Get the Students Talking
What makes a good speaking skills lesson?
I’m Allan John and I teach most of the Conversation Clubs (CC) at British Council Poland. I’ve been asked to share my top tips on how to make a speaking class a hit with the students and a hit at improving their communicative skills.
Speaking skill classes versus ‘regular’ classes
I would say one major difference between my ‘regular lessons’ and one of my ‘CC lessons’ is structure. British Council classes require tightly structured lessons with clear aims at each stage covering each English skill. However, my CC lessons have a topic together with a comparatively more flexible lesson plan. If students are talking about something with great enthusiasm, why stop them abruptly? Isn’t it better to let those conversations reach a natural ending? After all, surely that’s what happens in real life. How can you tell when those conversations are really over and that students have gone off topic and are simply chatting about random things? By close monitoring of course and this is the next point.
Key to success is ……….
Monitoring. When I monitor pairs or groups, I try to join them for a short while to make a small contribution to their conversations. This also allows me to give instant corrections naturally by rephrasing some of the things they say as if I’m just checking my understanding. I find that this approach quickly builds students confidence in trying to communicate in English.
Lesson structure – how would you do it?
Now, let’s talk about the structure of one of my typical CC classes. Very often, I start by getting pairs or groups to brainstorm as many words connected with the topic as they can within a time limit. Then during feedback, I put their ideas on the board. Next, I ask them to chat about as many of those ideas as possible. This can go on for a very long time. A whole class discussion often follows. After that, I may ask students to work with one or more of the following which are relevant to the topic: an article either authentic or adapted for class (like something from ‘breakingnewsenglish.com or headsupenglish.com), a TED talk or some other YouTube video. The authentic materials will be accompanied by some basic comprehension questions and maybe a few key vocabulary exercises that I created to pre-teach to students.
Here’s a lesson you can try with your students
Here is a brief example of one CC lesson that went well. You can download this activity here.
“Games” – an example of a conversation club lesson
1. First, I asked the students in pairs to brainstorm as many words as possible to do with games in two minutes.
2. Then, I put their ideas on the board. They included things like ‘monopoly’ ‘chess’ ‘football’ ‘tennis’ ‘etc.
3. Next, I changed the pairs and asked them to share their experiences as well as their opinions regarding those ideas on the board. I monitored by moving between pairs, giving them corrections and briefly chatting with each of them.
4. Then I changed pairs again and asked them to give their opinions about computer games. Once again I monitored the pairs.
This was followed by a class discussion about computer games. As I expected, many students were by and large, negative about it saying it was a waste of time. So imagine their surprise when they saw a TED talk given by a brain scientist about the benefits of computer games!
Of course beforehand, I pre-taught some key vocabulary in the presentation and asked the students to note down any benefits of computer games that might be mentioned in the talk. I changed pairs again and asked them to check their answers with each other and give their opinions about the speech. As before, I monitored and joined in conversations.
5. Finally, we had a full class discussion about it and some of the students grudgingly admitted maybe computer games and board games weren’t so bad after all. And guess what…… they did it with a high level of communicative fluency!
Let me know your favourite ways to enhance speaking skills and support learners development in what they see as one of the most important areas of English learning.