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Classroom speaking challenges: it’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in

Solutions Speaking ChallengeErika Osvath, an experienced teacher and teacher-trainer, explores the third of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in’. 

As I am sitting at my desk thinking over the issue of how to get weaker students to join in, my thoughts keep returning to the same questions:

Who are the weaker students?

What makes them ‘weaker’?

How do I want them to “join in”?

I can’t seem to escape them. I could just list various activities that may encourage students to participate more actively in speaking activities, but I feel have to go deeper this time. And as a result, I find myself wondering about my own preconceptions as a teacher.

I expect a “weaker student” to say less, come up with fewer ideas, make more mistakes, and be more insecure. As a result, when they join in – if they ever do – they will be like this. Does this sound familiar to you? This is known as the Pygmalion effect, a psychological principle asserting that expectations decisively influence performance.

So what can we do to adjust our expectations and thus create situations where “weaker students” feel more comfortable contributing?

First of all – and this seems quite obvious – we can create a warmer atmosphere for all the students. Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously build a more relaxed climate for students that we have more favourable expectations of – we tend to be nicer to them both in terms of what we say and how we express it. We need to consciously try to do this for all the students in the class, regardless of ability, by using accepting words, true smiles, and demonstrating understanding and openness towards them.

Secondly, we tend to teach more material to students we consider more able. The key here, then, is to expect more of the students we perceive as “weaker”. So, when setting up a speaking activity, make it clear what you expect from all students. Tell students that they must offer a minimum of three ideas during the activity and use the past perfect at least once. Students will be able to live up to these challenges if you elicit some examples and note them down on the board before they start preparing their own ideas. Then, as you are monitoring their work during the preparation time and the speaking activity, make it clear that you expect them to do the task you had set. Of course, it is important not to be pushy or unrealistic, but make your expectations clear in a gentle and supportive manner.

However, the following two factors are the most important ones in influencing the way our students perform in all activities, including speaking. Firstly, when giving students the opportunity to respond to a question in class, we tend to call on the students we think of as “stronger ones” more often. A simple way that we can encourage less able students to join in speaking activities is to increase the number of opportunities they are given to respond – and if they need more time and support, shape the answers with them and give them longer to formulate their response.

Do not give up on them thinking that “they cannot do better than this anyway”, something that can often occur unconsciously. Instead, offer small anchors in constructing ideas and sentences together in front of the class, this way encouraging them to speak and contribute in small group activities as well.

One way you can ensure equal speaking opportunities in pair or group activities is by giving every student say, three slips of paper – signs of their contribution to the task. The aim of the speaking activity is to get rid of the paper, and students can put one card down only if they contributed at least one idea or sentence.

The second important factor is the quality of the feedback we give. If more is expected of a student, they are praised more. If the teacher thinks less of a student, they are more willing to accept low quality answers with the undertone of “not worth the time or effort, because they won’t know it anyway”. Our task is to reverse this process, making sure that we do expect higher quality responses from students who might need more support too.

All these four factors will greatly influence the way less able students perform. They will start raising their own challenges and demonstrate a greater willingness to join in with speaking activities and other activities too!


Promoting speaking in the mixed ability classroom

Solutions Speaking ChallengeFreelance teacher trainer, Edmund Dudley looks some of the issues related to promoting speaking skills in mixed-ability groups ahead of his upcoming webinar on Solutions Speaking Challenge #3: “It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in”.

Mixed-ability groups present a particular challenge for teachers when trying to promote speaking skills. For every student who gets actively involved in class, there is another who does as little as possible. For every student who speaks, there is another who stays quiet. For every hand that goes up, there is another which stays down.

Naturally, our aim is to get all the students involved. In reality, however, when a lesson is not going as well as hoped we tend to modify our goals. Unable to involve everyone, we settle for what we can get.  Rather than noticing that only the stronger students are getting involved, we are simply grateful that at least somebody is saying something. The fact that weaker students are getting a free ride in the lesson can pass us by.

So how can we get the weaker students to join in speaking tasks?

The following questions are crucial to a full understanding of the challenge:

What do we mean by weaker students?

In most cases we mean students whose level of spoken English is below that of the other members of the group.  What we need to be careful of, however, is making the assumption that level of spoken language proficiency matches strengths and weaknesses in other areas. A student who is weaker at speaking may have strengths in other areas which can be capitalised on when it comes to speaking.

What do we mean by a mixed-ability group?

The groups we teach are ‘mixed ability’ not only in the sense that they are heterogeneous but also in the sense that the students themselves are simultaneously proficient at some things and weak at others.

Every student we teach has strengths, talents and skills. The first thing we need to do if we are to encourage weaker students to speak in class is to boost their confidence. And the best way we can do that is to find their strengths and focus on them in a real, relevant and constructive way.

Can’t speak or won’t speak?

When we open our mouths to speak we become vulnerable. In many situations, when weaker students decide not to join in, they are making an entirely understandable decision. Why risk making a mistake or looking foolish in front of the rest of the class?

