Making Students Speak (2) – Practical Tips
Hi everyone! In my last entry I asked many questions related to the domain of teaching speaking, didn’t I? As promised, I’ll do my best to answer them today. Of course, I know well there are no universal solutions to such problems, but I firmly believe every Teacher should try to develop their own ways of dealing with them.
1. Does your talking time exceed your STT or take up a significant percentage of your lesson time? Why/Why not? What can you do to make your Students talk more than you do, or to make yourself speak less?
It doesn’t anymore. I used to like listening to my own voice in the classroom, but when I realised I had stolen lots of STT in this way, I struggled with myself to actually shut up whenever I wanted to say anything unnecessary. What did I do? I just followed a very simple rule:
“Speak when you must.” That is, when you give instructions (if your Students cannot read, hear or translate them for themselves), explain grammar (if your Students cannot discover it for themselves), give homework (if it cannot be sent via email, for example), discipline your Students (if you cannot do it using your gestures or body language), encourage your Students to do certain tasks, etc. In other words: “Speak only when your Students benefit from it, not when you feel like speaking or when you’d like to fill the silence.”
Simple enough? Not really, I must confess. It’s been really hard for me to realise that I don’t have to speak much in the classroom to make my Students progress. An exception might be groups of beginners or pre-intermediate Students in which the Teacher takes on a more active role in the process of communication.
In order to make our Students speak a foreign language in the classroom more than we do, it is enough to convince them that by doing so they gain a unique opportunity to practice oral communication in a Student-friendly environment where the Teacher doesn’t kill for mistakes and others are willing to listen and share their ideas. “Practicing speaking in such conditions will make you prepared, my dear Students, to take your exams and to communicate in real life” – as I often say. It has worked with my Students, so it will probably be effective with other Learners.
2. Do your Students talk during classes – but in their native language? Why/Why not? How does it influence the quality of your teaching and your Students’ attitude to the subject?
Surely they do. They want to exchange information quickly and effectively and the best tool they have to achieve the aim is their native language. Why shouldn’t they use it? It’s natural J I feel neither the quality of my teaching, nor my Students’ attitude to English are influenced too much by that. Why? My Students communicate in their mother tongue to a very limited extent in the classroom. Impossible? See my answer to question 9.
3. Are you able to make your Students speak their mind? Why/Why not? How?
I am happy to say: I am. Really. I put a lot of effort in making my Students feel comfortable in the classroom, accepted and liked. I stress the fact that there are no universal answers to problems and that everyone has the right to provide their own solutions, share their (no matter how crazy, stupid or unrealistic) ideas with others and be listened to patiently. If any Student is ridiculed, laughed upon or misunderstood because of their beliefs, opinions or behaviour, I try to show others how valuable the person is with their own unique style and personality. It works! I have heard about Teachers (or rather “teachers”) who firmly believe they are always the only people who are right and treat their Students as unable to think on their own. If we make our Students feel like that, they will really behave in this way and they won’t be willing to share any thoughts with us or other Learners because of the fear of being rejected.
4. Do your Students have limited possibilities of speaking during lessons because of the coursebook / curriculum? Why/ Why not? What can you do about it?
Yes and no. If you look at our technical university language syllabi, you’ll notice there’s a lot of stress on Business English, EOP, EAP, specialist terminology, grammar, presentations and writing, not to mention listening or reading (our final tests and exams cover all these fields, except for presentations that are assessed separately). Not much time is, as one might assume, left for natural communication in the classroom. However, I strongly believe – in fact I know – that every Teacher can make it possible for their Students to talk a lot even in such conditions. How? A few tips you might like:
- Let your Students do certain types of tasks at home: reading, writing, dictionary work (like checking the meaning of unknown words that are found in a text you’ll work on next time you meet) and other similar assignments that don’t have to be done in the classroom;
- Don’t steal your Students’ time by telling them what their homework is – send it by email with a set of clear instructions (in this way you’ll get ca. 5 minutes to “do” more talking each time);
- Instead of asking one Student to speak at one time, organise your Students into pairs or groups and let them talk to each other or role-play dialogues, etc., simultaneously. In this way, they’ll gain hundreds of precious minutes of speaking practice in the course of… a language course. Uncontrolled practice, you say? So what? Watch them closely, monitor “the weakest” individuals, keep on encouraging everyone to use their time effectively – act as a language trainer, not a strict assessor. Let your Students be creative and natural when they speak, listen to one another and take turns to say what they want (unless somebody starts to dominate a conversation or any other communication problems occur);
- Make sure each listening or video-watching task has its “speaking component” – that is, never let your Students just listen to or watch “something” without an introduction or follow-up stage that wouldn’t comprise talking about “it” (i.e. the contents of the main task – such a speaking assignment may be short and consist in commenting on / predicting the contents, exchanging information – e.g. comparing answers to a task after your Students have listened to a recording for the first time, etc.);
- When you work on grammar with your Students, always make it possible for them to use the structures you teach in speaking – and make it as natural as possible! I know it’s easiest to copy a set of additional grammar exercises (after the structure has been explained and practised in writing) and ask Learners to do them in the classroom, and then check answers with them. However, such exercises (with a key) can be sent to adult Students via email to be done as homework, while your Students’ classroom time is too precious to be wasted on doing tasks that can be completed at home. If your Students don’t do their homework, it’s their problem. I’m definitely in favour of shifting this responsibility onto them;
- Don’t waste your Students’ time in the classroom on checking homework. From my experience I can say that very skilled Students (especially those who haven’t done their homework) can prolong the whole process up to 20-30 minutes! As a result, your main teaching objectives are not fulfilled during a given lesson and your Students don’t achieve some very important learning outcomes. What I have in mind is, of course, traditional homework – like those above-mentioned grammar or vocabulary exercises where your Students must use particular structures or words in sentences correctly (multiple choice, transformations, word-formation, etc.). I’ll repeat myself, but – why not send such homework to Students via email with a key or post it on a website in the form of interactive exercises? Adults who want to practise will do it. It’s their problem, not ours. In order to let our Students speak more in the classroom, let’s use homework as a basis for speaking tasks (e.g. prepare to answer the following questions (1, 2, 3) related to “x” (topic) by reading text “y” (title) on page “z” of your book and look up the meaning of the following words: (a wordlist)).
