What strategies can EFL teachers adopt to boost the effectiveness of a speaking task?
Here are 10 tips on designing a successful speaking lesson for the EFL classroom
When we ask about someone’s ability in a foreign language, the usual way of checking this is by asking “Do you speak…?”. This clearly shows that spoken language is seen as one of the most important language skills. However, many EFL learners who have studied English for a number of years in their home countries seem to be experiencing difficulties in speaking and do not consider themselves ‘fluent’ in English. Some of them complain that they haven’t had the opportunity to practise this skill, others blame their previous learning experience as being too grammar-focused. The amount of oral practice we give to our learners during the lesson is therefore crucial in their language development. As a result, it is important to carefully plan and select the speaking tasks we give to our students in order to promote language practice, fluency and effective communication in the L2.
Below is a list of the basic qualities and characteristics we should be looking for when setting up an oral task:
- Comprehensible input – making sure the task instructions are clear
It is important to always check that our learners have fully understood the aim of the oral task. The input related to the activity and the instructions must be clear. Before the speaking task it is essential to activate our students’ schemata and previous knowledge related to the topic and make sure that they have enough time to absorb all the information they need in order to effectively focus on the activity.
2. Ensuring that our learners have received sufficient introduction to new language and related guided practice
Our learners need to feel comfortable enough with the speaking task. They must already be familiar with the topic for discussion and possess the sufficient amount of lexis and grammar needed for the activity. Pre teaching key vocabulary and grammar structures is essential for the oral task to be effective and successful. Confidence related to previously acquired knowledge is important here as our students will feel more relaxed and will be using the L2 more independently if they feel they have the linguistic means to get their message across.
3. Task/topic authenticity
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 as it kills boredom and triggers our learners’ interest.
For younger learners the options may be more limited (ex. storytelling, 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 a role (ex. simulations) or use the language for communicative purposes (greeting, inviting, apologizing, giving instructions/directions).
4. The task is adapted to our learners’ specific needs
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.
5. Praise and encouragement (keeping our learners’ affective filter low)
Many learners are unsure about the value of doing speaking fluency activities in the classroom. They feel that the teacher should closely monitor and correct their language at all times. 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, on activating their schemata, on providing them with clear, interesting topics for discussion and thus giving them a reason to want to take part in the task.
Teachers should always keep in mind that one of the main goals of speaking activities is for their 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 tongue is vital for our learners’ language development and will increase their confidence and motivation levels.
6. Our students communicate effectively in the L2
A speaking activity is definitely serving its purpose when we notice that our learners’ language is of an acceptable level and that they seem to be able to find ways to get their message across in the foreign language without switching to their mother tongue. 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.
7. Increasing STT: the speaking task boosts our learners’ communicative competence
Fostering student interaction
In many cases our learners will rarely find the opportunity to practise the TL outside the language classroom. It is therefore essential to encourage them to speak in the foreign language as much as possible. We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. By working in pairs or groups on a role play for example, our students will combine their imagination and their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. Real-life simulations, games and quizzes will not only increase student talking time (STT), but will also enhance our learners’ communication skills.
8. Ensuring even allocation of turns
For a speaking activity to be successful, we need to prevent some discipline issues that may arise and make sure that our students are on task at all times. We need to make sure that our learners have a clear understanding of the basic discussion skills (such as turn taking, respecting other people’s opinion, sticking to time limits, allowing others to have their say etc.). It is important to make sure that classroom discussion is not dominated by a minority of talkative participants and that all learners get a chance to have their say and contribute to the oral task.
9. Monitoring – giving effective feedback
During the speaking 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. Effective feedback is an important part of these tasks, as teachers need to carefully select the points they need to focus on and whether or not they need to intervene and comment ex. on language use, the students’ pronunciation, etc.
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 would be better if we do not correct learners individually but stress out certain key points for the entire class. Again it is important to remember that the extent to which we should focus on error correction depends on our ss’ level and needs.
10. Through the oral tasks our learners receive valuable practice for their specific goals
We must always make sure that the tasks and topics we choose will be beneficial to our learners and their needs. For example, we need to select specific tasks for an exam oriented classroom and make sure that our students receive the adequate practice they need in order to pass their language tests. On the other hand, adult learners who are learning the language for communicative purposes may find topics and activities related to real life situations more valuable.
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