mantra was to decrease “teacher talk” time and increase the production time of students (Swain’s concept of Comprehensible Output informing this approach). Student talk meant the following;

1. Authentic, unscripted, not memorized activities. Ex. Task based role play.

2. Meaning based. Transfer of information was the goal. Ex. Information gap

3. Listening and interpretation of the speaker is necessary.Communication became a two way street of listening and speaking.

4. Meaning was negotiated. Repetition, clarification, confirmation, pausing, signaling of not understanding, interjections, pragmatics (gestures) were all to be practiced as part of natural conversation.

Research has shown that students who experienced more time producing meaningful language, gained higher levels of fluency. Yet, teachers understanding the above, still had to get their students talking. How?

Here are some tips outlining many of the standard approaches to fostering oral interpersonal communication (a big word for speaking) in the English language classroom.

A. Set the correct tone.

The affective filter that Krashen alluded to, and the fear many students have, must be lowered by making students comfortable and the teacher providing a “safe” environment. Students won’t speak unless they feel comfortable. Teacher modeling of all activity and showing a very self-depreciating manner really helps. Clapping and rewarding mistakes also helps set the right tone. First bring the class together as a team, then focus on communicative language teaching. Don’t put the cart before the horse.

B. Assist performance.

The teacher acts as a facilitator or discussion leader. The teacher activates background knowledge on the topic or theme and uses
language that scaffolds learning of the L2. The teacher in an Instructional Conversation (IC) approach offers feedback to the students in the form of correct usage and providing language model forms. The teacher focuses on the object of the learning and assists students in practicing that. The teacher arranges tasks in sequence so that students can perform them with increasing ability.

C. Turn taking.

The teacher explicitly teaches students how to take turns in a conversation. Communication is a two way street and the teacher should after each answer by a student, prompt them to continue the communication with a question or suggestion.

D. Use tasks and especially 2 way tasks.

Students can be motivated to speak, “if there is a need”. A two way task where there is some information missing, provides this kind of motivational need. See the attached examples of an info. gap kind of activity which really acts as a catalyst towards inflaming student talk time.   HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES

E. Use authentic texts and topics/themes that the students are interested in.

Nobody enjoys talking about something that doesn’t interest them! Make it real and make it up to date with timely texts (news items, celebrity gossip, hot topics etc…) Keep it about their lives and world. In order to generate speech, the students need “some fuel in the tank”, something they know a lot about. Keep them driving (speaking) on a full and powerful engine!

F) Tolerate silences.

Yep, sometimes that is necessary. So often, students aren’t speaking simply because the teacher seems so good at it! Wait more often and the students will respond. One of the things experienced teachers do better is that they wait longer after questions. This gives the student more time to work out the language in their head, more time to articulate themselves. It isn’t easy speaking in an L2 – slow down!

G) Get them on their feet!

Have you ever wondered why we teach students while they are sitting down when 80% of human language is produced while standing up? Get them practicing what they will be preaching! Simply giving them a slip of paper with one question or prompt and having them walk around the class exchanging it and finding others – does wonders for acquiring language and practicing what I call – authentic production.

H) Modify other teacher behaviors.

Listen more to your students. Really listen with an interest and exaggerate so they know you are! Pause often, altering your rate of speech while maintaining naturalness. REALLY speak to your students, about real topics and concerns. Keep it real. Do what you ask your students to do. Be one of them when possible and do the same tasks. Also, learn to step back, step aside. If the class is really speaking English and using English – roll with it!

I) Give students the ammunition to succeed

Provide gambits and target language forms on the board to help lower level students succeed. Preteach essential vocabulary and make sure your students are ready to handle the task (for the most part). Provide pictures as prompts and modify the activity for lower level students.

J) Teach inductively!

Too often, us teachers follow the basic lesson plan. Engage or Prepare / Study or Practice / Activate or Present . However, what often happens in class is that the most important stage – Production, never happens! The bell rings and the students get little time on their feet speaking. So turn your lesson plan upside down! Start with the production activity. Then do some controlled practice if necessary, so they can see how the correct production should have been.

K) Enjoy yourself.

Yes, we’ve come full circle. If a teacher shows they are enjoying themselves, the students will too. This will only foster the proper classroom environment for oral production. Hopefully, you’ll be so luck as to have a classroom of Argentinians I had years ago – they just wouldn’t shut up! I would get major headaches but happily so…….

This teaching with Bailey episode focuses on the problem of “silent students” and how to engage them so they will “open up”. A neat look, as Bayley always is!  Go here for more videos with Bayley

Find more videos like this on EFL CLASSROOM 2.0

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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4 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    This is a great article. I love the video showing real students and real teacher reflection. I plan to use this with my pre-service teachers.

  2. ddeubel says:

    Glad you liked it and can use it Diane! I put in the link to download the 2 way tasks and to more Bayley videos on

    With the new emphasis in all of education on Presentation and inter personal skills, what I mention is relevant to every teacher – not just EFL / ESL.

    Larry, as always thanks for the mention!

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