Tips for successful speaking activities in the EFL classroom

How can we create speaking activities that will boost our EFL learners’ communicative competence?

Here are 7 points to keep in mind when setting up a speaking task

1. Purpose: Fluency? Accuracy? Training in discussion skills?

What is the purpose of the speaking activity? Do we want to focus on fluency or accuracy? Will we use it as a lead-in for a grammar lesson? Do we want our learners to gain something more out of it? Do we want them to practise the new structures/vocabulary they have recently learned?

    We need to keep these questions in mind when preparing a speaking task. Our decisions will depend on our students’ level and needs and on the overall purpose of the lesson. In exam-oriented classrooms for example, teachers may want to focus more on accuracy during a speaking task and on providing their ss with the adequate practice on topics for discussion that they might encounter in their language exams.

2.  Possible problems

When setting up a speaking task, we always need to keep in mind that certain issues might arise during the activity:

-Our learners may switch to L1

-Ss may not have the adequate vocabulary in order to express themselves in the TL

-Some ss ask too many questions during the speaking task, they want feedback, they want to know that what they say is accurate

-Some ss may be too focused on using correct grammar/lexis when they speak

-Others may be too shy, they may lack confidence and not be willing to participate in a group conversation

-Ss may not know what to say on the subject or may feel unable to formulate their thoughts and express themselves on the spot

-The topic for discussion may not be stimulating enough or relevant to our learners’ level, needs, age or interests

Discipline issues may arise in large groups of ss

Participation may not be even: some may dominate the activity and talk more than others

3. The teacher’s role during the task

Having the above issues in mind, we need to think of our role during the speaking activity and how we can overcome such problems. First of all, when setting up the task we need to focus on creating a speaking environment in which our learners will overcome their anxiety and fear of speaking. Our students need to feel ‘safe’ and willing to participate. We should focus on motivating our learners, activating their schemata, providing them with clear, interesting topics for discussion and thus giving them a reason to want to take part in the task.

    During the activity, our main role should be that of a facilitator, making sure that the task is being carried out smoothly and that all learners participate equally. We must also try to reduce TTT (teacher talking time), step away from the central scene, monitor from a distance and try not to interrupt the flow of the activity.

4.  Variety

Our focus should be on setting up interesting and stimulating speaking activities. Variety in the topics for discussion and in the task types plays an important role here. Variety kills boredom and triggers our learners’ interest.

    For younger learners the options may be more limited (ex. story telling, role- play), but for intermediate classes and above, the choices are many: tasks could be based on a specific topic (expressing opinion/ discussing a controversial subject) or they could be more goal-oriented, with ss having to perform something (ex. simulations) or use the language for communicative purposes (greeting, inviting, apologising, giving instructions/directions).

5. Focus on STT (student talking time)

    It is important to allow ss to take the lead here. They are the protagonists, they are the ones who control the flow of the activity. Ss need to feel that they are actively involved in the lesson. They need this student talking time as they may not have the opportunity to practise the language outside the language classroom. This is when they have the opportunity to improve their overall speaking skills, to ‘activate’ their knowledge and convert their passive (receptive) vocabulary to active vocabulary. And this is our chance to step aside a bit and check their overall understanding of the structures and the lexis we have taught them.

6. Brainstorming – Allowing time to think

Some brainstorming with the entire class before the speaking task, could be very useful to our learners. Depending on the type of the activity and their level, we could give them some input, some ideas and language chunks that they might find useful, so they will be able to express themselves more freely during the task. This of course is not always necessary and depends on our learners’ level and background knowledge on the topic for discussion.

    Allowing enough time for our learners to think and prepare for the task is also important. Some classrooms could also benefit from some instructions on the rules of group discussion. Our ss may need some training on turn-taking, on how to work in groups and on respecting the time limits and different opinions. 

7. Feedback

What should we correct and to what extent?

    Let us always keep in mind that one of the main goals of speaking activities is for our students to achieve successful oral communication in the target language. It is important to boost their confidence, to help them speak more spontaneously in the TL and ‘get the message across’. This is vital not only for their upcoming language exams but also for the real life situations they will encounter in the future. Giving positive feedback, praising their effort to express themselves in a language other than their mother tonge is vital for our learners’ development and will increase their confidence and motivation levels.

    Since we would not want to interrupt the flow of the activity, error correction (accuracy/correct pronunciation/L1 transfers, etc) should take place at the end of the speaking task, focusing mainly on frequent errors that hinder communication. It is important to remember that the extent to which we should focus on error correction depends on our ss’ level and needs and on the purpose of the specific speaking activity.

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