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.
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 fulfilll 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 though 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.
Here are some links to other related posts here, which you might like to read after finishing page 2…