Have you noticed that in some classes and with some speaking activities, learners are more actively engaged than with others? Have you ever wondered why? One social factor is the group atmosphere. This is centrally important to how comfortable and safe learners feel in a class generally, and it can notably impact learners’ willingness to speak up.
However, another social factor affecting learner engagement concerns the speaking activity itself. How a speaking task is set up can influence how anxious a learner feels about speaking and how willing they are to interact with others. For example, compare how it feels to talk to strangers about something you know little about with no prior warning with how it feels to talk to a friend about a topic you are passionate about and know lots about. There are three main dimensions of a speaking activity that we can pay attention to, in order to lower anxiety and enhance learners’ willingness to engage:
1. The topic and level of preparedness.
Learners need two main things in order to feel prepared to engage in a speaking task: (1) They need knowledge and ideas of what to say about the topic; (2) and they need the language to be able to talk about it. When learners feel adequately prepared, it lowers their anxiety and helps them feel confident enough to engage. One way of contributing to this is to also ensure that task instructions are clearly articulated, and any complex task is broken down into manageable steps so learners know what is expected of them and how to proceed.
Regarding the topic itself, teachers may consider offering pre-speaking activities to trigger initial thinking and brainstorming, or they may give input on a topic. Obviously, if learners are being asked to talk about their favourite film, they may need less preparation time to talk spontaneously than if they were being asked to discuss a topic where they may need to gather their thoughts, such as if asked to make suggestions of how to live in a more environmentally respectful way.
In terms of language, again, it depends on how familiar learners are with the topic and its related field of vocabulary. If it is a new or less familiar topic area, it can help learners to do some explicit vocabulary work or brainstorming of expressions to equip learners with the language they need to take part.
Another dimension that can impact on learners’ willingness to speak is the topic itself. How interesting will they find the task? How personally relevant or meaningful is it? Taking time to find out about learner interests or what aspects of a topic learners could find interesting is worthwhile as it can notably boost learners’ motivation to speak about the topic.
This refers to speaking partners and who learners are being asked to talk to. In some ways, reflecting on interlocutors ties in together with a consideration of the topic. Learners need to feel safe talking about a specific topic with a particular partner. For low-risk topics and themes that are not too personal, they may be comfortable working with diverse peers. However, especially at the start of the course or in respect to more sensitive topics, learners may prefer to work with a friend who they know well and are familiar with. Sometimes teachers allow students to choose their partners and sometimes they may assign partners. Occasionally, it is useful to have learners work with people they know less well to provide an authentic reason to talk such as when they do not know each other’s hobbies or favourite films. This can also strengthen overall group dynamics, but mixing up learners for speaking tasks needs handling with care depending on the task and topic.
3. Focus on communication and fluency before accuracy.
There are many different types of speaking activity. Sometimes we may want learners to practise a specific language form and the focus may be more on the use of language than general fluency and communication. In this case, teachers have to think carefully how to note down aspects of language they wish to give feedback on and when. Interrupting a learner while speaking and providing feedback in front of others can be very damaging to their self-confidence (LINK) and may negatively affect their future willingness to speak. It is less face-threatening to make note of language issues you become aware of as you move around the class and then address them anonymously with the whole class. This allows language issues to be picked up on, but nobody feels especially focused on.
Ideally, speaking activities are primarily used for boosting learner communication skills and enhancing fluency. The key is to get learners to actively use the language, not worry about accuracy but focus instead on getting their message across to their partner. The more they speak, the better they will become. Work with speaking activities where the focus is on communicating such as in problem-solving tasks, opinion discussions, storytelling, drama activities, interviews, or imagination activities. Crucially, tell learners explicitly that mistakes are unimportant for such tasks; explain you are more interested in them using the language creatively and actively to get their message across than the accuracy of the language they use to do this. Tell them it counts as a success if their partner can understand and respond!
A low-anxiety speaking task is one where the learner understands the task, feels adequately prepared to complete it (with ideas and language), where they feel comfortable with their speaking partner(s), and where they do not have to worry about mistakes as the focus is on getting their message across. Thinking about the set up of speaking tasks can be critical to their success. These reflective questions may help you think about speaking tasks you work with:
- How prepared in terms of ideas and language do learners need to be in order to work on this task?
- How interesting or motivating is the topic for learners?
- To what extent do learners need to work with a familiar partner(s) for this task/topic in order to feel comfortable, or could it be a task to work on with a less familiar peer from class?
- Is this task designed to focus on communicating an authentic message rather than concentrating on accuracy of language use?
- Are learners aware of the focus on communication and not accuracy?
Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books in this area including, Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers (2015, with Marion Williams and Stephen Ryan), Teacher Wellbeing (2020, with Tammy Gregersen), and Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms (2020, with Zoltán Dörnyei). She has published over 150 book chapters and journal articles and has served as Principal Investigator on several funded research projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP). Sarah is the auhor of this paper.