Strategies for Developing Speaking Skills

Students often think that the ability to speak a language is the product of language learning, but speaking is also a crucial part of the language learning process. Effective instructors teach students speaking strategies — using minimal responses, recognizing scripts, and using language to talk about language — that they can use to help themselves expand their knowledge of the language and their confidence in using it. These instructors help students learn to speak so that the students can use speaking to learn.

1. Using minimal responses

Language learners who lack confidence in their ability to participate successfully in oral interaction often listen in silence while others do the talking. One way to encourage such learners to begin to participate is to help them build up a stock of minimal responses that they can use in different types of exchanges. Such responses can be especially useful for beginners.

Minimal responses are predictable, often idiomatic phrases that conversation participants use to indicate understanding, agreement, doubt, and other responses to what another speaker is saying. Having a stock of such responses enables a learner to focus on what the other participant is saying, without having to simultaneously plan a response.

2. Recognizing scripts

Some communication situations are associated with a predictable set of spoken exchanges — a script. Greetings, apologies, compliments, invitations, and other functions that are influenced by social and cultural norms often follow patterns or scripts. So do the transactional exchanges involved in activities such as obtaining information and making a purchase. In these scripts, the ways that the speakers’ turns relate to one another can often be anticipated.

For example, in an interaction with a customer service person, the expected sequence starts with an offer of assistance (such as, “Can I help you?”) and proceeds through a statement of need or problem, a response to the need or problem, an offer of thanks or appreciation, and an acknowledgement of the thanks, ending with a leave-taking exchange. You can help your students develop speaking ability by making them aware of the scripts or expected sequences for different situations so that they can predict what they will hear and what they will need to say in response.

Teaching your students about scripts is not the same as having them memorize and repeat pre-set dialogues. Scripts are fluid; the content of turns differs from situation to situation depending on the circumstances, and the sequence can differ as well. Through interactive activities that present different situations and allow students to use their own creativity, you can give students practice in managing and varying the language that different scripts contain.

3. Using language to talk about language

Language learners are often too embarrassed or shy to say anything when they do not understand another speaker or when they realize that a conversation partner has not understood them. You can help your students overcome this reticence by assuring them that misunderstanding and the need for clarification can occur in any type of interaction, whatever the participants’ language skill levels. You can also give your students strategies and phrases to use for clarification and comprehension check.

By encouraging students to use clarification phrases in class when misunderstanding occurs, and by responding positively when they do, you can create an authentic practice environment within the classroom itself. As your students develop control of various clarification strategies, they will gain confidence in their ability to manage the various communication situations that they may encounter outside the classroom.