how to get learners talking and capitalise on what they say

NOTE: I’ve now combined what used to be two separate pages into one here.   I’ve also removed a video for a while until I find a workaround for a loading problem it was causing.   Makes things simpler.

One of the fundamental tasks for language teachers is getting learners talking in a useful way and taking advantage of what they say for teaching purposes. Getting students talking is fundamental to teaching and learning languages because speech is primary in language – listening and speaking are what we spend most of our time doing in real life and that is generally what your adult learners will lack confidence in. At school they will likely have been exposed to a lot of grammatical input, relatively little useful vocabulary input, and may have done a lot of written text work (often translating into and out of the target language.) By the time they get to ELT teachers in the adult education sector, they generally have significant passive structural knowledge which needs to be activated and refined, and a lot of gaps in their active vocabulary, often on the level of individual words but more often than that longer phrases or “chunks” of language that fluent speakers base their speech production on (“more often than not”, “taking advantage of something” “by the time” are examples of chunks of language from the last few paragraphs that your learners are not likely to have learnt at school but which are natural and useful English; if they had tried to say the same kind of thing, they may have said something like “before/when”, “making useful”, or “usually”, which are all possible English, but sound like a learner speaking, not a competent user of the language.) Getting your students talking is the quickest way to find the outer limits of their communicative competence and to help them gain confidence in using their language actually to do what it is intended to do, which is to communicate with other people about things that matter to them. None of this is rocket science, but it requires thoughtfulness, attentiveness and some practice. Generally speaking, if you want learners to get talking in class, it pays off to:

Have something specific and interesting for them to talk about

Real, normal, human-interest is what we are looking for. However, if what you give your learners to talk about is too vague or aimless, little useful talk will come of it. “Talk to your partner about their weekend/cars/the weather…” are examples of topics which have potential but are too open-ended or ill-defined to galvanise your learners’ attention. However, by tweaking these topics a bit, by making them slightly more specific, we can eke more out of them: “tell your partner about your last weekend. Make sure you tell them a) two things you did with someone else; b) two things you wanted to do but didn’t get round to doing; c) one thing that you wish you hadn’t done” gives the learners specific targets to reach, so the task is measurable and clearly defined. This increases interest (what will my partner say about the same things?) and make the task time-manageable (you now can tell if they have finished or not by whether they have spoken about each of the points).

Have some kind of reason for them to need/want to talk to each other

Pedagogic reasons like “talk to your partner to practise the present perfect” are not likely to get the juices flowing. Some people might make something of these “conversations”, but mostly they will fizzle out very shortly or degenerate into random decontextualised examples constructed solely to fulfill the task of using the target language (“I’ve been hang-gliding on a donkey”, “Oh really? That’s interesting, I’ve never done that but I have garroted a sense of injustice before.” “Ah, that sounds fun…”.) Real conversations happen when we want to know something from another person – and we can think of dozens of reasons for conversations like this from our own lives: to see if the other person agrees with us or not; to reach a consensus or compromise on an issue; to find something in common; to find a solution to a problem etc. So, to take the present perfect example somewhere meaningful, we could ask learners instead to:

Think of an unusual thing you have eaten or drunk, an unusual place you have visited, and an unusual activity you have done in your life (note: that’s the concrete part of the task we just talked about in the last section) . Speak to everyone else in the group and try to find people who have had the same experience (note: here is the real-life-like reason for talking to each other). When you find them, find out where and when they had their experience and how they feel about it (note: here is the support to ensure the initial question can turn into a natural-sounding conversation). Be ready to tell the class later (note: here is the reason to pay attention to what other people say, thus helping train memory).

