Developing Speaking Activities

Traditional classroom speaking practice often takes the form of drills that focus on sounds and forms and do not depend on meaning to be completed successfully. The language is structured and predictable, and often there is only one correct, predetermined response. Such drills may be imitative, intensive, or responsive.

  • In imitative drills, the students individually or chorally repeat a phrase or short sentence that the teacher has stated. The objective is for students to develop clear, accurate speech patterns by imitating the teacher.
  • Intensive drills focus on specific points of pronunciation (such as minimal pairs or sentence stress) or grammar (such as converting present tense to past tense forms). The objective is to reinforce the sounds or forms through repetition.
  • In responsive drills, the teacher or a student asks a question of a specific type (such as a yes/no question) and another student responds. The objective is to reinforce the grammar forms and the pattern of asking and answering through repetition.

These types of drills can be useful for helping your students listen for features of oral production that are challenging for them and hear whether they are producing them comprehensibly. The drills’ predictable structure can also support students who are anxious about speaking on their own, by reducing the number of variables that the student needs to account for when speaking. Choral repetition, in particular, allows shyer students to try producing the sounds and structures of the language in minimally exposed ways.

However, drills are not real communication, because meaning plays little to no part in them. If drills are the only type of speaking instruction that you use with your students, you run several risks:

  • Your students may become bored and lose motivation to learn the language because they are never permitted to develop spoken content of their own
  • Your students may begin to feel that they will never learn to speak the language well because they are always working on hard-to-produce sounds
  • Your students may become increasingly anxious about speaking because they have had no opportunities to develop strategies for recognizing and managing miscommunication

To move past these risks and promote your students’ development of speaking ability, you will want to engage them in authentic communication activities. The purpose of real communication is to accomplish a task, such as conveying a telephone message, obtaining information, or expressing an opinion. In real communication, participants must manage uncertainty about what the other person will say. Authentic communication involves an information gap; each participant has information that the other does not have. In addition, to achieve their purpose, participants may have to clarify their meaning or ask for confirmation of their own understanding.

To create classroom speaking activities that will develop communicative competence, you need to incorporate a purpose and an information gap and allow for multiple forms of expression. However, quantity alone will not necessarily produce competent speakers. You also need to combine structured output activities, which allow for error correction and increased accuracy, with communicative output activities that give students opportunities to practice language use more freely.

Structured Output Activities

Two common kinds of structured output activities are information gap and jigsaw activities. In both these types of activities, students complete a task by obtaining missing information, a feature the activities have in common with real communication. However, information gap and jigsaw activities also set up practice on specific items of language. In this respect they are more like drills than like communication.

Information Gap Activities

  • Filling the gaps in a schedule or timetable: Partner A holds an airline timetable with some of the arrival and departure times missing. Partner B has the same timetable but with different blank spaces. The two partners are not permitted to see each other’s timetables and must fill in the blanks by asking each other appropriate questions. The features of language that are practiced would include questions beginning with “when” or “at what time.” Answers would be limited mostly to time expressions like “at 8:15” or “at ten in the evening.”
  • Completing the picture: The two partners have similar pictures, each with different missing details, and they cooperate to find all the missing details. In another variation, no items are missing, but similar items differ in appearance. For example, in one picture, a woman walking along the street may be wearing a djellaba, while in the other the woman is wearing a jacket. You determine which features of grammar and vocabulary students will practice by choosing the pictures and deciding which things will be missing or different. Differences in the activities depicted lead to practice of different verbs. Differences in number, size, and shape lead to adjective practice. Differing locations could be described with prepositional phrases.

It’s important to align these activities with your students’ proficiency levels, so that they are practicing only one new knowledge area at a time. With students at beginning (novice) levels, if the activity uses a new set of vocabulary items, it should not also include practice of an unfamiliar grammar structure. However, for students at higher levels of proficiency, these activities may be set up so that the partners must practice more than just grammatical and lexical features. For example, the timetable activity gains a social dimension when one partner assumes the role of a student trying to make an appointment with a partner who takes the role of a teacher. Each partner has pages from an appointment book in which certain dates and times are already filled in and other times are still available for an appointment. Of course, the open times don’t match exactly, so there must be some polite negotiation to arrive at a mutually convenient time for a meeting or a conference.

Jigsaw Activities

Jigsaw activities are more elaborate information gap activities that can be done with several partners. In a jigsaw activity, each partner has one or a few pieces of the “puzzle,” and the partners must cooperate to fit all the pieces into a whole picture. The puzzle piece may take one of several forms. It may be one panel from a comic strip or one photo from a set that tells a story. It may be one sentence from a written narrative. It may be a tape recording of a conversation, in which case no two partners hear exactly the same conversation.

