Getting your students to speak in the language class

Despite  Steven Krashen’s famous methodology of language acquisition, in which he claims students must go through a silent period before they can speak, we know how anxious our students are to start producing the target language from day 1.  This silent period is the time learners need to be exposed to enough comprehensible input so they can absorb the language and be able to speak it. It emulates what happens when kids acquire their first language. Having said that, it’s a fact that motivation also plays a key part in language learning, and setting up speaking activities from the very beginning of the language course will not, in my opinion, have any negative effect on the students’ development: they will not be able to do much, though, but that is OK. Motivation will work wonders. The elementary level, which is usually known as A2 in the Common European Framework benchmark, would be the ideal moment to start with speaking activities, but don’t worry too much if you have to do it earlier to please your students.

Teachers usually complain about the same problems when they set up speaking activities: students might not know what to say, they are shy to speak in public, they don’t know enough about the topic, they are not that interested in the topic.

Students don't know what to say.

Your students don’t know what to say.

So, as a teacher and teacher trainer, with many years of experience, and with the help of a number of methodology books I have read throughout my career, I would humbly suggest a few tips to get your speaking activities going smoothly in the language class. See the main points below:

1. Decide whether the activity will be task or topic-based: a task-based activity typically  involves the use of language as a means to an end. The students, for example, are given a problem (e.g. give each pair of students a list of 10 objects and ask them to discuss and negotiate the following problem: you are stranded on a desert island, if you could pick 5 of these 10 objects to have with you on the island, which ones would you both pick?). To pick the objects, they will have to justify their choices.  On the other hand, a topic-based activity requires the students to discuss or talk about a specific subject (e.g. what’s your country’s situation concerning racism?) The more they are able to personalize the topic, contributing their own opinions and experiences, the more they will have to say about it. If you wish to read more on this, please refer to my previous post “Topic-Based versus Task-Based Speaking Activities”:

2. Give them context (input):  Before setting up an activity, expose the students to some linguistic or visual context, so they can rely on some form of scaffold to help them structure their output. The stimulus can be established through a text, a picture, a video clip or a listening passage, for example. But it’s important that the teacher introduce the topic, or brainstorm some vocabulary and ideas about it before having the students talk about it.

3. Brainstorm: depending on the input the teacher chooses to use in the step above, the brainstorm will be more or less controlled. If the students have been given a written text, for example, the teacher should work on it and exploit some ideas and related vocabulary and grammar. If the teacher starts by showing a painting by a famous artist,  the brainstorming will have to be longer and less controlled. The students will probably have to learn some new vocabulary as well, get to know something about the artist and his times, or even his style and technique. Always elicit info from the students before spoon-feeding them with ready-made answers: you might be surprised about the vocabulary they already have or their knowledge about the topic.

4. Get them to work in pairs and/or small groups as often as possible: do not put the students in the awkward position of speaking in front of the whole class right at the beginning of the exercise. Give them time to prepare their answers. The best way to do that is, of course, to put them in pairs or little groups, so they can participate more and not feel intimidated by a big audience. Many times they won’t even have to speak to the whole class at the end, or you could ask only for volunteers to share their work. During the activity, however, make sure you go around not only monitoring the different groups but also lending them a hand.

5. Focus on fluency: the aim of the speaking activities we are discussing in this post is not to drill grammar points or practice vocabulary,  or even pronunciation, in a controlled way. As the students produce their utterances, make a mental note or write down discreetly some of the most common mistakes made, especially the ones that involve grammar or vocabulary already taught in previous lessons. Do not interrupt the students for correction, unless you don’t understand what is being said. Decide on what you are going to focus on for correction in each activity, then, at the end, or in a future lesson, list the mistakes on a handout and pass them to the learners, so they can correct the mistakes in pairs, without  necessarily naming the perpetrators.

6. Personalize the activity:  people like to talk about their own experiences. Design questions that allow them to talk about their own tastes, aspirations, experiences and life in general.

7. Make the questions as opened-ended as possible: to make this personalization possible, try to design questions that allow for open-ended answers, do not look for right/wrong answers, but for opinions and suggestions.

8. Make the activity as relevant as possible:  choose topics or direct the discussion towards a path that is relevant to the group of students you have. The same speaking activity can be slightly changed to reflect the reality and interests of a different group of students. The closer they feel to the topic being discussed or the task being proposed the more productive the result will be.

Some speaking activities will go better than others, as you know. Don’t give up on a well-prepared exercise if it does not work well with a particular group of students. Try it a number of times with other students: it might work better. The important thing to remember is the more the students are exposed to linguistic input, by either reading or listening, the more fluent and accurate their delivery will be eventually. So make sure you focus on receptive skills especially at the earlier levels of the course your are teaching before worrying too much about the success of the speaking activities.

