Developing Speaking Skills in the Classroom

Speaking is one of the four Macro Skills. More specifically, it is one of the two Productive Skills – the other being writing. However, unlike in writing, time-constraints are a defining feature of speaking – WordItOut-word-cloud-851807you have very little time to process and decode the incoming signals, think up a response and then encode your response. This entire process needs to be achieved within milliseconds. Luckily, learners will be used to doing this with their L1 – that means they need to be encouraged to transfer this ability from their L1 to their L2.

When it comes to developing speaking skills in the classroom, very often coursebooks and teachers focus mainly on developing a specific item of language, i.e. linguistic accuracy. For example: the lesson is largely focused on the use of Present Perfect and as a follow-up the teacher asks the learners to “talk about some experiences you have had with your partner.” This, if anything, is simply controlled practice of the target language – it is not the development of speaking skills.

So, what does it really mean to develop speaking skills?

Spoken vs Written Language

The first step is to understand the difference between speaking and saying written language. One of the best ways to help you achieve this is by writing out a short text of something you would like to say and then read it aloud – you should find that it doesn’t sound like natural spoken language but rather more written language spoken aloud.

So what makes these two things different? Well, first of all, written language which is spoken lacks a number of features of natural speaking, including:

  1. Pausing
    When you speak, you  pause naturally in certain places – usually at the end of a clause or sentence. Very often your pauses are filled with sounds which indicate you haven’t finished speaking yet and show you are still forming what you will say, such as “erm, aaah, mmmmh.”
  2. False Starts
    It is very normal and natural to begin a sentence and then stop with the intent of rephrasing what you just said. This is where certain phrases unique to speaking come in handy, such as “sorry, what I mean is….” and “no, what I want to say is…” We do this in writing but in writing it is easier: you just delete what you had just typed and re-type it.
  3. Back-Channelling Devices
    This category includes quite a range of things, but basically it refers to features of spoken language which show you are engaged in the conversation, such as nodding your head,  showing surprise or agreement with facial expressions, interjecting words which show you are getting the point, such as “really?” and “no way!” It also includes when you repeat what someone has just said – again with the aim of showing you are listening –  such as:
    A: I was in London last weekend
    B: You were in London!
    A: Yeah! It was amazing!
    B: Nice!
  4. Body Language
    Amazingly, the fact that speaking usually takes place in conversations with numerous speakers is something which is often overlooked by teachers. While speaking as a monologue, such as a presentation, does exist, it is far from the norm: inevitably we speak with another person or a multitude of people. When you watch two natives talking to each other, there is a lot of body language going on. Learners often sit or stand rigidly when they speak in a foreign language because they are so focused on the linguistic aspect of what they are doing. They need to be encouraged to reflect on what body language they would use in their L1 and transfer this to the L2.

Linguistic Aspect of Speaking

While the above items are important and fundamental aspects to speaking, they are also not the only things. There is a lot of Functional Language which is necessary when conducting conversations, such as when speaking on the telephone, ordering food at a restaurant, reserving a table, buying a coffee and getting to know someone.

Functional Language is probably best taught in a systems lesson. It is often taught at lower-levels, such as Elementary and Pre-Intermediate. However, at higher levels, such as Upper-Intermediate, learners very often already know the language of functions – they just need practice in using them. At such a level it might be best to treat functional language as a sub-aim of a skills lesson, where there is a small focus on the language – perhaps a short exercise or a quick revision of some phrases they might need – but the focus should be on developing speaking sub-skills.

Learners will not usually incorporate functional language during their first try at a speaking task. As a result they need numerous opportunities during a lesson to practise, practise and practise. This means that for any lesson to be a true Skills Lesson, a fair chunk of the lesson will have to be dedicated  to developing the given skill – I would say around two thirds of the lesson and generally “over half” as a rule of thumb.

Lesson Structure and Framework

During the 7th IH Teachers Online Conference, Anya Shaw of IH Buenos Aires gave a talk on “What Learners Want.” Unsurprisingly, what learners want according to the research done by International House is progress i.e. they want to see evidence that they are making progress.

