Teacher: What do you want to do in class?
Student: Speak. I need to practise my speaking.
Teacher: Ok, what do you want to speak about?
Student: Eeh? Ahem…Not sure. (Thinking: You are the teacher, you tell me).
Step forward if you’ve never had this conversation. The vast majority of my students want to speak more in class because it is usually the only time they can use and practise their English. And a vast majority of them do not really know what they want to speak about. That’s why I am writing this post in the hope of offering some directions to take and things to consider.
Please note this is by no means a comprehensive overview; nor is it backed by some official methodological approach. Also, I will be providing links to both free resources and resources that you need to pay for; however the cost is usually very low to having to buy a set of course books for each student – and there is certainly more variety. If you read me regularly, you’ll know of my enthusiasm for small publishers.
The first thing to consider when you’re starting a new class is whether the student(s) have an idea of what they want to do or not. In the former case, life is much easier because you can discuss the options with the class and hand over some of the responsibility to them. If they don’t know, you have to provide some content yourself. Another point to take in mind is the number of students, i.e. is it a 1-1 class, 2-1 or a large or small group? With more students in the group, the opinions may vary and you will have to try to satisfy all.
I am now going to break down what you can speak about and how.
- Talking about yourself
Believe it or not, there are still many people who are able to meet their teacher once or twice a week and spend an hour talking about what happened to them over the past week. This is a classic scenario of hiring an American teacher and meeting them (him, actually, very often) in a pub in Prague to talk about life. There doesn’t seem to be any sound pedagogy for this type of lessons, other than just let the client talk, provide some new words and correct their mistakes. You may think it’s wrong; I am a fatalist and allow it from time to time, but usually for no longer than 15 minutes every lesson. And I would say a direct no to a student who requested this and only this.
2. Talking about something
a) Talking about topics
This is a classic and by far the most popular lessons in my context. Either you or the students decide on a subject and you talk about it. As a springboard you can use a text, a picture, or a video. If you are using a ready-made lesson plan, there is usually some vocabulary involved that you can teach and practise with the class. The advantage is that the students read/listen, speak, and learn new words in context, which is something everybody seems to enjoy.
The teacher can either use some coursebook materials, or make their own. The ESL Library, which I often use, has many topic-based lessons. My students have liked their lessons on the Titanic or Chernobyl, for example.
For video material, I’ve recently become very fond of Fluentize lesson plans and my students really love them. There is always a video and a ready-made lesson plan with vocabulary, grammar, and project work. The videos deal with modern topics that are of interest to many and there are many new, interesting words to learn and take-aways from the lessons.
If you like to use pictures, you can go to Peachy Publications and choose one of their picture-based lessons, such as these. For a moderate price, you get a digital picture lesson with a variety of discussion questions and other tasks. The lessons are fairly loose to allow the teacher put in some of their teaching magic. I, personally, find them very inspiring at the times (like February and March), when I am out of ideas and tend to rotate the same exercises and tasks in my classes.
b) Thinking and Talking
Some students don’t want to talk about themselves or topics and need to be challenged. Often these would be introverts who aren’t keen on sharing personal information.
One thing you can do is follow the “Ingenious Question” method developed by my online friend Jędrek Stępień of Studio Mentals. He conducts splendid conversational classes based around questions he designs himself, such as: What is the difference between courage and bravery? Is cooking and art or a craft? and many, many more. To be honest, I haven’t mastered his technique to the extent I’d want to, but I think Jędrek is doing a great job here and his questions are so much fun and engaging. You ought to read more in the articles he has posted on Medium. For example: Easy Speaking is Hard Thinking.
Another option, perhaps a more familiar one, is organising debates with your students. I myself am not fan of debates because I am the type of person that really really really dislikes confrontations, so I find it hard to run them in my classes. C’est la vie… Nevertheless, my students do complain about it occasionally, and the truth is they are popular and they allow the learners to practise speaking in a general, non-personal manner.
c) Doing something with the language
Again, there are two things you can do.
This is another well-known and immensely popular option. Your students can learn dialogues for everyday situations, such as how to hire a car, talk to a teacher at school or complain in a restaurant.
There is a myriad of methods you can use to do dialogues in your lessons so I won’t go into that here. If you want a great low-cost book with fun and exciting roleplays, you can get the 30 Roleplays for TEFL written by Peter, another friend of mine.
The ESL Library I mention above have a mass of dialogues on their website.
If you want something free, try the Talk English website. Their travel dialogues are really nice.
c2) Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT)
The use of TBLT is ideal for clients who know what they need to do with language. The teacher can then address their needs by targeting their lessons directly at those needs. The methodology itself is a bit complicated but the core principles are very basic. Here is a very simplistic outline: The Task defines what the learner needs to do in the second language – for example invite their friends to a party via the phone, a chatting app and email. The teacher designs pedagogical tasks, in other words, the linguistic what&how, the Task is divided into sub tasks – spoken invitations/written invitations, for instance, and the task is run. Feedback on the language used is provided, new language is practised, and the task is run again, with modifications.
TBLT is certainly a buzz word in modern teaching approaches. If you want to learn more, as you should, read Michael Long’s Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. If you want a practical book, get the recipe book full of photocopiable pages Activities for Task-Based Learning – or just dust off your old Teaching Unplugged copy.
And if you want to learn HOW to do it, you have to follow my friend Marc, who’s currently sharing some fab ideas of How to Teach like a Pop Star on his Patreon-based blog – more here.
3. Learning how to converse
There is one more idea you can try, and this is studying the art of conversation itself – not just second language-related. This involves learning about how conversation is structured and how you can keep it going, by studying turn-taking, the speed of your response, pragmatics, and many more. A lot of this is outlined in the video series Adrift for more experienced learners. Their methodology is based on this book: Conversation Analysis and Second Language Pedagogy, which I have only just started reading, so can’t tell you more about it. But I have gone through the Adrift series with my classes, they have been very popular, and my opinion is that this is a very useful way of looking at language.
If you are a learner, how do you like to practise speaking?
If you are a teacher, what would you add to my list?
Happy to hear from you in the comments. Thanks for reading.