Topic-Based versus Task-Based Speaking Activities

Speaking is one of the most valued skills in learning a foreign language. When you want to find out about the general knowledge of a person in a foreign language you usually ask DO YOU SPEAK (language)? I can’t remember ever hearing from someone if I could listen to English, on the other hand.

Most learners therefore expect to speak the language fast when they join a course or hire a teacher. As teachers, however, we know that, being a productive skill, speaking will have to come after listening in the process of the students’ linguistic development. The same goes for writing: it needs to follow reading. Receptive skills (listening and reading) precede productive skills (speaking and writing). This is an absolute law that emulates the acquisition of the native language.

Ideally, students would have to spend sometime quietly listening to as much English as possible, at the right level, which, according to the linguist Stephen Krashen, would be roughly tuned to slightly above their current level in the language (i + 1), before they are asked to produce utterances. This quiet period of listening comprehension is called by the experts The Silent Period. This is when input is internalized (becoming intake).

In general, language schools and teachers cannot afford to apply this methodology exactly as it’s prescribed, as, for marketing reasons and to keep their businesses, they need to satisfy the strong expectation the students (clients) have about being able to speak the language quickly. Therefore teachers need to, at least, create a few speaking opportunities in the beginner’s class. Fair enough, this will not cause any serious disruption in the learners’ acquisition process.

Task-Based Speaking Activitie

Task-Based Speaking Activities

It would be important, however, to manage these expectations aptly, making it clear to the students that their ability to speak English will grow proportionally to the amount of linguistic input they get exposed to. The more they listen and read, the quicker and more fluently they will be able to speak the target language. Especially in dealing with adult students, I recommend teachers have a candid conversation with their students about what the methodology entails.

Having covered how to deal with the students’ frustration of not being able to produce English as fast as they would like to, let’s move on to how a teacher can create speaking opportunities for their students at any level.

There are basically two kinds of speaking activities: Topic-Based activities and Task-Based activities. The first refers to the kind of activities that usually involve giving the students a topic and expecting them to talk about it or discuss it. The latter involves a task: students use the language as a means to an end, trying to solve a problem or complete a task. Both kinds of activities are valid and enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent by different kinds of students. I would say that, as a general rule, task-based activities work better for lower levels while topic-based ones for intermediate to upper levels of linguistic proficiency. But this is not an absolute law.

An example of a task-based activity would be to have the students list the best places to go on vacation. Individually, each student would draw their own list (with, let’s say, 5 items, numbered in order from the best place) and, then, they would be paired off with the task of coming up with a common list. They would have to discuss the pros and cons of each place and prioritize their recommendations. Then each pair would present the negotiated list to the rest of the class.

An example of a topic-based activity, on the other hand, would be a debate: Gay Marriage: are you for or against? The students would express their own views on the issue. Teacher could guide the discussion by presenting typical and polite phrases to introduce disagreement, explain turn-taking rules, show them how to modalize one’s point of view, etc. Language and conversation skills would be taught together.

The exercises you find in our series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART include both topic and task-based speaking activities. The visual input is always a painting from a great master (Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio). Students look at the painting in their ebooks and do the speaking activity indicated for their level (we use the Common European Framework of Reference to set the level). However, most activities are very open-ended and personalized, so sometimes the teacher can use even more advanced activities with lower-level learners, as the students themselves will adapt the production to their own level of English. An alternative way of dealing with the activities would be to project the image of the painting from a laptop or tablet onto a white wall to make it more of a heads-up type of exercise.

More on speaking and writing activities in the upcoming blog posts. Watch this space. To download a book from the series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, please click here: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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