3 ways to get the most out of speaking activities

Robert Dobie

Robert Dobie is an ELT teacher and owner of the popular ESL resource site, All Things Grammar. Following on from yesterday’s post (5 great reasons to extend activities), Robert talks about how to get the most out of speaking activities in your classroom. He also provides a downloadable rubric and grade sheet!

Often, two of the main objectives of any speaking lesson are (1) to get the learners talking and, once the first objective is achieved, (2) to help them measurably improve their speaking ability. This sounds easy enough, but, unfortunately, there are a few simple strategies which are often overlooked by teachers to help them achieve these two objectives. Here are three common strategies for getting the most out of speaking activities.

1.  Keep it Personal

Ask me about the things I bought yesterday, and why I bought them, and I’ll talk your ears off. This is only natural because I know exactly what I bought and why I bought them – I don’t have to give much thought to it. And, well, to be honest, I just like to talk about myself! However, ask me about the general state of the economy and I really won’t have as much to say.

So, yes, let your students discuss general, abstract questions (especially intermediate and advanced learners who have a better command of English), but don’t forget to include a number of discussion questions that allow them to talk about their personal lives and express their opinions on interesting subjects that matter to them.

Unfortunately, ESOL textbooks are often published with a worldwide audience in mind, so speaking activity topics may be unsuited for your particular learners. For example, what’s of interest to immigrant learners in London may seem ‘out of place’ in a secondary school in Taiwan or Brazil. Therefore, don’t be afraid to pass over these kinds of questions – and come up with your own list of questions targeted at your own group of learners.

2.  Learner Preparation

Studies have shown that language learners who are first given time to think carefully about a question will respond to it using better vocabulary and grammar. Yes, in ‘real life’ we don’t often get a chance to do this, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the classroom is not a normal, social environment – it’s a learning environment. So, consider giving a few minutes to your learners to read through a list of questions (and mentally prepare) – before having them discuss these questions in pairs or small groups.

3. What is a ‘Speaking Rubric’ and why use one?

A rubric is simply a set of instructions for grading a test. It allows a teacher to know when to give a grade of B+ on a speaking test, and when to give a C.  Rubrics, obviously, are useful for tests, but you should also consider using them every now and then as a part of classroom speaking activities. There are at least three reasons for this:

(1)  When your learners are familiar with a rubric, they will focus more on specific learning objectives such as organization, vocabulary and grammar, body language, etc. when they speak.

(2)  Used regularly over time, rubrics (along with speaking task grade sheets) can help you track the speaking progress of your learners. This is especially important when you have a large class size (and individual learners merge ‘namelessly’ into the crowd).

(3)  Rubrics (and speaking task grade sheets) can be shared with your learners in real time – they provide instant, detailed learner feedback.

Do you have a large class size?  Then consider training your learners how to use a rubric – and have them grade each other (as practice only, not as a ‘real’ test) and give peer feedback to their classmates. For inspiration, take a look at this conversation activity and rubric sheetand think about your own particular group of learners and create your own!

If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to start this series from the beginning, check out Robert’s first post, 5 activities using only a crossword and a pair of scissors!

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