What is 'speaking' in the elementary level classroom?

Speaking and elementary learners - speaking article

Unfortunately, I think that all too often, 'speaking' can be confined to students answering the teacher's questions or repetition and manipulation of form. As my elementary students have limited linguistic resources, it can be difficult to find ways to get them to really 'push' their productive skills in a meaningful way.

  • Lesson paradigms
  • Three example lessons
    • Talking about my room
    • Parents
    • Teenage advice
  • Personalisation
  • Creating the need to communicate
  • Quality of teacher feedback
  • Conclusion

 

Lesson paradigms
In 'Learning Teaching,' Jim Scrivener proposes a teaching sequence model which he calls 'ARC.' He suggests that any teaching sequence could potentially have three elements to it: 'Authentic use,' 'Restricted use' and 'Clarification and focus.' Hence ARC. In this model,

  • 'Authentic use' means exposure to or practice of real language use
  • 'Restricted use' means controlled practice of language
  • 'Clarification and focus' means drawing our students' attention to form.

 

These elements of the lesson can appear in any order in the lesson, depending on aims, level and focus.

'Authentic use'
is not confined to speaking, it incorporates any elements which allow the students to engage with the language in an authentic way. It could include any of the four skills. In this article, I'd like to look at the 'authentic use' element of the lesson and see what it might mean in terms of elementary speaking. I'll describe three very different lessons which introduce speaking in a more 'real life' way to our elementary learners.

Three example lessons
Talking about my room (Using here is / there are / is there…? / are there…?)

  • Pre-teach or revise items of furniture and right, left, top, bottom and if you haven't already taught these, 'there is' and 'there are'.
  • The students should sit in pairs back to back. If this isn't possible you can use large card or their books to 'hide' the individual student's work.
  • Each student draws their ideal room or favourite room in their house on the top half of a large sheet of paper. They should not show anyone.
  • On the bottom half of the paper, each student draws an empty 'box'
  • Students take it in turns to describe their room/ draw their partner's room on the paper.
  • The teacher then comments on content and does a small amount of correction.

 

Parents (Using adjectives which describe character / comparatives)

  • Pre-teach or revise 10 character adjectives e.g. kind, fair, intelligent, honest etc.
  • Write the list on the board.
  • Ask the students to decide which 8 qualities are important in a parent (or teacher).
  • Each student writes their own individual list of 7 in order of importance.
  • Students then share their lists in pairs and try to agree on one list.
  • Students can then work in groups of four together and see how similar or different their lists are.
  • Get group representatives to give feedback to the class.
  • The teacher can then comment on content and give a small amount of correction if necessary.

 

Teenage advice (Using: should)

  • Find or write a simple story about a teenager with a 'problem'. The story should be believable and should include a number of decisions. Leave it open-ended.

    Download sample story 43K pdf

 

  • Cut the story into four or five separate paragraphs so that at the end of each section there is a decision to be made.
  • Students then work in groups of four, with a chairperson.
  • Give out the first paragraph. Students read and decide for themselves what they think s/he should do.
  • Groups then compare ideas.
  • Get some brief open-class feedback from around the class, but don't correct errors.
  • Do the same with each paragraph, with feedback after each section. Monitor throughout.
  • Final feedback on what s/he should do at end of story from group representatives.

 

Personalisation
These exercises all involve a degree of personalisation. Instead of talking about a fictional picture in a course book, students are creating their own meanings. We all like to talk about ourselves and our lives. This makes the lesson transcend the level of 'practice phase' and move into the realms of 'real communication.'

The students will relate to the teenage problem, as it's likely to be one that they or their friends have had. It allows them to deal with personal issues in a safe context, as they're talking about someone else.

Creating the need to communicate
The activities all involve an element of information gap and demand that the students interact in order to complete the tasks. In the first lesson they have to communicate because they can't see each other's drawing, the only way to get the information is to speak. The ordering exercise in the second lesson also helps them to focus. If the students are engaged, they are striving or 'pushing' to communicate. Any potential frustration when they find the 'gaps' in their language skills is offset by the intrinsically interesting and engaging nature of the tasks.

Quality of teacher feedback
As always, it's essential to give feedback on content as well as language. Otherwise, the message we're giving to our students is that only the language element is important. In this case, some comments about different rooms you've heard about during monitoring will be helpful.

What will you do about correction of the 'form'? Well, it's unlikely that the students will get everything right first time. What I try to do is select one element to correct immediately, for example pronunciation of 'schwa', and then decide to review at another time.

Conclusion
It's important for elementary students to go beyond simple repetition and manipulation of form. They sometimes need to get away from mere 'language practice' and to strive to communicate meaningfully about topics which really concern them. This will inevitably mean mistakes, and sometimes frustration. Both these are part of language learning and shouldn't be avoided. If as teachers we give good quality feedback on content as well as language, we will encourage our students to strive to create their own meanings through English.

References
'Learning Teaching' Scrivener, Jim, Heinemann 1994

Sue Leather, freelance trainer and writer

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Comments

I consider that speaking activities such as role plays are an excellent way of getting your students to practise their English. They simulate real life situations and allow them to act out what they would do in a real situation.
There are two ways a role play can go: scripted and non-scripted. With a scripted role play, I usually use an example in a text book. This is a good idea for a warm up exercise, by getting everyone to split up into pairs and allow them to speak to their partner, taking on different roles. Non-scripted ones are when students are given a role each and must use whatever knowledge they have in order to speak with that partner.
For example a mobile call, going to a shop, sharing opinion.

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