5. Have you found any effective ways to make your Students willing to speak? Why/Why not? What are they?
Yes. They’re very simple and their effectiveness depends on how influential the Teacher is as a mentor. If we are able to convince our Students that:
- Speaking in the classroom is sometimes the only opportunity (or one of few opportunities) for them to talk in the language they learn at school;
- They’ll have to communicate in their private and professional life using foreign languages and the sooner they start practising the better;
- It’s worth talking to different people (I often ask my Students to change their conversational “partners”), as it helps overcome language barriers (psychological communication barriers) and understand various accents / varieties of pronunciation;
- The more they practice speaking, the more fluent and confident language users they become;
- our Students might really become more willing to talk in a foreign language.
6. How do you encourage your Students to speak? Do you appeal to their extrinsic or intrinsic motivation? Do they feel that talking in a foreign language in the classroom will really improve their language skills or the quality of their lives?
I think I’ve already answered the first and last of the questions. That leaves me with the problem of motivation. Well, I appeal to both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation of my Students, with special emphasis on the latter. To my mind, anyone who really wants to learn a foreign language should feel “the drive” inside. That is – I learn for myself, to be able to communicate, for pleasure, to achieve something important (to acquire new skills or qualifications), etc., not only – but also – to pass my final tests or exams, fulfill my superiors’ expectations or demands, because I have to (the language is on the school curriculum). Therefore, I mainly encourage my Students to treat learning English as an exciting challenge in which, as in a computer game, they achieve new levels and gain experience, for which they can get real money (in their professional life – either now or in the future). Successfully passed subsequent tests and exams stand for levels in the game of learning, whereas words and structures that my Students master can be compared to new skills. Besides, I try hard to make it as pleasant for my Students to learn English as possible, by using games or videos, for example, so that the compulsory educational process becomes their hobby.
7. How do you “force” silent Students to talk? Or maybe you just “let them exist” in your classroom, believing that they’ll never become good communicators?
I strictly monitor such Students and make sure they do speak. I try to achieve this by mainly convincing them it is worth speaking in the classroom (for the reasons given above) and learning why they have become silent (Any previous failures or criticism on the part of a teacher? Fear of being ridiculed? Inborn shyness?). Sometimes it is good for such Students to often change their conversational partners, so that they are exposed to interlocutors characterised by different personalities (in this way they might encounter someone who’ll inspire them to speak) or to do certain speaking tasks (if the situation is really difficult) in a simplified form (e.g. I see you have problems talking about your lifestyle. OK, so today just please ask your partner 10 questions about his / her lifestyle and listen to what he / she says). Sometimes Students are afraid to talk because they fear being assessed, so it’s advisable to create a friendly assessment environment (when we must evaluate our Students’ speaking skills) by using a one-to-one (Teacher-Student) feedback model in which no one else except for the Student who is being assessed learns about their mistakes and areas where improvement is necessary, and the whole process is discreet and free from any kind of prejudice. Additionally, let’s make sure our Students do plenty of uncontrolled practice tasks, when we let them make mistakes that don’t disturb communication, and they feel free and encouraged to exchange their opinions and ideas.
8. Do you accept all your Students’ opinions on different topics and problems? Do you think they should consider what you think about the issues that you discuss? How do you inspire your Students to exchange their views? Do you teach them to respect each other’s opinions?
I generally accept my Students’ views, but sometimes I don’t allow them to share them (if such views might offend anyone in the classroom, including myself). Such controversial opinions may relate to stereotypes, ethical / moral / religious issues and dilemmas, etc.
I sometimes feel it is necessary for my Students to learn what I think about certain problems, if otherwise they’d feel I want to impose anything on them. A good example is: “This video presents a very critical picture of “x” whom I personally value for “y” – watch it and, also making use of your existing knowledge of “x,” decide for yourselves whether you agree with the message the film conveys or not).”
The only way to inspire Students to present and exchange their views, as I believe, is to create friendly atmosphere in the classroom and make sure everyone’s treated with respect.
9. How do you discipline your Students when it comes to their uncontrolled talking either in their native or foreign language? Are you consequent and demanding in this respect? Can you channel their “communicative energy” for the purpose of making them better speakers?
My Students want to talk in their native language during language classes, as it is the most natural way of exchanging information for them. However, I have a rule that my Students need to accept if they want to stay in “my” groups – they should always use English in the classroom, except for rare situations in which I allow them to use their mother tongue. I make sure they observe the rule by constantly monitoring them and being, as I put it in the question, consequent and demanding in this respect. However:
- I sometimes let my Students talk in their native language for the first 3-5 minutes of a lesson, if they have very urgent matters to discuss;
- In some situations it is worth giving Students a 5-minute break in the middle of a long class (e.g. after 40 minutes), so that they can eat or drink something and talk in their native language to relax;
- It is advisable to allow Students who finish doing certain tasks earlier than it is required to quietly talk about issues not connected with a lesson – but in the foreign language being taught. In this way, their comunicative energy is converted into foreign language practice in a natural context
So much for my (hopefully practical) tips. Have a nice time reading! Next time, I’ll be even more practical and present some tried-out tasks that have really inspired my Students to talk, exchange views and break communication barriers. “CU” then J