On Speaking: Enhancing student interaction in the classroom

Niall Curry

Niall Curry, Senior ELT Research Manager, continues to delve into the latest research on teaching speaking with this look at the importance of peer interaction. This article is based on the Enhancing student interaction in the language classroom whitepaper by Rebecca Adams, which takes a look at both the research in this important area and the practical implications for teachers.

How to develop speaking skills in the language classroom has been a recurring theme in our recent posts on giving feedback, time management, and increasing motivation from immersive tasks. In this article I’m taking a closer look at what is arguably the most important factor in facilitating speaking lessons – peer interaction. Specifically, how we can enhance peer interaction in the language classroom, drawing on research discussed in our latest white paper Enhancing student interaction in the language classroom. In this paper, Rebecca Adams tries to demystify what is going on in peer-interactions, demonstrating their value not only as opportunities for language practice, but also for language learning.

So why is peer interaction important?

Well for one thing, learners in peer-to-peer contexts get to talk more. They have longer turns, and more of them, and build on each other’s knowledge – this is often quite different from teacher-student interactions. In fact, research has shown that in peer interaction learners exhibit much greater complexity in their language and variety when compared to speaking to native speakers. What’s most important to remember here is that in these situations learners are not just practicing using language. Rather, they are often experimenting with language, taking risks and making mistakes – core criteria for successful language learning. This is possible because learners are in control of their language learning and can create a space where they feel safe to play with the language and consolidate their knowledge. For example, giving students a task with dated pictures and having them tell each other stories about the pictures would encourage the use of the past tenses in a way that helps them to consolidate their understanding of the tense.

Not only does this give learners an opportunity to organise their learning and take control, they also get the added bonus of learning in a communicative and social way. This can help with teenage and adult learners and grammar for example, where research has shown that learning grammar in social contexts can be more effective than solitary attempts. Moreover, creating a safe space for speaking among peers can have positive effects on foreign language learning anxiety, allowing learners more time to prepare themselves to speak more openly in front of others thus increasing motivation.

What are the benefits for the teacher?

With all this talk of the learners, let’s not forget about the teachers. Although the learners are doing most of the talking, the teachers’ roles remain paramount. Teachers need to prepare learners to be successful in peer groups. We need to make them see the evident value of peer interaction. A value that can help the learner become the speaker they want to be. This may require some explicit teaching of interactional skills and language as well as working with learners on their motivations. Teachers also need to keep students on track, make sure the tasks are relevant and engaging with a real world value akin to the types of tasks discussed in our post on immersive speaking tasks.

There are practical considerations too, like gauging the use of learners’ L1s and how to organise the groups or pairs to create successful and useful peer interactions. Overall, what is clear is how the teacher facilities peer interaction in speaking lessons will have a direct impact on its value for language learning. If you want to know more, or want to get some tips for managing peer interactions in your classrooms effectively, there is more information in the research paper Enhancing student interaction in the language classroom.

For more hints and tips on teaching speaking, make sure to take a look at our Safe Speaking page where you will find plenty of insights and inspiration on this important area.

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