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Speaking Extra

Page history last edited by Martin Warters 9 years, 11 months ago

 Follow up reading 




Of all the four skills, speaking is the one which probably generates the most discussion and controversy. Perhaps this has something to do with its uncertain position within the context of communicative language teaching (CLT) which, as we have seen from the subject Methodological Approaches, has been the "dominant model in English language teaching" for more than two decades. The general confusion surrounding the subject is compounded by the fact that "there is no single text or general authority on CLT ... it is a set of approaches" although language teachers have tried to bring order to their classrooms and have logically assumed (since 'communicative' very often implies oral communication) that speaking forms a central column upon which CLT is built. This may be true but some teachers have perhaps taken this a little too far by placing too much emphasis on the skill of speaking to the exclusion of the other three skills as well as other areas of the curriculum (notably grammar). This, it seems, lay at the heart of a backlash by those working in the field of second language acquisition and although CLT is still undoubtedly the dominant paradigm, it has attracted a certain amount of criticism. Michael Swan (1985: 11) was amongst its strongest critics and he concluded: "... the communicative theory of meaning and use ... is largely irrelevant to foreign language teaching". The present era of so called 'designer' methods and multi-syllabi appears to have muddied the waters even more.

So what is the present position of speaking, or 'oral communication', in language curricula? Nina Spada's study (1990) analyzing differences in second language teaching programs does little to palliate much of what we have said above that there is indeed widespread uncertainty regarding the exact role and extent to which speaking should play as a part of the language syllabus. Spada (1990: 300) noted that even programs described as 'communicative' were found to "provide limited opportunities for students to practice communicating to each other". McDonough and Shaw (1993: 151) seem to confirm this in their assertion that speaking in some quarters is "undervalued ... taken for granted ... lower priority". However, such findings must be analyzed within the context as a whole and in this light they may be said to highlight the exception rather than the rule and do not reflect the groundswell of opinion in the profession. A cursory examination of ELT materials published over the last five years bears witness to the fact that the majority of authors working in the field give great importance to oral communication in foreign and second language teaching.

Of course, practical considerations like large classes may serve to push the skill of speaking down the list of priorities but the continuing growth of English as an international language and its exalted position as the language of trade coupled with the concept of the 'global village', which essentially means that we are brought more frequently in face-to-face contact with our friends, relatives and business partners, makes speaking for most teachers and students "... the most important" skill (Ur 1996: 120). Furthermore, in the short term at least, it is unlikely that the primacy of speaking will diminish due to the present interest shown amongst educationalists world wide for 'interpersonal skills' as a part of 'Multiple Intelligence Theory' (Gardner 1993). In point of fact, the Ministry of Education in England seem to have embraced Gardner's theory wholeheartedly in its promotion of 'Neuro-linguistic programming' and 'Accelerated Learning' courses for teachers.

McDonough and Shaw (1993:152) summaries our reasons for speaking as follows:

1. Expressing ideas and opinions.

2. Expressing a wish or desire to do something.

3. Negotiating and/or solving a particular problem.

4. Establishing and maintaining social relationships and friendships.

To itemise each type of speech act in the form of a list would be a pointless exercise since the list would be almost infinite. However, a cursory glance at McDonough and Shaw's summary above is enough to reveal that (in their words):

speaking is desire and purpose-driven, in other words we genuinely want to communicate something to achieve a particular end.

Organizing principles

An interactive approach

According to Byrne (1986:8):

Oral communication is a two-way process between speaker and listener where both the speaker and the listener have a positive function to perform...the speaker has to encode the message he wishes to convey in appropriate language, while the listener (no less actively) has to decode (or interpret) the message.

From our overview of listening, we know that it is difficult to disassociate the skill of listening from speaking and we have taken note of the fact that in many cases they are mutually dependent and rarely carried out in isolation. Indeed, the listener often plays an important part in shaping what the speaker says which leads Nunan (1989) to the conclusion that successful communicators develop 'conversational listening skills'. Speaking is therefore an interactive process although we should perhaps modify the exclusiveness of the two-way nature in Byrne's statement and recognize that there will be times when the speaker's role will be essentially passive which is emphasized in McGregor's model of collaborative discourse (see Section 2.2.3) Yet McGregor's model itself is not wholly satisfactory in that four of the five categories of listening in his model - addressee, auditor, overhearer, judge - are basically passive whereas any current corpus of spoken discourse will reveal that Byrne's initial assertion of communication being a reciprocal skill is true in the majority of cases.

