On Speaking: Creating a safe speaking environment

Niall Curry

In the last speaking blog in this series, Niall Curry, Senior ELT Research Manager, returns to the impetus for our whitepapers on speaking.

In conjunction with Nottingham University, we conducted a large study of almost 14,000 language learners to try to gauge, among other things, their motivations and struggles when learning English. Students overwhelmingly identified that speaking in English is the most fraught, risky and, at times stressful aspect of using their second language.

The value of speaking when learning

We wanted to know more about speaking, what we’re doing in our classrooms and what we can do to make it better. In Maggie Kubanyiova’s paper “Creating a safe speaking environment” she discusses this topic, drawing on much of the research we have presented over the first half of this year. In her paper, she centres on the core perspective that speaking in the language classroom is not just valuable as an opportunity for practice, but is, in fact, a vehicle for language learning.

According to the research, convincing teachers of the value of speaking for learning is not always easy, as teachers, faced with time constraints for example, do not always prioritise speaking. Our paper on “Time for speaking” by Philip Kerr gives more detail on the way we can manage time for speaking tasks, but some practical takeaways discussed in Maggie’s paper focus on how we should see interaction as a means of language learning, where learners, through speaking, can:

  • develop their conversational competence,
  • become more proficient in the use of appropriate, rather than just accurate language,
  • deepen their understanding of difficult concepts,
  • expand their analytic abilities,
  • push each other beyond their current individual capacities,
  • learn to play with language and take risks with it.


Clearly then, making time for speaking is making time for learning. Similarly, Maggie draws on research on immersive tasks (see paper “Motivating learners with immersive speaking tasks” for more on this). Here she reaffirms the importance of challenge, task-orientation, relevance and student involvement as key tenets to creating successful immersive speaking tasks. Tasks which, along with engaging topics based on learners’ lives, interests and realities, can facilitate the creation of a safe speaking space. How do you do this? Well, largely by activating their intrinsic motivations for language learning.

Peer interactions and feedback

So we know that time-allotted, immersive speaking tasks and learner-centred content all help create a safe speaking environment. But there is more. We also have to think about peer interactions and what kind of parings help facilitate safe speaking. Should we use more collaborative pairs or should we pair two dominant students together? What about a more dominant student with a more passive one? Or an expert with a novice? These are important considerations and can impact speaking lessons considerably. We also have to negotiate the role of feedback in creating safe speaking environments. Is the feedback aligned with the pedagogical goal? For example, quite counter-intuitively, positive assessment like ‘very good’ can actually inhibit speaking by allowing students to think they’ve done enough, whereas such feedback as an invitation to elaborate can be more valuable for encouraging more speaking in the classroom. Both peer relationships and the role of feedback play a key role in creating safe speaking environments.

What we know from research is that students not only practice language when speaking, but learn it. We know that speaking needs to be prioritised in the language classroom and that, although it is complex and composed of considerations of time, task types, learner centeredness, peer-interactions and feedback, speaking can allow students to immerse themselves in relevant and personal language that can facilitate language learning. There is so much we could say about speaking for language learning, its value, its application, its importance. For more on the creation of a safe speaking environment, download the whitepaper.

For more whitepapers on speaking, see our previous articles on learner-centred content, developing near-peer learning and enhancing student interaction and motivating learners with immersive tasks.

These insights have been used in the development of our new American English course Evolve. Please visit the Evolve web hub for more information and resources.

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