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Bubbling Under: Helping ideas to surface in speaking classes Q&A

School children writingEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. Based in Budapest, he has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels. He works with teachers from around the world as a freelance teacher trainer and as a tutor at the University of Oxford’s ELT Summer Seminar. He is the co-author of OUP’s Mixed-Ability Teaching and has also contributed materials to several OUP textbooks and training courses.


What can we do if our students are afraid of making mistakes?

Ask yourself what it is that your students are actually afraid of. Is it making mistakes? Or is it the consequences of making mistakes? In many cases, I think it’s the latter. Students are afraid that if they make a mistake when speaking, the teacher will embarrass them, or that the other students in the class will make fun of them. There are two things that we can do:

  1. Be encouraging and supportive
  2. Refuse to tolerate it when students make fun of each other in class.

What if students don’t understand the question?

Asking for clarification is an important aspect of successful speaking, and should be practised in class. Teach students phrases such as I don’t understand the question or Can you repeat that, please? Again, it is entirely natural for students not to understand our questions on occasions. It is only a problem, however, if the students do not have effective strategies for dealing with this situation.

We can also take steps to help students understand our questions. We can do this by:

  1. ‘Modelling’ the question to demonstrate its meaning before we ask individuals
  2. Repeating the question with added gestures
  3. Rephrasing the question using simpler language
  4. Writing the question on the board
  5. Asking another student in the class to clarify the meaning of the question
  6. Asking students to say what the question means in L1.

What if they refused to take notes?

Teenage students are usually only reluctant to write notes if they cannot ‘see the point’ of writing something down. In this case, there is definitely a point. Taking notes gives students time to prepare and to organise their thoughts. It makes the job of speaking much easier – and less embarrassing. When practising in pairs, I find that quieter students are much more likely to speak if they have already written something down in advance. As you practise doing activities like this, students will be able to see the benefit for themselves.

And if they still refuse? I think that in the rare situations where a student ‘refuses’ to carry out a reasonable request from the teacher, then the problem is not merely connected to the task. There is something more complex going on there.

Why do students love to talk about something/someone they hate, and not vice versa?

There’s a straightforward answer and also a paradoxical one. The straightforward answer is that students get bored of being asked about their favourite things all the time. The paradoxical answer is that it is more difficult for teenagers to talk about the things which they love, because there is more at stake: they can be judged more harshly by their classmates for giving an ‘uncool’ answer.

Although it was based on your experience with teenagers, this could also work with adults, right?

The techniques we looked at in the webinar can all be used – or modified for use – with adult learners, too. Adult learners of English can also suffer from a lack of confidence, and they too can benefit from activities designed to give them time, ideas and language resources to use while speaking.

How do you assess speaking as a skill?

Set specific goals and make sure that the students know beforehand how they are going to be assessed. You might evaluate their task completion, in which case the emphasis is on fluency and communicative competence. Alternatively, you might be doing controlled practice of certain structures, in which case the emphasis would be on accuracy.

What’s the most effective way of monitoring during a speaking prep? How much do you want to interfere (to give them more confidence in what they’re about to say?)

It depends on what the task is. As a general rule, let students speak. Intervene afterwards. Remember that the teacher’s role is not always to correct. Sometimes, asking students to repeat what they have just said can be an effective and face-saving way of helping them to self-correct.


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Bubbling under – Helping ideas surface in speaking classes

students talking speaking smiling in classroomEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of ‘Mixed Ability Teaching’ in the “Into the Classroom” series. In this article he looks at ways to create the right environment for effective speaking classes and offers some practical advice to manage them, ahead of his webinar on the subject on 12th and 13th July.

When they go well, speaking activities can bring life, laughter and energy to the language classroom, providing a real sense that the language is being put to use in an enjoyable and authentic way. When they go badly, however, speaking activities can be immensely frustrating – and not only for the students. Have you ever set up a speaking task with confidence, only to find it fizzle out before it even begins? Are you familiar with the experience of scanning the faces of your silent students, trying to read the thoughts they are struggling to put into words? Have you ever wished you could find a way to help them express all the thoughts and ideas that are clearly bubbling under the surface?

Helping students find the confidence

With teenage students, the first thing to be aware of is that difficulties with speaking are very often exacerbated by inhibitions that they have about themselves as learners – and as members of the group. Speaking is an inherently ‘social’ skill: everything that is said is heard – and judged – by the teacher and the rest of the class, making already self-conscious teens reluctant to put themselves in a position where they can lose face in front of their peers. Putting students at ease and providing a supportive atmosphere in the classroom is essential if speaking activities are going to work.

Responding to seemingly simple prompts often requires a lot of confidence on the part of the student. Think about questions such as “What’s your favourite pop group?” or “What did you get for your birthday?” Giving an answer requires not only marshalling language but also sharing private information which might cause others in the class to sneer or laugh. It’s hardly surprising that these kinds of questions often produce only mumbled, one-word answers. In order to avoid such situations, we need to think hard about the kinds of questions we ask and be sensitive to the potential difficulty of certain topic areas. A simple tweak to the question is often enough. The same teenagers who hate talking about things they like often love talking about things they hate. Try asking “What’s the worst song on YouTube?” instead of “What’s your favourite pop group?” and watch the hands go up.

Creating space and time for language and ideas to emerge

The feeling that they are being ‘put on the spot’ is another factor that can make speaking activities challenging for students. Unless they are given adequate time to think and prepare, it’s unreasonable to expect a typical student to be able to give a spontaneous, extended answer to a spoken question. For short answers, one simple idea is to give students the chance to ‘speak, pass, or nominate.’  Those who do not wish to speak can instead choose to ‘pass’ – in which case we move on to someone else, or ‘nominate’ – in which case they can bring a classmate with a good idea into the discussion.

How can students best make use of the time they are given to prepare a spoken answer? Well, it depends on whether they are stuck for language or ideas. If it’s language they need, having access to appropriate reference materials and task models can make a big difference. They might just be stuck for ideas, though.  ­­At intermediate level and above, it is surprising how often students say “I wouldn’t know what to say about this in my mother language, let alone English.” That’s when collaborative, pre-speaking planning and brainstorming activities can help.

Managing speaking activities

Once they have the confidence, the language and the ideas, it should be much easier for students to tackle speaking tasks effectively. There’s still a lot that can go wrong at the production stage, though. From a classroom management point of view, it’s important to remember that good speaking requires good listening. Unless there is an attentive and sympathetic audience for a speaker, s/he will see no reason to take the task seriously. That’s why we need to set up speaking tasks in such a way that they include a focused listening element. One simple way to provide this focus for listening is to give students the option of not telling the truth in speaking tasks: it then becomes the job of their partner to listen and decide whether they were lying or not. When our students speak in class, we should also strive to pay attention ourselves, to really listen. Too often I catch myself ‘waiting’ rather than listening.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to join in the discussion and learn some practical ideas for the classroom, join me for the webinar.