When our students first come to us, we usually hear the same old story. I can read fairly well and my grammar is pretty good but I have problems when I try to speak and understanding is a problem. Why is that? Why do we hear this same old story over and over? It´s quite simple and comes down to two points.
- You cannot separate speaking and listening because they end up being the same thing. Speaking is active and involves creativity, but if your listening skills are poor, how on earth do you expect to be able to communicate well? It comes down to the topic of comprehensible input (which I touched on in my previous post). Both skills develop together, at first, beginners can usually speak a few phrases and thus, more than they can understand. But the norm is that after a short amount of time a persons listening skills surpass their ability to speak.
- Practice. We know that it is a mistake but the majority of language learning is based around content, grammar and vocabulary under the false pretence that if we learn a large amount of information about a language we will therefore be able to understand it and use it. Language doesn´t work that way! We need to use it and practice it to be able to later produce it in real life contexts. How else are we going to learn?
What we are going to discuss in this post is speaking and listening skills, and suggest what type of things we should be doing in class to be able to improve them. It comes down to 4 basic points: Enjoyment, context, level and type of activities.
Enjoyment: We all want to enjoy our classes: The teacher, the students, inspectors from Ofsted (or equivalent). But in reality this is very difficult to achieve. it is for the teacher to come up with a sequence of lessons that are both dynamic and interesting enough to keep the students and their own attention for a long enough time so that they can get the message (learning goal) across to the maximum number of students possible. When I say this I am talking about interest in the language. It is essential that a teacher shows an interest in the interests of their students to be able to capture their attention and give the students a context in which they will want to learn and progress. We need to use a range of resources in order to do this, such as images, video clips, quotes (from people relevant to the learner) or even opinions of other students. All of these things help to provoke interest but I am going to suggest a very simple method. Listen. Listen to your students. By listening to our students, getting to know them, we can find out how to push their buttons so that they will sit up and take notice. With this we will have greater participation and eagerness to learn. We should use activities such as ´either or… both … and´ or ´common ground´ (see activities link to PDF). These activities give teachers the oportunity to listen to their students, take notes and see the reasoning behind their opinions. They are simple activities that can be adapted to any level. What you want to avoid as a teacher is monotony. The same old tasks of questions on the board, read and answer with a partner and move on. A teacher should always be listening and thinking how to develop and activity further.
Context: When we are talking about anything, in any language we usually need a reason for doing so. We need a context with which we can relate what we are saying and where we can think ´I could use this is so and so situation´. This gives us a purpose. Intead of focussing our speaking topics on a particular grammar point or vocabulary topic, why don´t we try using ´a learning topic´ and then incorporating the grammar and vocabulary that we wish to use afterwards. For example if we wanted to talk about food we could choose the learning topic ´Diet and Healthy living´. This would give us more room to expand and develop the vocabulary area. With the learning topic the students will not lose sight of when they can talk about this topic and the grammar/vocabulary learnt. Within the learning topic we can subtly incorporate speaking tools such as forms of suggesting, persuading or asking for opinions, as they will be necessary to complete tasks. I would definitely recommend using contexts for speaking as students will focuss on their interests and opinions, whereas, if you focus your learning objectives on specific grammar or vocabulary you will normally have less participation and the ´that will do´attitude that doesn´t help anyone to advance.
Level: A thing that needs to be mentioned is the issue of level and our expectations of our students. What we can´t do is expect them to run before they can walk. We have all been students in the past and we know the frustration of not being able to complete a task. We need to be realistic with what we ask of our students and we need them to see that we value their efforts. It is far better to start off building a solid base of simple activities that allows students to be creative with language. This base is the key to future progression. Students know if their teacher is well prepared and we need to show our students that there is a clear progression in our lessons that will lead them to getting better. Preparation is key as it will help students to be relaxed when using language. We need to stress that errors are not a problem, they are all lessons and part of the process that we need to undertake (see post on Learners… and their mistakes). We need to increment level to avoid boredom, the ideal is that all activities are just above ´the students´ current level. To achieve this is a careful balance and is achieved through reflexive teaching and differentiation. As teachers we need to be positive with our students and focus on what they are doing well, focus on what they can do and what they are able to use. A much wiser teacher told me not too long ago that we should be giving 5 positives to each negative. If our students are alway getting things wrong, we need to thing, is this the correct level of activity for them?
Activities: The activities that we set in class need to be both varied and intesting. There is a careful balance between routine and variation. With our activities we need to be innovative. When I say this I mean the activities need to avoid too much repetition and not, I repeat NOT that a teacher needs to spend a fortune buying the latest gadgets, apps or material for their classes. Activities can be innovative by just creating an awareness of a new way of looking at something. Activities need to be well prepared, progressive, interesting and well paced. If they repeat too much we need to think to ourselves, what are my students getting out of this activity? It is always woth trying to add an element of competition to activities, whether the stuents compete against the teacher, each other or against themselves. We can use activities such as ´Speed dating´, ´I bet you don´t know this!´or ´the hesitation game´ (See PDF activities). What is important in these activities is that the teacher encourages the students to listen, and I mean really listen, not just wait for their turn to speak. Through this comprehensible input their speaking level should improve both actively and passively. Other activities that we can use include, recording our students voices and playing them back and questions inside questions. In both of these activities, students are forced to listen to what their students say and come up with a response.
Activities PDF: speaking-keep-it-real
So, in conclusion. what we need to remember
- Enjoyment – fun and dynamic classes
- Context – relevant to the students
- Level – achievable
- Activities – prepared, preogressive and well paced
Until next time, we hope this has been useful.