It’s quite common to see new teachers who don’t have much idea about teaching spoken English classes. I mean the first thing most schools do is give you one of the many standard text books to work from that has a bit of everything from ‘grammar focus’ to listening with a CD and so on. No wonder I see many teachers scratching their heads when they have to teach speaking for two hours. Even if you still use that text book, students will start yawning and looking at their watches after half an hour.
Here are a few tips on how to get your students speaking for extended periods of time over a two hour period.
- Over-use of the standard text book. Well let’s start at the beginning. If your company insists on it then your hands are tied, partially! Use the text book for twenty minutes or so and then break into your own lesson plans. You’re not going to get much talking done if you have heads down reading and writing after all.
- Teacher Talk Time: The age old killer guaranteed to send any class to sleep. It’s not that the teacher’s boring but listening to anyone speaking in a foreign tongue for any length of time is difficult. It’s also a sign that the teacher is either unplanned or lacking confidence and the students will be able to pick up on this. We all make this cardinal mistake from time to time. I recognise I’m doing it via a feeling I get or body language from the students. When it happens I bin my precious spiel immediately, dive into my lesson plans and dig out the most straightforward speaking activity that requires minimal introduction.
- Finishing an activity too early and prompts: Often your students won’t have had much experience with having long discussions or conversation. IELTS teachers often say that their students can only speak for around one minute. Its therefore a good idea to add some prompts to go along with any questions to keep them talking for example Describe your longest journey. Where were you going? Why? When? Who with? How long did it take? Did you have to transfer? What modes of transport did you use? Anything else you remember of interest? Using prompts is therefore a great way of instilling a sense of confidence which will run throughout the class.
- Make things interesting: If you make things interesting your students will keep talking. Yes, it doesn’t seem like rocket science but it can be easy to forget at times. For every other question or activity you introduce bring some interest in with it when you do so. It may be an anecdote, news or something amazing. It may be some valuable information about speaking that will cause your students to take note. Remember if you are interesting then they will also be interested. Your attitude will flow through the class. Hardly any of my students can cook but when we do it as a topic, by break time everyone is always thoroughly enjoying themselves.
- Put your most dynamic activities towards the end of the class. Ensure that your questions are ordered in a way to keep their attention. If you do have questions that are hard work or bog standard get them out of the way in the first half an hour of the class and then give them something more stimulating from them on. With the hard work done, I always give them at least half an hour of something different and high energy giving everyone a chance to relax. For you it’s a time to put answer checking to one side and just give them verbal prompts when they need help remembering something.
- Be professional. Students will respond to a well-planned teacher that knows their stuff. They will always notice if you are early, refer to lesson plans, have a structure to work from and have a good sense of classroom management.
- Pairing students according to ability. The age old grumble you will often hear is disagreement with mixed ability teaching. The truth is that you will never have a perfectly balanced class. If you do have an imbalance of abilities then get in early before the students arrive and seat them as they come through the door. No doubt you will be familiar with most of your students and what they can do. As they come in, politely guide them in the right direction to a student who they will be able to work with. “Hey Jane. How about you work with Jason today?” is all it takes. If you have someone who is struggling, then ask one of your most helpful and positive students if they can work with them for a while. This is a terrific confidence booster for both of them.
- Change partners. If you’re doing pair work then closely keep an eye on which parings are working and which aren’t. Most will be fine but it only takes one dysfunctional couple to upset the apple cart. If you see one student drifting off to sleep then switch as soon as possible. The easiest way is to prepare an empty seat while the class is in discussion and move a single student to it just before the start of a new activity. This will change the pairings throughout the whole class. Watch your students freshen up!
- Monitor use of mobile phones. These days with WeChat around it can be hard to keep people off of their phones. If a single student is focused on their phone then this means that their partner isn’t talking either. Politely remind people and even take the phone from regular offenders for five or ten minutes.
- Group discussions. It is misleading to think that this form of activity is good for speaking practice. Actually it is not! Normally only the most confident and fluent speakers will engage. Those who are shy, quiet or have a lower ability than anyone else will find it hard to speak in front of a group. Remember your duty as a teacher is for every single one of your students not ninety nine percent. If one of them doesn’t speak then the knock on effects can be huge to their confidence. Why would they want to come to a class where they feel inhibited? Pair work and small groups will always work more effectively than group discussion when it comes to STT.