Teaching speaking in an EFL classroom
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014
Author: Kyzykeyeva Almagul, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan
Speaking is "the process of building
and sharing meaning through the use of verbal and non-verbal symbols, in a variety
of contexts" (p. 13). Speaking is a crucial part of second language
learning and teaching. Despite its importance, for many years, teaching
speaking has been undervalued and English language teachers have continued to
teach speaking just as a repetition of drills or memorization of dialogues.
However, today's world requires that the goal of teaching speaking should improve
students' communicative skills, because, only in that way, students can express
themselves and learn how to follow the social and cultural rules appropriate in
each communicative circumstance.
Many language learners
regard speaking ability as the measure of knowing a language. These learners
define fluency as the ability to converse with others, much more than the
ability to read, write, or comprehend oral language. They regard speaking as
the most important skill they can acquire, and they assess their progress in
terms of their accomplishments in spoken communication.
Language learners need
to recognize that speaking involves three areas of knowledge:
(pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary) - using the right words in the right
order with the correct pronunciation;
(transaction and interaction) - knowing when clarity of message is essential
(transaction / information exchange) and when precise understanding is not
required (interaction/ relationship building);
- Social and cultural
rules and norms (turn-taking, rate of speech, length of pauses between
speakers, relative roles of participants) - understanding how to take into
account who is speaking to whom, in what circumstances, about what, and for
In the communicative
model of language teaching, instructors help their students develop this body
of knowledge by providing authentic practice that prepares students for
real-life communication situations. They help their students develop the
ability to produce grammatically correct, logically connected sentences that
are appropriate to specific contexts, and to do so using acceptable (that is,
The goal of teaching
speaking skills is communicative efficiency. Learners should be able to make themselves
understood, using their current proficiency to the fullest. They should try to
avoid confusion in the message due to faulty pronunciation, grammar, or
vocabulary, and to observe the social and cultural rules that apply in each
To help students develop
communicative efficiency in speaking, instructors can use a balanced activities
approach that combines language input, structured output, and communicative
Language input comes
in the form of teacher talk, listening activities, reading passages, and the
language heard and read outside of class. It gives learners the material they
need to begin producing language themselves.
Language input may be
content-oriented or form-oriented.
- Content-oriented input
focuses on information, whether it is a simple weather report or an extended
lecture on an academic topic. Content-oriented input may also include
descriptions of learning strategies and examples of their use.
- Form-oriented input
focuses on ways of using the language: guidance from the teacher or another
source on vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar (linguistic competence);
appropriate things to say in specific contexts (discourse competence);
expectations for rate of speech, pause length, turn-taking, and other social
aspects of language use (sociolinguistic competence); and explicit instruction
in phrases to use to ask for clarification and repair miscommunication
In the presentation part of
a lesson, an instructor combines content-oriented and form-oriented input. The
amount of input that is actually provided in the target language depends on
students' listening proficiency and also on the situation. For students at
lower levels, or in situations where a quick explanation on a grammar topic is
needed, an explanation in English may be more appropriate than one in the
Structured output focuses on correct form. In structured output, students may have
options for responses, but all of the options require them to use the specific form
or structure that the teacher has just introduced.
Structured output is
designed to make learners comfortable producing specific language items
recently introduced, sometimes in combination with previously learned items.
Instructors often use structured output exercises as a transition between the
presentation stage and the practice stage of a lesson plan. Textbook exercises
also often make good structured output practice activities.
In communicative output, the
learners' main purpose is to complete a task, such as obtaining information,
developing a travel plan, or creating a video. To complete the task, they may
use the language that the instructor has just presented, but they also may draw
on any other vocabulary, grammar, and communication strategies that they know.
In communicative output activities, the criterion of success is whether the
learner gets the message across. Accuracy is not a consideration unless the
lack of it interferes with the message.
In everyday communication,
spoken exchanges take place because there is some sort of information gap
between the participants. Communicative output activities involve a similar
real information gap. In order to complete the task, students must reduce or
eliminate the information gap. In these activities, language is a tool, not an
end in itself.
In a balanced activities
approach, the teacher uses a variety of activities from these different
categories of input and output. Learners at all proficiency levels, including
beginners, benefit from this variety; it is more motivating, and it is also
more likely to result in effective language learning.
Developing Speaking Activities
speaking practice often takes the form of drills in which one person asks a
question and another gives an answer. The question and the answer are
structured and predictable, and often there is only one correct, predetermined
answer. The purpose of asking and answering the question is to demonstrate the
ability to ask and answer the question.
In contrast, the purpose of
real communication is to accomplish a task, such as conveying a telephone
message, obtaining information, or expressing an opinion. In real
communication, participants must manage uncertainty about what the other person
will say. Authentic communication involves an information gap; each participant
has information that the other does not have. In addition, to achieve their
purpose, participants may have to clarify their meaning or ask for confirmation
of their own understanding.