Demonstrated learner progressing is quite big topic and there are many ways of going about it. When it comes to Speaking Skills lessons, a very effective way of demonstrating learner progress is by following a Task – Teach – Task lesson framework:

  1. Task I
    Learners complete a given speaking task with a partner.
  2. Teach or Input
    This is where the systems sub-aim comes in and you remind them of Functional Language useful for completing the task or features of conversation, such as back-channelling devices or false starts.
  3. Task II
    They complete the same task again or a slightly altered version of it with a new partner and you encourage them to incorporate what has just been covered in stage 2.

At the end of the second task I usually include a reflective activity, so the learners can see how much better they did: this usually just takes the form of a couple of questions for them to discuss with their partner, such as:

  • How much better did you do the second time?
  • Did you incorporate any of the language we looked at?

Example Lessons

To put all of these theory and background reading into practice, I have put together a couple of lessons which look at developing speaking skills. The level and content, including Lesson Plan and Materials, are outlined below:

Upper-Intermediate: Paxman-Brand InterviewThis lesson takes the famous Paxman-Brand interview and uses it as input for learners to notice the features of conversation which they often leave behin in their L1, such as body language, back-channelling devices and questions, and encourages them to transfer these to L2, and provides lots of practice.

Advanced: Speaking about Education and Learning: This lesson was originally designed with CAE candidates in mind but it could be easily used with, and possibly adapted for, any General English group. It gets learners to consider how well they have performed speaking tasks by following a Task-Teach-Task framework and it includes some a listening task as language input with two natives completing the same task as the learners in a very authentic and unscripted way.

Final Thoughts

All in all, a speaking lesson is much more than just discussing a topic: it is the development of specific sub-skills and linguistic features unique to speaking, such as Functional Language, back-channelling devices and managing interaction patterns.

If you have any comments or lessons that develop speaking skills which you would like to share, please feel free to comment below.

12 thoughts on “Developing Speaking Skills in the Classroom

  1. A very interesting read. Lots to think about. “Natural” conversation is tricky for learners, as they have to process so much more than when using their native tongue and it’s tricky to “teach”. Providing students with false starter type phrases is in itself very helpful (and i’ve taken this on board, so thank you) but still something they would have to learn to use. I know I’m stating the obvious, but I think it’s very important to get as many basics in place from the start to encourage students to try and make their way without using L1 from the start. If you have the luxury of mixed nationalities for example, make sure ss aren’t sitting where they can slip into L1 etc. Even with new lower level classes, I’ve found little relaxed exercises like word association activities amongst ss very helpful. They only have to say one word. Great if they can make a logical/predictable association, but if not, any word will do. There are no wrong answers. So it often relaxes a class, they can laugh, and when they’re trying to think of a word many natural body language movements, gestures, facial expressions and thinking noises to buy a few moments of time come out. Ss are not worrying about structuring sentences or making grammatical errors. If you can keep hold of this outlook and approach as they progress it’s a plus.
    One more little thing…. I’ve found that culture can also affect this. I am not greatly experienced as a teacher yet, but I have had students from different parts of the world whose gestures, body language and natural way of interacting is ssometimes different to that of most native English speakers. A learner can become aware of what is being communicated by body language etc but may not be quite so ready to adopt them even when they have a good level of English. I guess this is about Learner choice?


  2. Anthony, I think it’s really unfortunate that none of these points are addressed on English proficiency tests. As you rightly point out “while speaking as a monologue, such as a presentation, does exist, it is far from the norm.” Yet exams like those offered by Camridge ESOL often contain the dreaded “long turn” that is essentially an impromptu monologue which students have the whole of ten seconds to prepare for. I wish we could see exams change and then maybe teachers could focus more on the functional language you have mentioned, rather than having to train students to complete a task that few native speakers are even capable of.


    1. Thank you for your comment.

      You’re absolutely right – the exams are far from realistic or authentic. I tell my exam learners the whole thing is an exam in complexity i.e. demonstrating you know how to use more complex structures and lexis. It’s a pity really.

      I recently tried to find some trace of authentic speaking in the CAE speaking paper and I think I might have gotten some where, albeit not very far. I’m just working on a post which contains the lesson I developed for it. Once I post it up, I’ll share a link to it. Would be great to have your thoughts on it.


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