5 factors for successful speaking practice

Caroline Thiriau

What can we as teachers do to help students overcome their anxieties related to speaking? Caroline Thiriau introduces how to create ‘safe speaking environments’ by combining five key elements.

Many students measure their progress in English through their confidence and ability to speak spontaneously when faced with situations in the ‘real world’, such as, helping a tourist with directions in the street or greeting a colleague from overseas at work. If the student struggles, they feel that they have made no progress in English despite studying for many years.

In the classroom, however, it can be difficult to get students to actively participate in the speaking practice activities which are designed to prepare them for such situations. So, as educators we are faced with a paradox: students measure their own progress through their comfort level/ability to speak but can be reluctant to do the very thing that will help them improve – speaking practice.

Typical blockers for participation in speaking practice in class are factors like fear of judgement from peers and/or the teacher, lack of confidence, embarrassment, and inability to formulate ideas in English on the spot. What can we do to help students overcome this anxiety?

Research tells us that students learn better in contexts where they feel confident, motivated, supported and able to experiment with language (Dornyei, 2005). So, in order to give students the best chance of success in developing their speaking, we need to create safe speaking environments. We can do this by combining five key elements:

1. Time: How often do we find that speaking practice has to be squeezed in at the end of the lesson, or in between other parts of the syllabus which have taken priority, such as grammar, vocabulary, reading skills? The result can be that speaking practice is rushed with little time for students to formulate and express their ideas or receive feedback. Is it possible to dedicate more time to speaking in the syllabus and in the classroom?

2. Immersive speaking activities: Cognitively-engaging, collaborative tasks involving problem-solving, decision-making and/or the creation of a piece of work, in which every student contributes to the final result, can improve learner engagement and confidence. In a language learning context, speaking activities with these traits can relieve some of the anxiety around speaking practice because producing the language is not an end in itself but, rather, the ‘tool’ used to achieve the collaborative goal.

3. Engaging, relevant topics: We all know that it is difficult to formulate ideas about a topic you know or care little about. Engagement with speaking activities is more likely when materials connect to the learner’s experiences and background knowledge (Meltzer & Hamann, 2004). However, it can be difficult to find topics that suit our classes, especially when students have such wide-ranging interests. Can we flip this around and involve the students more in selecting topics for discussion?

4. Positive peer interaction: Classes are rarely homogenous in terms of level and personality types, which is what makes them fun to teach, right? 😉 For students, peer pressure can be a cause for anxiety. For example, students may feel embarrassed to speak in front of stronger students. Conversely stronger students may not see the value in practising speaking with weaker students. Can we turn peer pressure into peer support and create an atmosphere in which learners encourage each other, where they feel comfortable trying out new language, experimenting with new forms and making mistakes? What can we do to foster a learning environment where classmates respect and value each other’s contribution, and create a cohesive learner group?

5. Supportive feedback: If students are reluctant to speak because they are afraid of looking or sounding silly, of making mistakes and of being judged, can we make feedback less about error correction and more about support and encouragement? Can we take the fear out of feedback by creating environments in which experimenting with language is encouraged and ‘errors’ are opportunities to learn?

Over the next few months, we will be sharing research insights on the theme of safe speaking environments, discussing the challenges of teaching speaking in more depth and sharing practical ideas on how to incorporate the five elements above, so watch this space if you have found this topic interesting. If you can’t wait that long, check out the references and further reading.


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