George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Global Education

In Language Classrooms, Students Should Be Talking

Language classes often don't focus on the aspect of learning a language that intrigues students most -- speaking it. We should get students talking more.
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We have gotten it wrong, really wrong, in the language classroom. Historically, the teacher stood at the front of the classroom spouting details of grammar. Students sat at desks placed in straight rows directed toward the teacher and madly took notes. They later filled out worksheets and tried to memorize the content presented by the all-knowing educator. And this is still often the scenario today.

What's missing? Students are not allowed to focus on the one aspect of learning a language that intrigues them -- the speaking. So much time is spent teaching students about the language that they rarely have time to use it in a genuine way. The result is that most students decide to stop studying a foreign language once they realize they're not actually achieving their goal of speaking it.

The first step toward teaching students to speak a language well is understanding proficiency. Great language teachers comprehend proficiency levels and teach their students about them. Once proficiency is the central focus in the classroom, grammar no longer reigns -- communication does. Spending time in the classroom on all modes of communication -- interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational -- is essential, but interpersonal communication should be the main emphasis. To achieve this, the teacher must get out of the way.

If the teacher is always speaking, the students are not. For students to achieve the communicative practice they need, the solution is simple: The less the teacher speaks, the more students do.

Through classroom observation, I have seen that some teachers are much more comfortable letting their students take center stage than others. And I have concluded that those teachers who are most comfortable with student-centered classrooms see the greatest linguistic results, have less attrition from one level to the next, and have more students who are engaged and happy.

Strategies for Focusing on Student Proficiency

  • Begin each day with an interpersonal speaking activity.
  • Require students to use the target language in class.
  • Eliminate activities in which you ask individual students questions. Instead, promote pair work -- larger groups mean that individual students speak and negotiate meaning less. (Carefully consider the pairs: Putting an A student with a D student will frustrate them both, and putting close friends together will likely cause a distraction.)
  • Broach interesting topics that allow students to use the vocabulary they are learning or have learned previously.
  • Make your presence known. Constantly walk around the classroom, mentoring as you go.
  • Spend time modeling what you want your students to do, but don't overdo it. For example, specifying verb tenses and vocabulary that must be used during their exchanges will quickly make an authentic activity inauthentic.
  • Become comfortable with organized chaos. Students may not use the tenses you had hoped, they may make up words, and they may even throw in English words here and there, but this is perfectly normal and part of the language acquisition process.

5 Interpersonal Activities to Get You Started

Speed dating: It sounds risqué but only entails lining up desks in rows facing each other. Use a website like Wheel Decide to change topics every two to five minutes. The students in one row remain in their seats, and the ones facing them move every time the time expires. Every few minutes, new pairs have a conversation.

Poster making: Throw out a question related to your unit, such as “What do you do to get ready for school?” Have students working in pairs use a website such as Canva or to create posters answering the question. Next, have them present their posters to the class.

Pail of prompts: Make slips of papers with different scenarios related to your unit. Have students draw them out of a pail and practice a conversation on the topic. Next, have each group go to the front of the room and talk about their topic for one or two minutes. Set a timer and have them talk until the time runs out.

Silent exchanges: Give students working in pairs a topic related to the current unit. Have each pair create a Google document that they share with each other and with you. Each pair has a written conversation on the topic. The teacher can monitor the conversations and give feedback via the Google doc. This allows students valuable interpersonal writing practice before they move on to the more high-pressure exercise of interpersonal speaking. Once they have practiced the conversation in silence, have them read it out loud.

First Five Fridays: Assign each student in your class a Friday or two during the school year when he or she has to direct a conversation for the first five minutes of class. During this time, he or she can broach any (appropriate) topic. Students are responsible for making sure the conversation stays alive for the entire five minutes.

These are just a few activities you can use to get students talking in class. If you've used any others, please share them in the comments section.

A special thank you goes out to Greg Duncan and Sabrina Huang for inspiring aspects of these activities.

