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”: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1nJ

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 http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Teaching English with Art: Monet


Teaching English with Art! This eBook is a wonderful supplement to any coursebook or extra materials your students may already be using in the English class. It contains 30 speaking and writing activities for classroom use, based on some of the most striking works by French artist CLAUDE MONET, the founder of Impressionismo. The objective of the eBook is to expose the students to high art while teaching English, fulfilling therefore one of the tenets of effective language acquisition: providing a realistic context for the language to be learned and practiced as a means to an end. Your students will love to exercise their English discussing the works of Monet. This is a proven way to make language acquisition fun and effective by creating in the classroom an atmosphere of interest and motivation. Each activity is clearly correlated to the COMMON EUROPEAN FRAMEWORK OF REFERENCE (CEFR), and the level is stated next to it.

CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO DOWNLOAD THE EBOOK.

 

Teaching English with Art: Monet.

Click on the image to download the eBook.

Take a moment to watch the video clip of TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: MONET

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

Let’s corrupt the youth!


They were right after all. We are seeing a comeback (were they ever really gone anywhere?) of some of the old theories about learning and how teachers should conduct their lessons. Edtech is making possible the practical application of the Socratic method, of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, of Vygostky’s studies and experiments. All the other pedagogues who have advocated more direct involvement and participation from the students in their own learning are being vindicated and having their theories confirmed and validated.

Some of the methodologies we see in use today are becoming possible because of the realization of individualized learning. It boils down to a student facing her app alone in her bedroom to start with. And from there we can exploit the use of questions (Socrates) to lead that student further and further on the path to the right answer, or, even better, to her own answer in the case of a more abstract problem (such as moral, ethical or political issues); we can personalize teaching to make the context more relevant for each of the students, and therefore resonate with them (Paulo Freire); and we can flip our lessons, having students reconvene in class afterwards to cooperate in solving problems (Vygotsky), after having spent time alone in their homes doing research, reading, watching TEDs or other relevant videos on YouTube.

The Death of Socrates. Rosa, Salvator.

The Death of Socrates. Rosa, Salvator.

We have always known that personalization, cooperation and inductive approaches worked fine.  They have the power of grabbing the students’ interest and attention, keeping the findings longer in their memory. We’re clever teachers after all, we do our homework as well, we went to college and were fascinated by Plato and his dialogues, we felt invigorated by the potential and possibilities of the pedagogy of Freire; and we could easily see that pairing off weaker students with strong ones who would pull them along zones of proximal development made total sense.

But we lacked the means to make it happen. How to apply these exciting methods to classes of more than 30 students (or even more sometimes)? How can a single teacher dedicate enough time to the needs of individual students in these conditions? How much time is there outside the class for teachers to mark essays and homework, to create interesting lessons, to prepare the long  – and possibly very boring (for the students) – lecture to present on the following day?

The good news is things are changing. More and more, the new technology being created will allow us to go back to the masters and make the most of their wise insights and theories. Few teachers doubt that learning is up to the student. It’s their direct responsibility. Teachers are important channels and organizers of the different methods students will have to use actively themselves on their way to discoveries.

Let’s not be afraid of using apps, audience response systems, flipped classrooms and LMSs  in our schools to recreate the necessary conditions to hand learning back to where it belongs: the students! Socrates was sentenced to death for doing exactly that. They called it “corrupting the youth” back then. Well, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we are not in Kansas any more”. Let’s corrupt them!

NOTE: You might want to check out our eBooks available  from AMAZON.COM: 

TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: MATISSE.    Click here for more info: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1kP

TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: PICASSO.    Click here for more info: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lA

Au revoir,

Jorge Sette.