Teacher interview: A spotlight on speaking

Jess Hytner

All November we’ve been exploring the importance of effectively teaching speaking in ELT. To get a teacher’s take on things, we spoke to Andy French from Select English to find out how he approaches teaching speaking in his classroom. Andy discusses the challenges around teaching this skill and shares practical suggestions for creating a safe speaking environment.

What do you enjoy most about teaching speaking?

Speaking is a social activity, so I think it’s the most enjoyable of the four skills, and it’s just fun – you and all the students can find out about each other’s’ lives.

What’s the biggest challenge with teaching speaking?

It’s definitely much harder to address problems and demonstrate progress to students when evaluating speaking. For one thing, speaking is more immediate than writing – it’s an unconscious activity in a way that writing often isn’t. In writing, we can look at the mistakes a student has made – the student can see them and acknowledge them – but after speaking there’s usually no recorded evidence of what happened. Therefore providing meaningful feedback is trickier.

Some students struggle to express themselves verbally. In your opinion, what are the main reasons for students having anxieties around speaking English?

There are many reasons. Some students are shy, which leads to anxiety about being put on the spot. It’s perfectly normal – I feel shy when I have to speak a foreign language! It can be scary – there is always a chance that you may be criticized for your mistakes or your pronunciation, or someone might make you feel stupid. Also the anxiety can come from not being able to understand the reply or what someone is saying to you – this is the result of not having a sufficiently large vocabulary.

To combat this, how do you create a safe speaking environment?

First, you should emphasise or focus on pair work – don’t try and do everything together as a class, otherwise some students will dominate. Have students change partners regularly, so they can work with people they want to work with, and give them more opportunities to repeat a speaking task with multiple partners. Give students time to prepare. Have them write out ideas before they speak, or consolidate their ideas in writing after a speaking task, in between repetitions of a task. This improves students’ fluency and accuracy and helps them feel less anxious.

Organize your classes to ensure that students have speaking practice of some form every day – whether it’s small talk, conversations, discussions, or longer speaking turns. They need to get used to the idea that it’s normal to speak in class. This will help reduce anxiety. If your class is particularly hesitant to speak, try putting on music (in the background). The background noise will assure them that they’re not being judged or standing out. Finally, most importantly, give students a really good reason to speak – either by creating interesting questions, or by giving them some form of question with an objective e.g. Who is the most annoying person in your family? Which food is your favourite / which food do you hate? If students are genuinely motivated to speak they’ll feel a lot less anxious. Likewise if the questions are about their lives, they’ll have ideas to contribute.

What makes for a good speaking topic?

In my opinion you shouldn’t make the assumption that students will always be interested in academic or high-brow topics like global warming, particularly in the abstract sense. Some students will enjoy these topics but some will have nothing to say. In my view it’s much better to choose topics with a more ‘human’ edge – things that directly relate to people’s lives. One of the best things you can do is choose questions that you, as a teacher, would enjoy answering in English. Focus on emotions, opinions; what behaviour do you dislike? Who is your favourite actor? Think about annoying things, personal things, areas of general human interest. For instance, you could tackle a topic like crime but instead of making it abstract you could talk about your own experiences such as whether you’ve ever had your phone or bag stolen.

What advice would you give new teachers about how to effectively teach a speaking activity?

So you’ve got your interesting, generative activity, and students are accustomed to the routine of speaking in class. You should ensure that students have the language they need to fulfil the activity, for instance by activating language through thought-provoking images, brainstorming ideas to surface recently learned or relevant vocabulary, providing a bank of useful (known) phrases to negotiate a discussion or organise a longer turn, or giving them word cards to “spend” during the activity. The focus should be on speaking, and feeling confident and comfortable. While the activity is underway, you don’t need to interfere and you don’t need to correct. If there’s only one of you and a large number of students then your corrections, especially whole class corrections, will not have a noticeable effect and will only serve to interrupt the flow.

One very important thing is to not be afraid to make students practice the same things over and over, either in the space of one lesson or across several lessons, because there are obvious fluency benefits to practicing the same subject as opposed to a new one every day – particularly when the focus is speaking. If they already have the language resources available to manage an activity, they can focus on becoming more fluent and confident and generating different ideas.

What is the role of a teacher during a speaking activity?

The teacher’s role is to monitor quietly and not interfere. Don’t loom over the students because that will make them uncomfortable – they’ll feel that you’re judging them, and that’ll mean they’re less willing the experiment with the language and have fun with the activity. The best thing you can do is to sit and respond to any questions students have on anything they don’t understand. But it’s important not to interfere because you can help too much and prevent them from speaking.

You can hear more insights and experiences around teaching speaking in the recording of our Let’s Talk Speaking author panel discussion.


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