George Lucas Educational Foundation
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.

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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 Easel.ly 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.