'I can understand my teacher's English, but when I speak to 'real people' I can't understand them'. This is a comment I'm sure many teachers have heard.

Teaching speaking skills 1 - speaking article

While it is a bit of an exaggeration, students clearly feel that classroom-based speaking practice does not prepare them for the real world. Why do students so often highlight listening and speaking as their biggest problems? Partly because of the demands of listening and speaking and partly because of the way speaking is often taught. It usually consists of language practice activities (discussions, information-gap activities etc.) or is used to practise a specific grammar point. Neither teaches patterns of real interaction. So what can we do in the classroom to prepare students for real interaction?

  • What do students need?
  • Practical suggestions
  • What language should I teach?
  • How do I get students to use new language
  • Further reading

What do students need?

  • Practice at using L1 (mother tongue) strategies, which they don't automatically transfer.
  • An awareness of formal / informal language and practice at choosing appropriate language for different situations.
  • The awareness that informal spoken language is less complex than written language. It uses shorter sentences, is less organised and uses more 'vague' or non-specific language.
  • Exposure to a variety of spoken text types.
  • The ability to cope with different listening situations. Many listening exercises involve students as 'overhearers' even though most communication is face-to-face.
  • To be competent at both 'message-oriented' or transactional language and interactional language, language for maintaining social relationships.
  • To be taught patterns of real interaction.
  • To have intelligible pronunciation and be able to cope with streams of speech.
  • Rehearsal time. By giving students guided preparation / rehearsal time they are more likely to use a wider range of language in a spoken task.


Practical suggestions

  • Transferring L1 strategies
    When preparing for a spoken task, make students aware of any relevant L1 strategies that might help them to perform the task successfully. For example, 'rephrasing' if someone does not understand what they mean.
  • Formal / informal language
    Give students one or more short dialogues where one speaker is either too formal or informal. Students first identify the inappropriate language, then try to change it. Also show students how disorganised informal speech is.
  • Vague language
    Using tapescripts of informal speech, focus on examples of vague language.
  • Different spoken text types
    Draw up a list of spoken text types relevant to the level of your class. Teach the language appropriate for each text type.
  • Interactive listening
    Develop interactive listening exercises. Face-to-face listening is the most common and the least practised by course books. Any form of 'Live listening' (the teacher speaking to the students) is suitable. 
  • Transactional and interactional language
    Raise students' awareness by using a dialogue that contains both. It could be two friends chatting to each other (interactional) and ordering a meal (transactional).
  • Real interaction patterns
    Teach real interaction patterns. Introduce the following basic interactional pattern: Initiate, Respond, Follow-up. This is a simplification of Amy Tsui's work. See Tsui (1994)
    The following interaction could be analysed as follows:

    A: What did you do last night? (Initiate)
    B: Went to the cinema (Respond)
    A: Oh really? (Follow-up)
    What did you see? (Initiate)
    B: Lord of the Rings (Respond)
    Have you been yet? (Initiate)
    A: No it's difficult with the kids (Respond)
    B: Yeah of course (follow-up)
  • Understanding spoken English
    After a listening exercise give students the tapescript. Using part of it, students mark the stressed words, and put them into groups (tone units). You can use phone numbers to introduce the concept of tone units. The length of a tone unit depends on the type of spoken text. Compare a speech with an informal conversation. In the same lesson or subsequent listening lessons you can focus on reductions in spoken speech, for example, linking, elision and assimilation.
  • Preparation and rehearsal
    Before a spoken task, give students some preparation and rehearsal time. Students will need guidance on how to use it. A sheet with simple guidelines is effective.
  • Real-life tasks
    Try to use real-life tasks as part of your teaching.