The characteristics of spoken language

We will remember the characteristics of spoken language which influence the process of listening and in particular Richards' (1985) list of "medium factors" (see Section 2.2.2) which underline the complexity of the listener's task. Let us compare this with Brown and Yule's (1983) examination of spoken language forms most frequently used:

These features of spoken English are usually associated with conversations and although we may not be conscious of it, there are certain well-defined rules which must be adhered to if the participants in the conversation are to achieve a satisfactory outcome. One important rule of conversations is that of turn-taking. We have all experienced one-sided conversations in which the speaker 'holds the floor' thereby denying other participants the opportunity to take part. Frustrating though this may be, however, the act of floor holding is a highly skilled practice and one which is well developed in politicians in any language. But in the case of informal conversations most people participate on the basis of their allotted turn. The analysis of turn-taking is an extensively investigated field of research which lies within the domain of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (CA) and its complexity is highlighted by Duncan's (1972) list of cues to signal when speakers were about to yield their turn. These cues included gaze, syntax, intonation, loudness, drawl, stereotyped tags, gesture.

In essence then speaking in conversations may outwardly appear to be a spontaneous and unplanned event but it is in fact highly organised and follows a rigid (albeit tacit) code of conduct. McCarthy and Carter (1994: 140) underline the value to the language learner of comparing dialogue and conversational exchanges although they conclude:

The conversations in language course books are inevitably neat and tidy events, symmetrical, polite and geared towards a co-operative exchange of ideas and information.(McCarthy and Carter 1994: 140)


Implications for the classroom

Throughout this study, we have referred to the importance of authenticity in ESL. In the case of speaking, however, it is sometimes difficult to see what teachers can do to make activities authentic especially in the light of the characteristics of spoken English that we noted above. It is certainly possible to analyse such characteristics and in so doing awaken a consciousness within the learner of what natural spoken English should look and sound like. Moreover, this does not necessarily imply giving over large chunks of lessons to examine these characteristics or indeed would it require substantial preparation: two important considerations for teachers with heavy timetables. For example, the use of 'fillers', which not only punctuate and demarcate conversational exchanges but also allow us precious time to process information which is being received in 'real time', is something that we might simply remind our students of whilst they are talking. A student who is able to incorporate the use of 'fillers' into his/her conversation can be assured that his/her English will sound instantly more natural and native-like. On the other hand, a student who fails to use 'fillers' in conversation may appear not to be following the speaker or at worst be judged to be rude. We have taken account of the fact that time and effort may not be prohibitive factors for introducing the idea of 'fillers' into lessons although this does not in any way presuppose that learners will somehow find incorporating this aspect of language use into their general speech patterns easy to achieve for as McDonough and Shaw (1993: 156-7) observe "the non-native speaker is often reluctant to use such strategies when speaking".

Numerous studies in the field of second language acquisition have focused on interference of L1 when learning L2, but it is quite often the case (although by no means the rule) that we can use our knowledge of L1 to assist us in our learning and understanding of L2. The rules for turn-taking in Spanish and English are undoubtedly shaded by subtle nuances but they also have much in common so that the basic timing of our intervention in a conversation may not present too much of a problem. However, the appropriate of our response and the actual language we use may be critical.

The teacher's use of English in the classroom can be a fundamental source of learning. Indeed, in many ways the classroom situation whereby students play out the role of 'addressee' (i.e. having limited opportunity to respond according to McGregor's (1986) model of collaborative discourse) may be said to approximate to 'gestalt strategy' which posits that some children remain silent for long periods analysing language and gathering data when they are learning their mother tongue (Ellis 1994: 79). The traditional classroom environment virtually imposes 'gestalt' conditions of learning on the student. There are, therefore, strong arguments for the exclusive use of L2 in ELT and this is the basic rationale behind immersion education programmes although we should perhaps bring a measure of equanimity to the issue by noting that there are equally strong arguments for the use of L1 in the classroom which include questions of time saving, comprehension at the presentation stage, maintaining discipline, translation, etc. (Roldán Tapia 1997: 27).