  • In one fairly simple jigsaw activity, students work in groups of four. Each student in the group receives one panel from a comic strip. Partners may not show each other their panels. Together the four panels present this narrative: a boy takes a container of ice cream from the freezer; he serves himself several scoops of ice cream; he sits in front of the TV eating his ice cream; he returns with the empty bowl to the kitchen and finds that he left the container of ice cream, now melting, on the kitchen counter. These pictures have a clear narrative line and the partners are not likely to disagree about the appropriate sequencing. You can make the task more demanding, however, by using pictures that lend themselves to alternative sequences, so that the partners have to negotiate among themselves to agree on a satisfactory sequence.
  • More elaborate jigsaws may proceed in two stages. Students first work in input groups (groups A, B, C, and D) to receive information. Each group receives a different part of the total information for the task. Students then reorganize into groups of four with one student each from A, B, C, and D, and use the information they received to complete the task. Such an organization could be used, for example, when the input is given in the form of an audio podcast. Groups A, B, C, and D each hear a different recording of a short news bulletin. The four recordings all contain the same general information, but each has one or more details that the others do not. In the second stage, students reconstruct the complete story by comparing the four versions.

With information gap and jigsaw activities, you need to be conscious of the language demands they place on your students. If an activity calls for vocabulary, grammar, or cultural understanding that your students have not already practiced, you can brainstorm with them when setting up the activity to preview the information they will need, eliciting what they already know and supplementing what they are able to produce themselves.

Structured output activities can form an effective bridge between instructor modeling and communicative output because they are partly authentic and partly artificial. Like authentic communication, they feature information gaps that must be bridged for successful completion of the task. However, where authentic communication allows speakers to use all of the language they know, structured output activities lead students to practice specific features of language and to practice only in brief sentences, not in extended discourse. Also, structured output situations are more like games than real communication, and in some cases the participants’ social roles are irrelevant to the performance of the activity. This structure controls the number of variables that students must deal with when they are first exposed to new material. As they become comfortable, they can move on to true communicative output activities.

Communicative Output Activities

Communicative output activities allow students to practice using all of the language they know in situations that resemble real settings. In these activities, students must work together to develop a plan, resolve a problem, or complete a task. The most common types of communicative output activity are role plays and discussions.

In role plays, students are assigned roles and put into situations that they may eventually encounter outside the classroom. Because role plays imitate life, the range of language functions that may be used expands considerably. Also, the role relationships among the students as they play their parts call for them to practice and develop their sociolinguistic competence. They have to use language that is appropriate to the situation and to the characters.

Students usually find role playing enjoyable, but students who lack self-confidence or have lower proficiency levels may find them intimidating at first. To succeed with role plays:

  • Prepare carefully: Introduce the activity by describing the situation and making sure that all of the students understand it
  • Set a goal or outcome: Be sure the students understand what the product of the role play should be, whether a plan, a schedule, a group opinion, or some other product
  • Use role cards: Give each student a card that describes the person or role to be played. For lower-level students, the cards can include words or expressions that that person might use.
  • Brainstorm: Before you start the role play, have students brainstorm as a class to predict what vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic expressions they might use.
  • Keep groups small: Less-confident students will feel more able to participate if they do not have to compete with many voices.
  • Give students time to prepare: Let them work individually to outline their ideas and the language they will need to express them.
  • Be present as a resource, not a monitor: Stay in communicative mode to answer students’ questions. Do not correct their pronunciation or grammar unless they specifically ask you about it.
  • Allow students to work at their own levels: Each student has individual language skills, an individual approach to working in groups, and a specific role to play in the activity. Do not expect all students to contribute equally to the discussion, or to use every grammar point you have taught.
  • Do topical follow-up: Have students report to the class on the outcome of their role plays.
  • Do linguistic follow-up: After the role play is over, give feedback on grammar or pronunciation problems you have heard. This can wait until another class period when you plan to review pronunciation or grammar anyway.

Discussions, like role plays, require you to prepare students first, and then get out of the way. To succeed with discussions:

  • Prepare the students: Give them input (both topical information and language forms) so that they will have something to say and the language with which to say it.
  • Offer choices: Let students suggest the topic for discussion or choose from several options. Discussion does not always have to be about serious issues. Students are likely to be more motivated to participate if the topic is television programs, plans for a vacation, or news about mutual friends. Weighty topics like how to combat pollution are not as engaging and place heavy demands on students’ linguistic competence.
  • Set a goal or outcome: This can be a group product, such as a letter to the editor, or individual reports on the views of others in the group.
  • Use small groups instead of whole-class discussion: Large groups can make participation difficult.
  • Keep it short: Give students a defined period of time, not more than 8-10 minutes, for discussion. Allow them to stop sooner if they run out of things to say.
  • Allow students to participate in their own way: Not every student will feel comfortable talking about every topic. Do not expect all of them to contribute equally to the conversation.
  • Do topical follow-up: Have students report to the class on the results of their discussion.
  • Do linguistic follow-up: After the discussion is over, give feedback on grammar or pronunciation problems you have heard. This can wait until another class period when you plan to review pronunciation or grammar anyway.

Through well-prepared communicative output activities such as role plays and discussions, you can encourage students to experiment and innovate with the language, and you can create a supportive atmosphere that allows students to make mistakes without fear of embarrassment. This will contribute to their self-confidence as speakers and to their motivation to learn more.