No one will be garroting any senses of justice this time around…

Show them an example of what you expect them to do

A picture paints a thousand words” meets “tell me and I forget, show me and I remember; involve me and I understand” here. Actually doing a mini-version of what you want learners to do is probably the quickest and easiest way of setting up a task, as afterwards you can often just say “OK, now do that with your partner” and let the learners start. A demonstration makes explicit what you expect them to do, and how you expect them to do it, and it also gives you a chance to give the learners a useful example of the kind of language use might help them complete the task effectively.

get out of their way while they do it

If you want learners to get better, they need to be the ones doing the heavy lifting. This means that the less you do while they are working, the better. By the time the task starts, you should have done your work, and can get out of their way. This doesn’t mean go and have a coffee break, though! As soon as learners get started, you need to move around and get a sense of whether they have got started in the right way. This should be done through observation, not through enquiry, as enquiry distracts learners from their partners and the task at hand, and focuses them on you – which is counter productive. Instead, keep a low profile, flit around the room a bit like a butterfly, staying only long enough to assure yourself that they are doing what you want, then move on. After you are satisfied that all is going to plan (after, say, about a minute of activity) grab a notepad and pencil and start writing down examples of things they say (we will get to why this is essential in a moment.) The key thing is, not to get involved in what the learners are doing if you can help it.

Be available in case they need you briefly for support

The last piece of advice doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help learners out when they need you, however! If you are circulating frequently and listening attentively, you will notice when learners need your help to make progress with the task, or they will call on you when they need your help. By keeping mobile and dealing with such enquiries or issues quickly, you increase the amount of time that you are available for the group as a whole.

Keep an eye on time and progress so you can reserve time for feedback on their performance

Whatever happens, don’t get carried away! It is all too easy to let time slip away from you and end up finishing an activity just in time to wrap up the lesson – but doing this wastes the whole effort put into the task – we will explore the reasons for this in a moment – but for now just remember that a speaking task without post-task feedback is like a day without sunshine, so make sure you keep time in hand to look at some of the language that your learners have been using.

Give them a return on investment

Getting students talking – fundamental as it is – is actually the easy part. Anyone with a reasonable feel for what interests other people and who can make themselves clear is generally able to get a willing group of people to do what they want them to do. This is people management, and it is an important pre-condition for teaching, but it is not the same thing as teaching. If you want learners to learn from the talk that you ask them to engage in during class, it pays off to:

Listen closely to what they are saying and how they are saying it

As a language teacher, we need to pay attention to two things when our learners are talking: what they are saying and how they are saying it. The first is important to understand whether or not what they are saying makes sense in context; the second is important as it is the way that learners put their thoughts into language that they need our feedback on. If we solely pay attention to what they are saying, we will likely overlook any deficits in their language control, as human nature tends to help us overlook errors in what we see or hear in order to prioritise comprehension. On the other hand, if we solely pay attention to the form of what our learners say, then they may as well be spouting well-formed gibberish of the “I have garroted a sense of justice” variety. In practice, such obvious nonsense rarely occurs, but a teacher who focuses solely on the accuracy of their learners’ talk tends to encourage a sense that meaning-empty manipulation of form is sufficient or expected in class – where you lead, they follow.

Note down quotes from the conversations you hear

An example of notes taken during a speaking task

For us to help learners say what they want to say better than they can manage at the moment, we need to have some way of capturing accurately what they are managing at the moment – and the best way of doing this on the fly in class is by using a simple notepad and pencil. By writing down excerpts from the conversations we hear that we think the learners could benefit from revisiting post-task, we achieve several things at once:

  1. we capture usable data in a simple, retrievable manner
  2. we reduce the load on our memories, which typically are not trained to recall verbatim what we hear
  3. we present the language data on a space which replicates the classroom board, so we can immediately start to work out ways of exploiting it on this surface

Quotes are important because they are precisely what the learner said: no more, no less. By writing down fairly complete utterances, you capture both the context and the co-text, the situation in which the utterance was designed to make sense and the surrounding language around the part of the utterance which interests you as a teacher. This is massively more useful to you than noting down fragments, sentence heads or key words with ellipses (…) or paraphrases, as these mostly only tell you about your own language use, not your learners!