To create classroom
speaking activities that will develop communicative competence, instructors
need to incorporate a purpose and an information gap and allow for multiple
forms of expression. However, quantity alone will not necessarily produce
competent speakers. Instructors need to combine structured output activities,
which allow for error correction and increased accuracy, with communicative
output activities that give students opportunities to practice language use
Structured Output Activities
Two common kinds of
structured output activities are information gap and jigsaw activities. In both these types of activities, students complete a task by obtaining
missing information, a feature the activities have in common with real communication.
However, information gap and jigsaw activities also set up practice on specific
items of language. In this respect they are more like drills than like
Information Gap Activities
the gaps in a schedule or timetable: Partner A holds an airline timetable with
some of the arrival and departure times missing. Partner B has the same
timetable but with different blank spaces. The two partners are not permitted
to see each other's timetables and must fill in the blanks by asking each other
appropriate questions. The features of language that are practiced would
include questions beginning with "when" or "at what time."
Answers would be limited mostly to time expressions like "at 8:15" or
"at ten in the evening".
- Completing the picture:
The two partners have similar pictures, each with different missing details,
and they cooperate to find all the missing details. In another variation, no
items are missing, but similar items differ in appearance. For example, in one
picture, a man walking along the street may be wearing an overcoat, while in
the other the man is wearing a jacket. The features of grammar and vocabulary
that are practiced are determined by the content of the pictures and the items
that are missing or different. Differences in the activities depicted lead to
practice of different verbs. Differences in number, size, and shape lead to
adjective practice. Differing locations would probably be described with
These activities may be set
up so that the partners must practice more than just grammatical and lexical
features. For example, the timetable activity gains a social dimension when one
partner assumes the role of a student trying to make an appointment with a
partner who takes the role of a professor. Each partner has pages from an
appointment book in which certain dates and times are already filled in and
other times are still available for an appointment. Of course, the open times
don't match exactly, so there must be some polite negotiation to arrive at a
mutually convenient time for a meeting or a conference.
Jigsaw activities are more
elaborate information gap activities that can be done with several partners. In
a jigsaw activity, each partner has one or a few pieces of the
"puzzle," and the partners must cooperate to fit all the pieces into
a whole picture. The puzzle piece may take one of several forms. It may be one
panel from a comic strip or one photo from a set that tells a story. It may be
one sentence from a written narrative. It may be a tape recording of a
conversation, in which case no two partners hear exactly the same conversation.
one fairly simple jigsaw activity, students work in groups of four. Each student
in the group receives one panel from a comic strip. Partners may not show each
other their panels. Together the four panels present this narrative: a man
takes a container of ice cream from the freezer; he serves himself several
scoops of ice cream; he sits in front of the TV eating his ice cream; he
returns with the empty bowl to the kitchen and finds that he left the container
of ice cream, now melting, on the kitchen counter. These pictures have a clear
narrative line and the partners are not likely to disagree about the
appropriate sequencing. You can make the task more demanding, however, by using
pictures that lend themselves to alternative sequences, so that the partners
have to negotiate among themselves to agree on a satisfactory sequence.
- More elaborate jigsaws
may proceed in two stages. Students first work in input groups (groups A, B, C,
and D) to receive information. Each group receives a different part of the
total information for the task. Students then reorganize into groups of four
with one student each from A, B, C, and D, and use the information they received
to complete the task. Such an organization could be used, for example, when the
input is given in the form of a tape recording. Groups A, B, C, and D each hear
a different recording of a short news bulletin. The four recordings all contain
the same general information, but each has one or more details that the others
do not. In the second stage, students reconstruct the complete story by comparing
the four versions.
With information gap and
jigsaw activities, instructors need to be conscious of the language demands
they place on their students. If an activity calls for language your students
have not already practiced, you can brainstorm with them when setting up the
activity to preview the language they will need, eliciting what they already
know and supplementing what they are able to produce themselves.
activities can form an effective bridge between instructor modeling and
communicative output because they are partly authentic and partly artificial.
Like authentic communication, they feature information gaps that must be
bridged for successful completion of the task. However, where authentic communication
allows speakers to use all of the language they know, structured output activities
lead students to practice specific features of language and to practice only in
brief sentences, not in extended discourse. Also, structured output situations
are contrived and more like games than real communication, and the
participants' social roles are irrelevant to the performance of the activity.
This structure controls the number of variables that students must deal with
when they are first exposed to new material. As they become comfortable, they
can move on to true communicative output activities.
Communicative Output Activities
activities allow students to practice using all of the language they know in
situations that resemble real settings. In these activities, students must work
together to develop a plan, resolve a problem, or complete a task. The most
common types of communicative output activity are role plays and discussions.
In role plays, students are
assigned roles and put into situations that they may eventually encounter
outside the classroom. Because role plays imitate life, the range of language
functions that may be used expands considerably. Also, the role relationships
among the students as they play their parts call for them to practice and
develop their sociolinguistic competence. They have to use language that is
appropriate to the situation and to the characters.
