The goal of teaching speaking skills is to enable your students to use the language in real (authentic) oral communication situations. As students are developing this ability, you and they can aim for the goal of communicative efficiency: making themselves understood using their current proficiency to the fullest. Part of that proficiency is having a repertoire of strategies for minimizing confusion in the message, such as avoiding sounds and grammar structures that are challenging for them; using gestures to reinforce the meaning; and maintaining awareness of the social and cultural rules that apply in each communication situation. Another part is being willing to take a chance on potential miscommunication in order to expand their skills and knowledge.
To help students develop communicative efficiency in speaking, you can use a balanced activities approach that combines language input, structured output, and communicative output.
Language input comes in the form of teacher talk, listening activities, reading passages, and the language heard and read outside of class. It gives learners the material they need to begin producing language themselves.
Language input may be content oriented or form oriented.
- Content-oriented input focuses on information, whether it is a simple weather report or an extended lecture on an academic topic. Content-oriented input may also include descriptions of learning strategies and examples of their use.
- Form-oriented input focuses on ways of using the language: guidance from the teacher or another source on vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar (linguistic competence); appropriate things to say in specific contexts (discourse competence); expectations for rate of speech, pause length, turn-taking, and other social aspects of language use (sociolinguistic competence); and explicit instruction in phrases to use to ask for clarification and repair miscommunication (strategic competence).
In the presentation part of a lesson, you will want to combine content-oriented and form-oriented input. The amount of input that you provide in the target language will depend on your students’ listening proficiency and also on the situation. For students at lower levels, or in situations where a quick explanation on a grammar point is needed, an explanation in their first language may be more appropriate than one in the target language.
Structured output focuses on correct form. In structured output, students may have options for responses, but all of the options require them to use the specific form or structure that you have just introduced. Structured output is designed to make your students comfortable producing specific language forms, sometimes in combination with previously learned items. You will probably want to use structured output exercises as a transition between the presentation stage and the practice stage of a lesson plan. Textbook exercises also often make good structured output practice activities.
In communicative output, the learners’ main purpose is to complete a task, such as obtaining information, developing a travel plan, or creating a video. To complete the task, they may use the language that you have just presented, but they also may draw on any other vocabulary, grammar, and communication strategies that they know. In communicative output activities, the criterion of success is whether the learner gets the message across. Accuracy is not a consideration unless the lack of it interferes with the message.
In everyday communication, spoken exchanges take place because there is some sort of information gap between the participants. Communicative output activities involve a similar real information gap. In order to complete the task, students must reduce or eliminate the information gap. In these activities, language is a tool, not an end in itself.
In a balanced activities approach, you will use a variety of activities from these different categories of input and output. Learners at all proficiency levels, including beginners, benefit from this variety; it is more motivating, and it is also more likely to result in effective language learning.