What language should I teach?
Spoken language is both interactional and transactional, but what should teachers focus on in class? Brown and Yule (1983) suggest the following:

  • When teaching spoken language, focus on teaching longer transactional turns. This is because native speakers have difficulty with them and because students need to be able to communicate information efficiently whether in their country or in a native-speaker country.
  • Teach interactional language by using an awareness-raising approach. For example, with monolingual classes by listening to a recorded L1conversation before a similar L2 recording.
    For recordings of native-speaker interactional and transactional conversations, have a look at 'Exploring Spoken English' by McCarthy and Carter (1997). It not only contains a variety of text types, but each recording comes with analysis.


How do I get students to use new language?
Research by Peter Skehan on Task-based Learning shows that giving students preparation time significantly increases the range of language used in the performance of the task, whereas the accuracy of the language is not as influenced. If this is so, then it seems sensible to give students preparation time when encouraging them to use new language.

  • Imagine you have been working on the language that would be useful for the following task: 'Having a conversation with a stranger on public transport'. You have now reached the stage where you wish students to perform the task. Rather than just give students 10 minutes to prepare and rehearse the task, give students guided preparation time.

    A simple preparation guide for the task could be a few key questions like:
    How will you start the conversation?
    What topics are you going to talk about?
    How are you going to move from one topic to another?
    How are you going to end the conversation?

    After the preparation stage, students give a 'live performance'. This can be in front of the class or group to group in a large class. This increases motivation and adds an element of real-life stress.
  • Another way of encouraging students to use new language in a communication activity is to make a game out of it. Give students a situation and several key phrases to include. They get points for using the language.

    Similarly, when working on the language of discussion, you can produce a set of cards with the key phrases/exponents on. The cards are laid out in front of each group of 2/3/4 students. If a student uses the language on a particular card appropriately during the discussion, he/she keeps the card. The student with the most cards wins. If he/she uses the language inappropriately, then he / she can be challenged and has to leave the card on the table.


Further reading
Brown, G and G.Yule. 1983. Teaching the Spoken Language. Cambridge University Press
Bygate, M. 1987. Speaking. Oxford University Press
Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 1997. Exploring Spoken English. Cambridge University Press
Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford University Press
Tsui, A.B.M. 1994 English Conversation. Oxford University Press

Rolf Donald, Eastbourne School of English, Teacher and Teacher Trainer



Mariana Mourente, Brazil
I read the article 'Teaching Speaking Skills', by Rolf Donald, and noticed that he suggests that teachers "show students how disorganised informal speech is" and also that "it uses shorter sentences".

I really think he could profit from reading the book 'Analysing Casual Conversation', by Diana Slade and Suzanne Eggins. There, one can find the transcripts of several authentic casual conversations in Australian English and the analysis clearly shows that sentences in spoken English are in fact longer and grammatically complex, because of the intricate interrelationship between clauses.

This book also shows that a great part of conversations in English follow a pattern, just like a tragedy also follows a pattern. Therefore casual conversation can be classified according to genres.

What I found curious was that Donald also suggested that teachers expose students to "different spoken text types", which means that, in some level, he is aware that spoken English is not chaotic as he says and that it is possible to study it systematically.

Trevor Butcher, Poland
Reading both the article 'Teaching Speaking Skills' by Rolf Donald and the comment written by Mariana Mourente left me wondering what both meant by the length of a sentence. How long is long, and how much shorter is shorter? Admittedly I have never statistically analyzed sentence lengths in writing or speaking, but life experience suggests authentic spoken conversational 'sentences' tend to vary between 'uh' and strings of up to at least a hundred words or so. As to the question of chaotic language I must stand up and admit that at times my spoken language is chaotic - generally when my brain is rapidly processing new information that I am at the same time applying to modify the flow of what I am actually trying to say. I believe I am not alone...

speaking is neglected where I teach( somewhere in Morocco). This is probably due to the fact that the main objective is to prepare the students to sit for the official exams. This poses a real problem to the practising teacher.   But what you have outlined in your article as tips and class activities is a great step forward to helping teachers deal with speaking tasks in their classes effectively.   Thank you very much indeed for your invaluable help.

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