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Yes! No! Spaghetti!

Children in class raising their handsRitsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get students answering questions in full sentences.

‘Yes! No! Spaghetti!’

Are these the kind of answers you get from your students when you ask them a question? Single words, instead of ‘Yes, I do!’, ‘No, I don’t!’, or ‘I like spaghetti.’

When you were learning a foreign language, there were probably times when you were able to understand questions, but only able to answer with ‘Yes’ or No’ or another single word. I’m sure it was a very frustrating experience – you probably wanted to say much more to continue the conversation, but weren’t able to communicate effectively with just one word. We all want our students to be able to continue a conversation and not experience the same frustration we did, but our students usually don’t have much exposure to English outside the classroom.

So how can we prepare them to continue a conversation with confidence? We can do this by teaching them how to use full sentences – and by showing them, through activities and role play, how to communicate with these new sentences.

What kind of communication do you think your students could engage in with the following sentences?

  1. I like cats.
  2. It’s a green book. / The key is on the table.
  3. That’s great! / I’m sorry.

In the first sentence the student is expressing an opinion. (Almost any statement can be an opinion if you teach them to say, ‘I think…’)

In the second sentence the student is giving information.

In the third sentence the student is reacting to someone and expressing feeling or emotion.

Our students can communicate very effectively with simple sentences like those above. They can even create dialogue using question forms. In class, these may feel stilted and sound unnatural, but they form the basics of communication. When our students can use what we teach them to construct a sentence, they are able to use the language practically in conversations, instead of just repeating independent sentences.

When teaching sentences to students, I first teach the vocabulary, then show them, step by step, how to construct a sentence. (This provides a context for using the words.) I then show them how to use that sentence to create a dialog by teaching the WH- question form. You can see how questions and sentences can be taught easily and systematically in my webinar recording, Introducing new language effectively for the young learner classroom.

YES/NO questions and answers

With YES/NO short answers, we are often faced with the challenge of teaching auxiliary verbs. Teachers often say they are reluctant to teach short answers because they do not want to go into grammar explanations about auxiliary verbs. Students have a hard time remembering which auxiliary to use and often make mistakes like the following:

Do you want a cookie? Yes, I am.

Can you swim? Yes, I do.

To help my students learn and use the auxiliaries correctly, I present the WH- question forms before YES/NO questions (my co-authors and I do this in Let’s Go too).

What do you want?

What can you do?

Knowing the WH- question form helps my students to master the YES/NO questions and answers more easily. I ask them to take away the ‘what’ in the question they have learned and add the word they want to ask about. For example:

What do you want?   =  What   do you want       + a ball?

What can you do?    =  What   can you                + swim?

By removing ‘what’, my students are able to use the correct auxiliary automatically.

Do you want a ball?

Can you swim?

My students don’t have to guess what the auxiliary is and they are more confident in asking and answering YES/NO questions.

To help students overcome their habit of guessing, I give them a quick listening activity, which is like a game to them. I don’t complete the sentence, but just say the first two words. I say them quickly in rapid succession, mixing them up:

Can you xxxx?  Do you xxxx?  Are you xxxx?

My students listen for the first words to make their answers:

Can you xxxx?   Yes, I can.

Do you xxxx?    Yes, I do.

Are you xxxx?   Yes, I am.

I make the drills very quick so that my students are able to focus on the words.

Would you like to see how I do this? In my free webinar on Saturday (you can sign up here), I will give a demonstration on how to do this. I will also show you how you can use teacher cards to make learning YES/NO questions and answers lots of fun without a lot of teacher talk. I hope to see you there!

Ritsuko will be giving a free webinar on ‘Getting students to answer questions in full sentences on Saturday, 23 February. Register here.

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Preparing for those “Umm….” moments in a Speaking test

Woman looking confusedKathy Gude, author of New Fast Class, tackles the challenge of making Speaking exams that little bit easier for students.

For many students, the Speaking Paper can be a stressful ordeal. Our role as teachers is to prepare and encourage them as best we can. In my experience as an exams teacher and exams course book author, I’ve developed some strategies for making students more comfortable with the whole process. I’ve listed a few of them here. I hope you find them useful.

Practice

Because of their perceived unpredictability, tests of speaking and listening put tremendous pressure on the taker, so the more preparation students have, the more they will know what to expect and the more confident they will become. Giving students full-length practice tests under exam conditions before the exam is excellent preparation and will prevent them wasting time during the test checking what they have to do or asking the examiner for clarification. In addition, students will be more aware of how long they need to speak for in each part of the test and what types of tasks they will need to be able to cope with.

Teach them to listen

Students are often unaware that to be a good speaker, you need to be a good listener. Listening carefully to what they have to do, to questions they are required to answer, or to their partner in a paired test, will help students give a coherent and appropriate response to the task in question.

‘Umm…’ moments

Students often find speaking tests unnerving because they worry about not having anything to say. One useful way of dealing with this problem is to give students a range of fillers to use while they formulate their response. This enables them to begin speaking immediately while, at the same time, giving themselves an opportunity to come up with a suitable response. Depending on the students’ level of English, phrases like ‘Well, that’s a very interesting question…’, Let me see…’, ‘I’ve often wondered…’, ‘It’s difficult to say exactly but…’, etc. will prove extremely useful if they can’t immediately think of a reply.

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