Students usually find role
playing enjoyable, but students who lack self-confidence or have lower
proficiency levels may find them intimidating at first. To succeed with role
carefully: Introduce the activity by describing the situation and making sure
that all of the students understand it;
a goal or outcome: Be sure the students understand what the product of the role
play should be, whether a plan, a schedule, a group opinion, or some other
role cards: Give each student a card that describes the person or role to be
played. For lower-level students, the cards can include words or expressions
that that person might use;
Before you start the role play, have students brainstorm as a class to predict
what vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic expressions they might use;
groups small: Less-confident students will feel more able to participate if
they do not have to compete with many voices;
students time to prepare: Let them work individually to outline their ideas and
the language they will need to express them;
present as a resource, not a monitor: Stay in communicative mode to answer
students' questions. Do not correct their pronunciation or grammar unless they
specifically ask you about it;
students to work at their own levels: Each student has individual language
skills, an individual approach to working in groups, and a specific role to
play in the activity. Do not expect all students to contribute equally to the
discussion, or to use every grammar point you have taught;
topical follow-up: Have students report to the class on the outcome of their
- Do linguistic follow-up:
After the role play is over, give feedback on grammar or pronunciation problems
you have heard. This can wait until another class period when you plan to
review pronunciation or grammar anyway.
Discussions, like role
plays, succeed when the instructor prepares students first, and then gets out
of the way. To succeed with discussions:
the students: Give them input (both topical information and language forms) so
that they will have something to say and the language with which to say it;
choices: Let students suggest the topic for discussion or choose from several options.
Discussion does not always have to be about serious issues. Students are likely
to be more motivated to participate if the topic is television programs, plans
for a vacation, or news about mutual friends. Weighty topics like how to combat
pollution are not as engaging and place heavy demands on students' linguistic
a goal or outcome: This can be a group product, such as a letter to the editor,
or individual reports on the views of others in the group;
small groups instead of whole-class discussion: Large groups can make
it short: Give students a defined period of time, not more than 8-10 minutes,
for discussion. Allow them to stop sooner if they run out of things to say;
students to participate in their own way: Not every student will feel
comfortable talking about every topic. Do not expect all of them to contribute
equally to the conversation;
topical follow-up: Have students report to the class on the results of their
- Do linguistic follow-up:
After the discussion is over, give feedback on grammar or pronunciation
problems you have heard. This can wait until another class period when you plan
to review pronunciation or grammar anyway.
communicative output activities such as role plays and discussions, you can
encourage students to experiment and innovate with the language, and create a
supportive atmosphere that allows them to make mistakes without fear of
embarrassment. This will contribute to their self-confidence as speakers and to
their motivation to learn more.
Strategies for Developing Speaking Skills
Students often think that
the ability to speak a language is the product of language learning, but
speaking is also a crucial part of the language learning process. Effective
instructors teach students speaking strategies -- using minimal responses,
recognizing scripts, and using language to talk about language -- that they can
use to help themselves expand their knowledge of the language and their
confidence in using it. These instructors help students learn to speak so that
the students can use speaking to learn.
1. Using minimal
Language learners who lack
confidence in their ability to participate successfully in oral interaction often
listen in silence while others do the talking. One way to encourage such
learners to begin to participate is to help them build up a stock of minimal
responses that they can use in different types of exchanges. Such responses can
be especially useful for beginners.
Minimal responses are
predictable, often idiomatic phrases that conversation participants use to
indicate understanding, agreement, doubt, and other responses to what another
speaker is saying. Having a stock of such responses enables a learner to focus
on what the other participant is saying, without having to simultaneously plan
2. Recognizing scripts
situations are associated with a predictable set of spoken exchanges -- a
script. Greetings, apologies, compliments, invitations, and other functions
that are influenced by social and cultural norms often follow patterns or
scripts. So do the transactional exchanges involved in activities such as
obtaining information and making a purchase. In these scripts, the relationship
between a speaker's turn and the one that follows it can often be anticipated.
Instructors can help
students develop speaking ability by making them aware of the scripts for
different situations so that they can predict what they will hear and what they
will need to say in response. Through interactive activities, instructors can
give students practice in managing and varying the language that different
3. Using language to talk about language
Language learners are often
too embarrassed or shy to say anything when they do not understand another
speaker or when they realize that a conversation partner has not understood
them. Instructors can help students overcome this reticence by assuring them
that misunderstanding and the need for clarification can occur in any type of
interaction, whatever the participants' language skill levels. Instructors can
also give students strategies and phrases to use for clarification and comprehension
By encouraging students to
use clarification phrases in class when misunderstanding occurs, and by
responding positively when they do, instructors can create an authentic
practice environment within the classroom itself. As they develop control of
various clarification strategies, students will gain confidence in their
ability to manage the various communication situations that they may encounter
outside the classroom.
Teaching speaking is a
very important part of second language learning. The ability to communicate in
a second language clearly and efficiently contributes to the success of the
learner in school and success later in every phase of life. Therefore, it is
essential that language teachers pay great attention to teaching speaking.
Rather than leading students to pure memorization, providing a rich environment
where meaningful communication takes place is desired. With this aim, various
speaking activities such as those listed above can contribute a great deal to
students in developing basic interactive skills necessary for life. These
activities make students more active in the learning process and at the same
time make their learning more meaningful and fun for them.
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D. (2003). Practical English Language Teaching. NY: McGraw-Hill.
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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014