Managing speaking tasks in the EFL classroom

A checklist of things to consider when planning speaking tasks for the foreign language classroom


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.
 
   The benefits of speaking practice in the language classroom are endless. But how can we make sure that the speaking tasks are appropriate for our learners or that they will be carried out successfully without any discipline/comprehension issues?
 
   Below you will find a checklist of things to consider when planning speaking tasks:
  1. Task-setting (the pre-task stage)
  • Brainstorming, activating learner schemata

    What support do our learners need to be able to carry out the speaking task? How much do they know about the topic? Do they need some help with language to be able to do it?

    It is always a good idea to do some brainstorming at the pre-task stage to give our learners some useful vocabulary or to remind them of the lexis/grammar they will need for the specific task. Talking about the topic before giving out the task and familiarizing our students with the setting of the task is extremely beneficial. This will activate our learners’ previous knowledge and relevant schemata related to the topic of discussion.

  • Motivation, ‘grabbing’ our learners’ attention

    How can we grab our learners’ attention? How can we raise their motivation levels and get them interested in doing the task?

    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).

  • Adapting the task 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.

  • Instructions, task complexity

How complicated is the task? Does it have several parts? Does the task need to be broken up into parts? Can we detect some cohesion with the other activities? Are the instructions clear? Will our students know what to do at all times?

    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 and process all the information they need in order to effectively focus on the activity.

We do not only need to think of the complexity of the task and the instructions we will give to our students but also of the level of the activity and whether it matches our learners’ age, preferences, level and specific needs. We also need to consider our students’ different learning styles. Some students might feel intimidated by a speaking task that involves speaking in front of an audience. Others may be more dominant in group work/pair work and may not let other students participate.

  • Preparation or rehearsal time

How much preparation or rehearsal time to our students need?

    It is important to remember that time invested pre speaking can lead to richer results while speaking. 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.

2. Monitoring (the task stage)

  • The teacher’s role

What is the teachers’ role while students are on task? Do they take part or do they take a back seat? How much guidance should they give?

     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 students’ level and needs.

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.

  • Help-troubleshooting

How much help is too much? Will we need to troubleshoot? Will there be any discipline issues?

  • 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 the 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.

  • Taking notes for feedback

Should teachers gather some information to use in feedback? Some common mistakes?

  • Praise

Should we note down any interesting comments from our students? Should we praise and encourage them while they are on task?

        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.

3.

  1. Feedback at the end of the task
  • Outcomes

    How can we make sure our students are aware of the important outcomes without making them focus on the task again?

  • Feedback

How much do we do feedback on? All of it or just the important points?

    Teacher feedback should relate to the aims of the activity. If the task is mainly focusing on meaning, we should give feedback on that first. We should also check whether there is anything that comes out of the observations during the task or from our students’ commentary that is worth extending it in interesting ways.

     It is also important to think of the ways we will be giving our feedback to the students (whole class discussion, round the class checking, answers on the board, giving out handouts etc.). We could involve learners in a constructive way during this feedback stage by writing down on the board some good and bad examples of language used by students and asking them to find the erroneous sentences.

  • Cohesion

How can we make a link into the next activity which might be some language work or practicing a different skill?

    We must always make sure that the tasks and topics we choose will be beneficial to our learners and their specific 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. Adult learners who are learning the language for communicative purposes may find different topics and activities more valuable.

References

Bygate, M. (1987). Speaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harmer, J. (1982). What is communicative? ELT Journal, Volume 36, Issue 3, April 1982, Pages 164–168, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/36.3.164

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

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