There’s a common misconception that teaching conversation classes or conducting speaking activities with intermediate to advanced level learners requires less effort than teaching, say, grammar to a beginner student. While we’d agree that working with a student who has a strong foundation of English can feel a bit more comfortable, conducting speaking activities with them certainly shouldn’t feel like a walk in the park.
When it comes to the teacher’s role during speaking activities, there’s a delicate balance between teaching and communicating. Oftentimes, during student opportunities for free speaking or conversation, our tendency to want to guide, correct, and fulfill the traditional teacher role can take over and get in the way. This ends up interrupting our ability to actively listen and participate in quality conversation with our students. You may have also found yourself drawn to the other end of the spectrum where you simply want to give your student(s) uninterrupted time to speak so you put your teacher role aside and step in as friend or chatting partner. This approach is equally as harmful since students aren’t corrected in this situation and can develop, or solidify errors. So, what can you do about it? Well, we’ve gathered a few tips for teachers to implement when conducting free speaking activities below.
Practice active listening to the content and ideas your student is sharing while they speak, rather than listening only for errors. As teachers, we’re used to listening for errors but this doesn’t really allow us to absorb what our students are talking about. To actively listen (as a teacher), you’ll need to balance listening for content as well as errors. In the beginning, you may find that having a pen and paper (or a digital notepad/doc) in front of you while your student shares is helpful in recording any important content you want to respond to or comment on after they’ve finished speaking. This can also be a space to quietly record any big errors you want to address. Use this space for repeat errors or big mistakes that seem to be fossilized errors (we’ll talk more about this below). After a while, you’ll gain practice in the balance between active listening for content and keeping an ear out for errors to correct later. The most important thing is to give your student uninterrupted space to share their ideas and practice their speaking.
It sounds easy right? We do this on a daily basis with our friends, family, and colleagues when we want to know more about something they are sharing. In the teacher seat though, we can forget to make natural conversation and ask follow-up questions. These are so important in 1) prompting your student to share more and therefore, practice speaking for longer, and 2) replicating “real” conversation situations they may have outside of the classroom. This skill is closely tied to the one above. If you’re really listening to the message your student is sharing, you’ll be interested to ask more questions and really engage in conversation. Don’t shy away from follow-up questions because they provide your student the potentially rare opportunity (at least in class) to think on their feet and speak without much preparation. Bonus marks for encouraging your students to ask each other follow-up questions while they’re sharing something too!
Speaking activities and opportunities for conversation should always focus on student talking time (STT) rather than teacher talking time (TTT). BUT, this doesn’t mean that you never get to speak. Sharing your opinion, experience, or an anecdote can be a great way to build rapport with your learners, not to mention model language! When sharing your own perspective you can either do this to kick off a speaking activity where your perspective acts as an example response to a question OR a follow-up response to either get your students speaking more, or to create the environment of a real back-and-forth conversation. To do this, share your ideas briefly (leave long stories for your teacher friends), ask thoughtful questions, or share something that acts as food for thought or that begs a response.
Intermediate and advanced anguage learners are experts in communicating through the language they know and don’t know. Most intermediate and advanced level learners tend to communicate just fine by avoiding certain verb tenses, phrases, or vocabulary when they lack confidence in a particular area of language, but that doesn’t mean we should let it slide. If you notice your student avoiding certain verb tenses, conditional statements, or natural vocabulary in instances where they should be used to communicate more clearly or effectively, make a note. It’s very likely that your student knows they should be using different language to communicate the meaning, but they lack the knowledge or confidence to use the appropriate grammar or vocabulary. When you notice a trend in a particular communication strategy, plan a lesson that addresses the grammar point (or target language) your student has been avoiding. Once they learn how to use it properly and confidently, they’ll thank you for bringing it up!
Much like communication strategies, language learners tend to use comfortable (to them) approaches to expressing themselves. You may see and hear students use formal language to share an opinion, only agree with others or with a previously expressed stance on a topic, or they may overuse expressions. Just like with the sneaky communication strategies mentioned above, make a note of these when you begin to see a trend. Keep track of that trend and then design a lesson that addresses other ways of communication – maybe how to state an opposing perspective, how to disagree, how to change the topic of a conversation, etc. It’s important that teachers keep an eye out for the missing puzzle pieces of a learner’s speaking and communication skills. If we don’t seek out areas that beg for growth (or correction), we allow our learners to plateau at their current proficiency level.
These are errors that students have gotten away with for a long time – ones that don’t necessarily cause misunderstandings, but that don’t sound natural or correct. It’s incredibly common for intermediate and advanced learners to have fossilized errors in their communication and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to address them and then keep students accountable for not reverting back to them later. Fossilized errors are fairly easy to spot because they are usually something that a student of their level should have mastered, and learners often don’t realize they are making an error. Usually, students have an idea when they are making mistakes because they slow their speech down before committing the error (because they may be unsure about how to say something), or their intonation goes up after attempting to express an idea. With fossilized errors, however, there’s complete confidence and a lack of awareness that an error has been made. Make note of these errors and address them when you’ve noticed them more than once (if it happened just one time, it’s possible that their mistake was just a lapse in communication – we do this sometimes in our own L1!). It’s important to correct, or even re-teach the concept and then be sure to keep your student accountable when this grammar, pronunciation, or vocab error pops up again. These types of errors may require constant correction and have to be addressed in real-time right after the student makes the error. Look here for some really helpful tips for addressing errors in a non-verbal way!
You see? Speaking activities and speaking lessons require quite a bit of mental juggling and careful communication. With these tips though, you’ll be maneuvering through these activities and lessons with your learners like a true pro!