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pullingflowers's picture

Oral interaction is at the heart of our ESL program in Quebec and I couldn't imagine teaching a class without it. I have my students' desks placed in groups of 4 or 5 for this purpose exactly. There isn't a class where students are not asked to used the functional language to converse with a partner or with the class. Sure, it requires more work and classroom management from the teacher but makes the class much more engaging and motivating for the students.

EdTechEmpowers's picture

I was an ESL teacher in Japan for 6 years and 5 more in Canada. I was also a TESOL teacher trainer - students should be speaking the target language 80% of the time! The teacher should be a facilitator - anyone lecturing about grammar in a language class should be fired.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

For anyone interested in learning more about the role that speaking a language plays in learning it, check out this article from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL):
Creating Comprehensible Input and Output

VanPatten makes a distinction between language acquisition, which requires language input and can exist without output (i.e. speaking), and communicative ability, "the expression and interpretation of meaning in a given context." It's important to note that drill-and-kill methods may be harmful to students (especially if they feel uncomfortable speaking). The "interpersonal activities" listed in the article should help students learn to speak in a positive, supportive environment.

KATI VARELA's picture
Languages teacher

Although I agree with the fact we need lots of practice in the language we are learning to achieve a motivating level of proficiency, I see the value of grammar in understanding how the language works and how to "play with it" (as opposed to simply repeat ready-made sentences). Valuable speaking practice and exposure needs to occur also outside the classroom for meaningful progress to be made. Expecting any average person to achieve proficiency in speaking with an average of 2.5 hours per week, about 40 weeks per year (in theory at least) of language exposure / learning is unrealistic. Unless something also occurs outside of lesson time, "magic" does not occur (I'm speaking about the context of the NSW state in Australia)

Lori Bennett's picture

Very well said! In my first grade classroom, where the majority of students are English language learners, students are given time to process information orally throughout the day. I've found that after ten minutes of instruction, a break is needed for students to repeat to each other what they have processed. Of course, I also allow longer blocks of time where communication is encouraged through teamwork activities and exploration. I love your idea of "speed dating." Of course I would change the name but getting them moving and talking about different subjects is fun and productive. I have tried a similar exercise with music. Students walk around the classroom while the music is playing and then find a partner when the music stops. They are then given the topic to discuss.

MmeKohler's picture

AIM is a newer methodology from Canada that focuses on fluency and is supported by research. I have been using it for 5 years in French Elementary and have seen incredible results. It is not that easy OR successful just to "set students loose" to talk. They have to have a lot of words at the tip of their tongue. They need a lot of comprehensible input of high frequency vocabulary to get to that point. With the AIM program the students speak with the teacher all the time, supported by gestures. Then when students break off into partner activities, they continue to communicate successfully with each other. With AIM, the classroom is conducted fully in the target language, and all input is comprehensible to the students. The students speak throughout class -- meaningfully. Leaning is contextualized. Grammar is learned inductively and in context. I would encourage anyone to check out Aim Language Learning to see a model program for teaching fluency. They have curricula for teaching English, Spanish, and Mandarin as well as French. I absolutely love it.

David Deubelbeiss's picture

Speaking is the result of language learning/acquisition and not the cause.

While I praise the spirit of this article, there is a lot of nuance missing. We've seen the communicative approach misapplied in most classrooms, with students getting little comprehensible input early on in their classes and being pushed to speak long before they have the necessary input acquired to do so. It becomes rote and nothing sticks. We should advocate more comprehensible input / listening and reading at the right level in our MFL classrooms. Speaking will result from this. There is a lot written on the failure of the communicative approach if educators care to search/inquire.

Aliyu Nurudeen's picture

I found this piece highly Illuminating .As I would b working on pupils of different schools in order to increase their ability in terms of spoken English as we've dwelled more on writing and reading while not paying full attention to speaking the language which is the medium of communication. A great piece at the right time!

Luis Doporto Alejandre's picture
Luis Doporto Alejandre
Keep Calm and Live Life to the Fullest

Great article. From the word itself Language Classroom. The main focus should be the student should be talking.

Vishal Mody's picture
Vishal Mody
CEO @ Exam Masters Tutoring Service; Private Tutor & Test Prep Expert

Great article. I love the point "Become comfortable with organized chaos."

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