If you need help with materials, we have an excellent series of eBooks with ready-made vocabulary, speaking and writing activities to make your life easier. It’s called TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, with 8 books so far. It features f works by famous artists, such as Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet, Norman Rockwell, van Gogh and Winslow Homer which will function as a springboard  to contextualize topic and task-based activities, as well a process writing practice. For further info, please click here

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Writing: focus on the process and not on the product

When you read a piece of good writing in The Economist, Folha de São Paulo or The New Yorker, you will probably wonder about the special powers of the writer. How is it possible to sit in front of a laptop and, in one go, come up with such a refined and polished text. The writer must have counted on a potent muse sitting by his side, you conclude. But, for anybody who has attempted the hard task of putting a piece of writing together, the recognition that the path is a little harder will soon dawn on him. Hemingway defined the process in the most dramatic way: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Of course, the Hemingway process would not be very popular in most of our schools and online courses today. As we are concerned mainly about writing in the language class in this post, we need to draw a line. After all, chances are teachers and coordinators would be charged with abuse and put in jail if they expected or encouraged the students to follow anything like the method proposed by the great author of THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.

Luckily, there is a third way: fire the muse and follow a step-by-step process to your writing activities. Writing is a skill students must master. We have never written so much as in today’s world. Most of our communication on the Internet occurs in the form of writing, one way or another.

Following the 5-step process we’ll be outlining below is probably the most effective way to come up with a good text. Of course, if you have the privilege of counting on good professional editors, the process becomes a lot easier, but not many people – least of all language students – can afford this luxury on a day-to-day basis, so we must rely on ourselves, and, if we are lucky, on some of our friends and classmates for aid.

Process Writing

Process Writing


Therefore, what we are advocating here is that writing should not be a solitary activity: pairs or groups of students should take part in it, although, ideally, each one should be working on his own individual piece. There are very clear steps to follow in what is generally know as process writing. This is, in our opinion, the best approach to teach and practice this productive skill in the language classroom. Let’s cover each of the phases in the sections below.

1. Brainstorming (generating ideas). When you are given a writing assignment, get together with a colleague and think of all the ideas the topic might generate. Don’t censor yourself at this stage, anything goes. If there’s no given topic, your freedom is even greater, and you will have fun imagining all possible topics, points-of-view, arguments or characters that may go into your piece. This is more fun when done with another person or in a small group. Then, each one can follow their own thread of thoughts, after this initial kicking off of ideas, and get down to writing their first draft.

2. Drafting. Now it’s time to prioritize all the wonderful ideas you generated in the step above. Consider the physical space you need for the text: is it a blog post, a story, an essay, an infographics design, a tweet? How many words are you supposed to use in your assignment? Don’t even consider using all your ideas. Pre-select, choose, discard, adjust, change. Cut, cut, cut. Establish what should go into each paragraph, which sentence you will pick as the topic one. Draft and redraft as many times as you feel you should. The more, the better. Change sentences to a different part of the text for stronger impact or more consistency. Decide what should be the beginning, the middle and the end of the piece. It’s always easier to start with the end. Remember the clever words of the Cheshire Cat to Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll:

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

3Revising. Now, possibly with the help of a friend, you are going to begin refining and polishing your text. Your colleague will read the text, ask questions whose answers he would expect to find in it, but does not. He will probably make suggestions. There’s no need to take everything he says into consideration. Your are the writer after all, so the final decision is yours, but try and incorporate some of his feedback. Apply your own critical thinking skills to decide if the text is coherent, well thought out, convincing, logical.

4. Editing. This next step involves going deeper in the process started in the previous step. Time to check for grammar, vocabulary and syntax mistakes. Make sure collocations and register (formal and informal) are adequate. Have the spellcheck on your computer on. Consult a thesaurus, dictionaries, and grammar guides. Read aloud to make sure your text sounds good, to make sure it sounds English. Enter phrases and idioms you wish to use into Google to see if they appear in other texts and really mean what you wish to say. Again, get help from your friends.

5. Publishing. This is the last phase of your work. You will be deciding on the images to use, the layout, the kind of font you find appropriate. This part is a lot of fun, in general. Reread it one more time. Any more changes? If you are using a digital device, be brave and push the button PUBLISH. Next time you write something it will be even easier.

The Steps of Process Writing

The Steps of Process Writing

Sometimes these steps may occur in a different order. Writing is messy. Moreover, the number of drafts cannot be stipulated: the more the better. But we all know there are time constraints to be taken into account, and the final product needs to be presented at some point. So let’s use common sense, and work on your piece within a time frame that suits your teacher’s expectations. In a language lesson, of course, it is the drafting that counts: the more you focus on polishing and making your piece more impactful and error-free, by adding ideas, deciding on the best location of sentences, breaking paragraphs in more consistent ways, and finally asking your friends for help to identify grammar and vocabulary problems, the more you will be learning. That’s when learning is really taking place. The final product is only the logical consequence of the hardest possible work you put into the project.

And remember, the final product does not need to be a masterpiece. The secret to fine writing has been repeated countless times by the experts – although both students and teachers seem to resist it: good writing is rewriting. Besides, writing improves over time, and the more you practice, the better results you will get. Good luck.

NOTE: If you are interested in process writing, you may consider checking out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART. Click here for further info on the series:

Check out this fun video clip on our CARAVAGGIO eBook:

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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:

Teaching English with Art

Teaching English with Art

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.