Think about how these quotes could be a) improved or b) exploited for the benefit of the rest of the class

Let’s imagine that you are listening to the students talking to each other and one says the following:

“Yes, I, er, wanted to talk to my friend but, er, but, but there was a time pressure and I must go”

So you write down the following:

“I wanted to talk to my friend but there was a time pressure and I must go”

After thinking about it for a few moments, you realise that a better way to express what the learner is trying to say would be: “I wanted to talk to my friend but I was pressed for time and I had to go ……………………………………………..pushed for time …………………………………………… a hurry …………………………………………… a rush So you have now identified 4-5 possible variations that the learners would benefit from knowing. That’s good – and it’s more than we generally need, but now we need find a way to get some of these to our learners’ attention.

Think of a simple way of getting the students from point A (what they said) to point B (saying it better or getting everyone to use the new useful stuff)

Continuing with the previous example, we could imagine our notepad was the classroom board and imagine it looking like this:

“I wanted to stop and talk to my friend but I was in a __________ and I _____ ___ go”

This would be one possible way of getting the students to try to recast their own utterance with a bit of focused guidance (the gaps). A way of getting to “pushed/pressed for time” could look like this:

“I wanted to stop and talk to my friend but I was __________ for time and I had to go”.

Notice here only one aspect of the original sentence is being focused on while the other part has been silently corrected. This is fine.

Get these quotes up on the board in a format that lets you work with them for the learners’ benefit

Having these ideas on your notebook is great, but the class won’t be able to see it there so you need to get it off the page and onto somewhere all the learners can see it – and what better place than on the classroom board. Hugh Dellar (teacher trainer and author of some of the more interesting coursebooks out there at the moment) is a great proponent of writing up language that you plan to focus on while learners are engaged in the task, rather than doing it bit by bit after you stop them for feedback. The saving of time and focus at this stage needs to be weighed against the potential distraction that this obvious activity may cause the group, but in general I agree that if you can get your feedback prepared on the board in the latter stages of the task, this is a useful move. To do this, simply take what you have worked out on your notepad and write it on the board. Make sure you are writing legibly and accurately. When you have done this, and when the learners have completed their task and reported their findings, it’s time to go to work on their language.

Get your learners to work with you on these examples so they learn something and have a chance to try these new versions out

Take each example one at a time. Draw the students’ attention to it and re-establish the situation in which the utterance got said (because remember: perhaps only one other person in the room heard this apart from you and the learner who said it, so it may not make sense without this context.) Then, focus them on the idea behind whatever would fill the gap and see if anyone can come up with it for you. If no one can (after allowing them reasonable thinking time), then introduce it yourself, first orally, then write it in the gaps you have left for that purpose. However the new language comes into the room, it’s worth showing the students how it sounds when spoken at normal pace in a complete utterance, and getting them to notice where the main stresses fall. Then, you can ask the students to repeat the recast utterance once or twice, to give them a chance to get their mouths round it.

Then move on to the next one and repeat this process until you have dealt with all the language you wanted to give feedback on.

Language first-aid vs. surgery

Going through these steps with language that you hear your learners trying to use is a quick and simple way of offering them to opportunity to reflect on their own language performance and – with your help and input – to acquire ways of doing it better as close as possible to the time they need it (without butting into their conversations and distracting them, that is.) This is language teaching at its most immediate, radical and – in some respects – useful. It may not suffice as the sole approach to getting new language to learners, so some more pre-meditated language input (grammar lessons or vocabulary lessons) will also be needed in a balanced course, but the content choices for such pre-meditated work should find their roots and justification in the language notes taken down by the teacher during moments in lessons like this. More on how to get from incidental language repair like this to a systematic lesson or series of lessons later in the series.

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  2. Katrin

    Thanks for the video and examples. I’m looking forward to what you will write about moving “from incidental language repair like this to a systematic lesson or series of lessons.”

  3. Jamie C

    Can’t tell you how influential this blog post has been in my teaching over the last 6 months. Doing things this way just feels right.

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