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How to Get Every Student in Class Speaking

Speaking in class is both essential and difficult to do. In this post, Nick Franklin explores some simple techniques and strategies to get everyone in your class speaking, sensibly, in English.

How to Get Every Student Speaking

Language is an active process and must be practised in all its facets. If a student can’t speak in the relatively low-risk environment of the classroom, he or she won’t be able to use the language in higher-risk situations in the real world. Moreover, a student cannot learn to pronounce a foreign language correctly without practising the precise mechanics of mouth and lips necessary to make the specific sounds, and, as noted in previous posts, being able to speak in public is an important life skill. If students don’t speak, it is much more difficult to assess what they are thinking and what they are finding difficult. There’s no way you can help them iron out problems if you have no way of knowing what they find hard!

This post explores why students are reluctant to speak in class and how to encourage them to do so.

Why Won’t They Talk?

To tackle the problem of speaking in an L2 classroom it is important to understand your students’ reticence. It is tempting to think that EFL students answer a question in English with a reply in their own language, with silence or with “I don’t know” out of spite or laziness. However, this is rarely the case. The usual reason for their non-cooperation is panic and fear of ridicule.

Dealing with Panic

Most of us hate being put on the spot. If we are challenged to give an answer in public, our mind often goes blank and we are unable to say anything coherent. The obvious way to reduce panic is to reduce the associated stress. We can do this in the classroom by giving students time to think about their responses. By declaring that there will be a 30-second pause between you asking the question and selecting a student to respond, not only do you get the whole group to consider the question but you allow the eventual responder time to compose her or his answer. If the question is at all complicated, get the students to write it down.

This process will be made even easier if you encourage the students to take written notes for their answers; this will mean that they have a prop to refer to when called on to reply and it also frees up short-term memory. Even more specifically, you can give them 30 seconds to think about the content of their answer, and another half minute to compose the English sentences that will form their response. Watch to see if anyone is not writing during this note-taking interlude; go over and offer support.

Fear of Ridicule

Is Spain at least, public figures are regularly ridiculed when they speak in English, even by people who themselves speak little or no English. It is hardly surprising then, that students are reluctant to speak in class. As a teacher, it is important to practise ‘zero-tolerance’ when it comes to one student laughing at another’s efforts. However, there is more you can do to limit the noxious effects of public ridiculing of speaking in English.

For instance, when you have a more difficult question or when you plan to ask a very panicky student, it can be a good idea to get them to discuss their answer with a partner before answering in front of the whole class.

Such pair work reduces stress further because talking about the response with a classmate is a very low-risk context. Moreover, when the student does reply in front of the whole class, the responsibility for the content of the response is shared with someone else.

Finally, a student is very unlikely to offer totally unreasonable responses (e.g., silence, a reply in their own language or “we don’t know”) if the pair have had an opportunity to speak first. In the unlikely event that you do get one of these responses, you can always ask, “OK, so what did you two talk about then?”

For complex questions, this type of think-pair-share strategy can even be taken a step further with pairs eventually joining together to form groups of four, which further collectivizes the answer.

Ex ducare

If you still get a response of “I don’t know” (or its equivalent in the student’s native language) ask them to tell you what they do know about the topic in hand. If you can get them to verbalize their schemata, you should be able to use questions to help them find the answer to the original question.

So, for instance, if you have asked what a word means and get an “I don’t know” in reply, ask the student what he or she can guess about the term from the context in which you encountered it. This is, in fact, the very meaning of ‘education’, which comes from ex ducare in Latin – leading the information outencouraging students to express what they already know – rather than cramming their minds with stuff they don’t know. The process of walking through the means by which the student can arrive at a reasonable answer is a crucial part of teaching and learning.

 

Language is an active process and must be practised in all its facets. If a student can’t speak in the relatively low-risk environment of the classroom, he or she won’t be able to use the language in higher-risk situations in the real world. Moreover, a student cannot learn to pronounce a foreign language correctly without practising the precise mechanics of mouth and lips necessary to make the specific sounds, and, as noted in previous posts, being able to speak in public is an important life skill. If students don’t speak, it is much more difficult to assess what they are thinking and what they are finding difficult. There’s no way you can help them iron out problems if you have no way of knowing what they find hard!

This post will explore why students are reluctant to speak in class and how to encourage them to do so.

 

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