Interaction between the teacher and the learner can also have a seminal effect on the learning process but as Sinclair and Coulthard's (1975) well known study of classroom discourse shows this type of classroom interaction has "been found to manifest distinct and fairly predictable characteristics" (Ellis 1994: 574) which bring us back to questions of authenticity. (This topic will in fact be the field of study covered in the subject Approaches to language in the classroom context.) In the traditional classroom the three part exchange - teacher's initial move; learner's response; teacher's follow up move - described in Sinclair and Coulthard's (1975, see next page) research gives little opportunity for real communication to take place and in many cases so called 'display' questions used by teachers have more to do with exerting control over the class than eliciting information.

Furthermore, McCarthy (1991: 122) finds, somewhat negatively, that the three part exchange is still the norm especially in classes of 40-50.

Tony Lynch (1996) is one of a growing number of researchers in applied linguistic studies who has forwarded the case for learner interaction which is based on a more natural notion of conversational exchange. He suggests that teachers' questions, for example, should be 'referential' or 'real' (i.e. genuinely seeking new information) instead of 'display' for three main reasons:

Lynch (1996: 110) continues:

If we want to extend learners' competence in speaking, we have to know when to relax our control over classroom interaction, so as to give them the chance to practise freer talk. This does not mean that the classroom has to undergo total revolution or that teachers should abandon all control. But we should be including at least occasional activities which realign the communicative roles of teachers and learners, by enabling learners to take over responsibility for the interaction. The teacher still exercises control, but through choice of task, of grouping, and so on, and not by limiting the language the learners produce.

However, Richard Cullen sounded a cautious note on the theme of authenticity and "Communicative teacher talk" at the 1997 IATEFL Conference:

Attempts to characterise communicativeness merely in terms of features of authentic communication which pertain outside the classroom are over-simplistic and ignore the reality of the classroom context and the features which make for effective communication within that context.


Byrne (1986: 76) remarks that class size is "a purely arbitrary unit" which "is normally both economical and effective" at the presentation and practice stages. However, there will be various moments at the production stage when the teacher may prefer to divide the class into groups and this is "seen as an essential feature of communicative language teaching." (Ellis 1994: 598) Long and Porter (cf. Ellis, Ibid.) summarise the main pedagogical arguments in favour of group work:

It increases language practice opportunities, it improves quality of student talk, it helps to individualise instruction, it promotes a positive affective climate, and it motivates students to learn. In addition to these pedagogic arguments, a psycholinguistic justification has been advanced: group work provides the kind of input and opportunities for output that promotes rapid L2 acquisition.

Picking up on the final point, Ellis (1994: 598) draws attention to the fact that there are

more opportunities for language production and greater variety of language use in initiating discussion, asking for clarification, interrupting, competing for the floor, and joking.

In short, group work reproduces within the classroom setting many of the facets of an authentic speaking situation in which the negotiation of content is clarified to the satisfaction of the participants. Moreover, in contrary to suggestions that exposure to incorrect peer input may have a negative effect on learning, Ellis (1994: 599) highlights a number of studies which indicate that "learners do not appear to be unduly disadvantaged...".

Ur (1996: 121) gives importance to "the sheer amount of learner talk going on in a limited period of time" in group activities as well as the psychological aspect of lowering "inhibitions in learners who are unwilling to speak in front of the full class". She continues:

Unlike reading, writing and listening activities, speaking requires some degree of real-time exposure to an audience. Learners are often inhibited about trying to say things in a foreign language in a classroom: worried about making mistakes, fearful of criticism or losing face, or simply shy of the attention that their speaking attracts.

Another advantage of group work is linked to learner autonomy: a subject which has received considerable attention in recent years. In group activities, students are given a measure of responsibility to take charge of their own learning. Many students will find this motivating but there is also a downside and there are a number of problems which are associated with group activities too. Byrne (1986: 79) lists some of these problems:

Conscious of such problems, Ian Tudor (1997: 19) emphasises the need for all learning programmes to "contain a learner training component." Like many other practices in the classroom, group activities take time to get accustomed to both by the teacher and the learner. Learner training, it seems then, may lie at the heart of successful group work activities.

