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How to teach speaking

Updated: Jan 18

How to teach speaking
Speaking in another language can be scary - here's a few tips on how to help students get ready for and enjoy speaking in English on a CELTA course

Not all students are the same, but in most of the classes I've taught, when I've asked students what they want to do more of, speaking often comes out on top. Students rarely complain when we do a lot of speaking activities in class, but sometimes it can be easy for these activities to feel a bit purposeless. I can't possibly describe all the different approaches to teaching speaking in a short article, but I'm going to give a broad framework that you can use when planning a speaking lesson or a longer speaking task and hopefully feel like your speaking lessons do have a purpose.

The first thing to consider is what students will need before they speak. Remember that speaking at length is difficult for multiple reasons. Firstly, they need ideas. Some people are natural communicators, but if I tell you to speak about a topic that I have chosen, for five or ten minutes, without any time to think of ideas, I'm sure you can imagine yourself running out of things to say. Now imagine that I ask you to do this in a foreign language. Scary! So before students speak, we need to think about how we can help them with what to say. Here are some things you might do:

  • Use pictures or a short video to generate ideas and to get the students thinking about the topic.

  • Have students read a text on the topic and answer comprehension questions on it before moving on to a speaking activity about the same topic.

  • Give students a model to follow - either by doing the task yourself (i.e. if students are going to speak about their families, you can tell them about your family first) or by having them listen to a pre-recorded track.

  • Give students time to do some googling or research, especially if you want them to debate or discuss an unfamiliar or serious topic.

  • Give students planning time to think about what they will say (but try not to let students script what they'll say before a speaking task - then it's more of a writing and reciting exercise than actual speaking).

  • Give students prompt cards, e.g. some bullet points of what they could say, some characteristics/ideas of their character for a roleplay.

  • Have students brainstorm ideas in pairs or in open class before the speaking task. Consider recording these ideas on the board, so students can refer to these while speaking.

  • Give students the chance to run through what they're going to say in their own language before they talk about it in English.

  • Give students the chance to ask you, or to look up, the words/phrases they're going to need.

  • Teach students some useful phrases that relate directly to the topic, so that in the process of teaching the phrases, you can also help them generate ideas.

  • Make sure the topics you choose for speaking classes are as relevant and meaningful to the students as possible.

Once you've done enough to allow students to generate ideas and plan what they'll say, it's speaking time! Students will need clear guidance on how long they should speak for, or else they might use up all their ideas in thirty seconds, or they might not give everyone in their pair or group equal time to speak.

Of course, the teacher will need to monitor the speaking task and use that time to see if students need more practice. Maybe it would be useful to change partners and do the same speaking task again if students are stopping and starting and thinking a lot while they speak and need to have a bit more fluency practice, but of course, if they find the task easy, then doing it a second time would probably be a waste. As usual, teachers should also be monitoring for language. How can students learn from the language they're producing? Are there useful phrases the students could teach each other? Or are there phrases that they should be using and none of them are? Or are there mistakes that could usefully be corrected in open class? And of course, content feedback is important too. If a student has said something particularly interesting or especially funny, then it's great to share it with the class as a whole.

A speaking lesson is often just as fun for the teacher as for the students, and it's well worth considering how appropriate preparation and feedback will mean that a speaking task turns from a throwaway five-minute activity into the core of a whole lesson!

Dr Connor O'Donoghue hails from Ireland and he started teaching English as a foreign language in Poland in 2003 and he became a CELTA trainer in 2008. He has taught and trained in Ireland, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Connor also holds a Masters and a PhD in Education from Trinity College in Dublin. He has previously managed large teacher training centres in Vietnam and in London before founding DC Teacher Training.

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