Recently, a colleague and I have been trying out an activity called speed-chat. One challenge we face in our context is giving our learners ample opportunities to practice the target language. This can be especially difficult because we have large classes, and many of our learners have had little experience in using English in unplanned situations.
What is speed-chat?
Speed-chat is an activity that is easy to implement and requires no or minimal resources. It is a concept which involves learners talking about a single topic for a short burst of time, before moving on to a new partner and repeating the process. Studies have shown that the repetition of a task can result in increased complexity and fluency in speaking. Furthermore, the constant changing of partners means that no two interactions will be identical, and thus interest is more likely to be sustained.
How can I implement it in my classroom?
Teachers, organize your learners so that they are sitting in pairs and facing each other, in rows or a circle. Then, present a discussion topic. Ideally, they should not have had time to prepare for their conversation, although the activity may follow lessons which have built their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary relevant to the topic.
Then, start a stopwatch and the learners should aim to talk for the duration of the set time, which will depend on their level, their confidence in speaking in unplanned situations, and the chosen topic. When the time is up, students rotate to a new partner and start the process again. The number of times the learners rotate will vary depending on the context and the teachers’ and students’ needs.
The teacher can choose to be a participant in the speed-chat, to move around and join into various conversations, or to sit right back and observe. The aim of the activity is not for learners to produce perfect English, but to communicate their ideas without planning and preparation. Therefore, while the teacher may listen out for common grammatical errors or misused vocabulary, they should be addressed at a different time.
What have we seen after implementing ‘speed-chat’?
We have used speed-chat in our undergraduate English communication classes, and our learners really seem to look forward to these weekly sessions. As teachers, we have observed learners rework aspects of their talk as they engage with more interlocutors. We have also noticed a gradual easing of concern that many learners exhibit about making errors in front of teachers and peers. Over a 15 week term, students can increase their speaking time by two or three times.
How can I adapt ‘speed-chat’ to cater for different levels of learner?
Depending on the level of the class, you may provide a short list of suggested questions to get them started. For advanced learners, problems can be posed to elicit advice, or opinions can be presented for debate.
For learners who are hesitant to speak, particularly when they might be overheard by others, playing English background music might help to create a more relaxed atmosphere, and to give students the feeling that they are not being listened in on. It can also provide a talking point when they run out of things to say, but have time left on the clock.
Some tips for teachers!
• This strategy works best if it is complemented with activities to improve students’ spontaneous oral communication skills, including how to create follow-up questions, how to make small talk, how to react and interrupt, and how to use strategies to overcome limitations in language knowledge.
• For the last round of the speed-chat increase the time of the conversation slightly. Students will probably not notice, and this is likely because they have collected stories, vocabulary, questions and confidence along the way, to be able to cope with a longer conversation.
• Depending on your context, you might consider allowing learners to use a smartphone to stimulate conversation (for example by showing a photo of their holiday).