It also seems clear that many of the problems of group work can be avoided by careful planning and monitoring (in the production stage) on behalf of the teacher. The teacher's role is, therefore, a crucial one which requires a certain degree of flexibility. Indeed, during the course of group work activities, the teacher's role may take on any one or all of the following guises: leader, organiser, coordinator, monitor, participant, consultant, etc. (for a complete list refer back to Methodological Approaches, section

Penny Ur (1996: 123) reflects on the relative merits and demerits of dividing groups on the basis of ability. This, of course, is an age old argument and one which is central to the understanding of the English education system. Ability groupings, she summarises, put a "failure label onto members of the lower groups" although she also notes that weaker students can be:

taught at a pace suitable for them, while the better students do not need to wait for the slower ones to catch up.

On the other hand, mixing groups "encourages the slower ones to progress faster, without penalizing the more able".

Current research into mixed ability grouping and mixed ability teaching leans towards the positive benefits for both more and less able students. As Lynch (1996: 115) says, although "a higher-level may not want to work with a weaker partner" there are advantages for both: "the more proficient learner gets practice in producing comprehensible output; the weaker partner gains experience in negotiating meaning." Furthermore, Varonis and Gass (cf. Lynch: 1996: 115) argue that "the greater the differences between learners, the greater the natural need for negotiation". All these topics will be further developed under the subject Classroom management - techniques and reflections on practice. Summing up then, we might make the observation that current research and opinion tend to add weight to the notion of 'cooperative learning' as a methodological approach.


As one might expect, a typology of speaking activities is as "multifarious" as our reasons for speaking and it is not surprising that typologies differ (sometimes quite markedly) from book to book. Some books give special emphasis to a particular activity where other books might not mention it at all; categories of activities very often overlap and so on. Nevertheless, there are certain activities which are common to most books dealing with speaking as a skill. Here is a tentative summary of these activities:


In the introduction we made the critical observation that for many learners speaking is the most important of the four skills. However, Spada's (1990) study showed how this was not always reflected in the classroom. We also picked up on Byrne's (1986) assertion that in the majority of situations, speaking is a two-way process and that listening was therefore a crucial part of the exchange. We further saw the complexity of 'turn-taking' and that, like other elements of native spoken English, these are facets of the language which we need to make our students aware of.

We found that speaking in groups has several far-reaching benefits among which are that it lowers inhibitions to talk and that there is the potential for a lot of communication to take place. Group work also offers opportunities to negotiate meaning which brings authenticity to the activity and that this is increased in mixed ability groups. On the negative side, we noted that group work can also be problematic but that many problems can be overcome by a period of learner training. Finally, we looked at the advantages and disadvantages of 'topic' and 'task-based' activities and observed that although it was good to allow for individual preferences in learning style, 'topic-based' activities were probably more productive.



How can you develop greater confidence to speak English in your students?


List as many ideas as you can







Here are some suggestions

- freedom to create their own language, not just repeat the teacher or book

- freedom to create language without being corrected (made wrong)

- freedom to take a few risks, try a few things out

- an understanding that the more they speak, the more they learn

- give your students the time and space to talk - to you, to other students

- praise your students for making an effort, even if it's not all correct

- make speaking fun - play games, make jokes, solve problems



Things to do which encourage students to speak

So, let's give students lots of things to do that make them talk. Here are a few ideas:

- ask students to guess meanings before telling them

- ask them to imagine things

- ask them to describe pictures

- ask them to talk together to solve a problem - in English of course!

- do some brainstorming - find out what vocabulary or grammar students already know before reading a text or studying some grammar

- ask them to roleplay practical situations together

- ask them to give a presentaiton to the class on a topic they like

- if 1 makes a mistake, ask another student to correct it and to explain the correction

- give the quieter students things to do which will encourage them to say something

- ask students to check each other's answers to an exercise and to work out why they might be different if they don't agree with each other

- play games which involve speaking, eg. 20 Questions, Categories, or Spot the Difference (link/reference appropriately)




Accuracy vs Fluency


Being accurate when speaking and writing is clearly important. people will understand you more easily, your ideas will be better expressed, and you will communicate your thoughts precisely. This is why we are interested in choosing the correct tense, getting word order right and using the words which express our ideas best.


However, accuracy is not everything. To speak at a level where you are getting everything right at all times puts you above almost all native speakers. As an ambition - both for you and your students - it sets the bar unrealistcally high and can therefore lead to frustration and disappointment. Worst of all for a learner, it can dissuade them from speaking for fear of making mistakes. And study after study, experience after experience shows that if you're not talking, you're not learning . Language is a living, breathing entity that requires articulation for it to make sense. There's no point of learning English if you're too afraid to use it!







When to Stop & Correct



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