This is where teachers come in. We need to create a classroom dynamic which nurtures confidence. We need to be attentive, appreciative, sensitive, supportive and – where necessary – protective.  The only way students will find the confidence to speak is if they feel they can put their trust in the teacher and the learning environment s/he creates in the classroom. Before we rush to experiment methodologically, it is vital to remember that the ideas and techniques we implement will only be effective if the essential foundations of trust and confidence are already in place.

That brings us to the practicalities of the lesson: how we set up, manage and review speaking tasks. We have already established that it is hard to get weaker students to join in. Is there anything practical we can provide them with that will make a positive difference?

– Time

This has both a micro- and a macro-dimension. In the context of a single lesson, students need to be given enough time to formulate a response or utterance, as well as a chance to plan it and rehearse it. At the start of a course, meanwhile, we should not expect students to start speaking a great deal in the very first lesson – they need to be given enough time to acclimatise and feel secure in the classroom.

– Options

Speaking tasks tend to work best when they have options built in – options regarding roles, tasks and outcomes. For example, providing different speakers with a number of different communicative roles to choose from is an effective way of ensuring that all students feel confident and in control.

– Variety within tasks and modes of interaction

Differentiated activities can enable weaker students to complete speaking tasks at a level appropriate to their abilities. This does not necessarily mean segregating the weaker students from the stronger ones: in fact, as we shall see, some of the best differentiated speaking activities are based on weaker and stronger students working together to complete a joint task.

– Resources

Less confident speakers are more likely to lose their nerve before a speaking activity begins. We need to provide them with three important resources: information, language and encouragement. They need to have a clear idea of what to do and how to do it. They need to know how much time is available to prepare and for how long they have to speak. They need plenty of language resources, such as useful phrases and expressions. And as they prepare, they need to have someone they can ask for help, someone to encourage them.

Yes, it’s hard getting the weaker students to join in. There are days when it cannot be done. With the right strategies in place, however, we can expect to see some positive changes over time.

Register for Edmund Dudley’s webinar ‘Solutions Speaking Challenge #3: Promoting speaking in the mixed ability classroom’ on either Wednesday 25th July or Friday 27th July to explore this challenge further.

Register for the webinar


My students say the absolute minimum

Solutions Speaking ChallengeZarina Subhan, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, tackles the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: “My students say the absolute minimum”.

I find myself in the classroom in an unfamiliar position. It’s not the fact that I’ve given up teaching that makes this a new experience for me. It is the fact that I’m a student again. I’m learning Spanish and am sitting behind the desk, no longer the decision-maker who tells the learners what to do, but the student awaiting instructions and wondering if I understood them.

I’m rediscovering how uncertain, vulnerable and anxious it can feel to be a language student. Most of the reading, writing, listening, speaking and (most importantly) thinking in the target language (TL) happens in the classroom. I know I am there to improve my language; my motivation as an adult learner is high, yet I have to admit I could speak more in Spanish. So why don’t I?

The PPP Model

When you think you’ve grasped the structure of the language that has been presented, it is quite demoralising when you ‘practise’ it and get it all confused, or if you get the grammar focus right you somehow lose all previously-learned knowledge of the language.

When it is my turn to speak I keep babbling on about whatever it is that I’m attempting to say. The natural thing for the teacher to do is to correct me. However, as soon as s/he corrects me it interrupts me. I’m trying so hard to concentrate on what I have to say that this correction stops my thinking, when I need every single brain cell to be able to speak. It has taken me a great deal of focused thinking, recalling, structuring and motivation to construct and actually produce that language. Instead of feeling pleased about having actually communicated in the TL, I focus on what I failed to say correctly.

So, what if I could write a letter advising my teacher what would I say?

Letter to my teacher

Dear Teacher,

  1. Please wait until I’ve completed what it is I want to say, then focus on the idea I communicated and show me you’ve understood.
    That would really give me a feeling of success rather than failure. If at the end you could praise me and only correct me in terms of the structure/language/topic that is the focus for the lesson, it would help me turn your extrinsic motivation into my intrinsic motivation, and help me feel better about opening my mouth again in future.
  2. Could you also not insist on us taking turns one after the other to speak?
    I stop listening to my classmates until it’s just before my turn, when I tune back into the lesson. Perhaps if you asked for volunteers – the ones who actually have something interesting/fun to say – it would be more interesting for the rest of us and it wouldn’t be as painful as ALL of us reading out our boring, unimaginative offerings.
  3. If you gave us more than 2 seconds to come up with a response to your questions it would give me more thinking time.
    Please count to 10, or say the same thing a slightly different way. Whatever you do, don’t translate it, don’t ask several questions all at once, and don’t give us the answer before anyone has attempted to offer a response! Instead try writing up the key words of your question, show me a visual cue, and remind me when I last used this word/phrase. This all boosts my confidence and gives me more time to figure out my response rather than spending half my thinking time trying to be sure I’ve understood you correctly.
  4. I’ve noticed that when we have a laugh, I can forget about my anxiety and about being wrong/not being understood.
    So how about if we have points/smiley stickers/competitive games between teams – so that every time we give you a response in the TL we gain an advantage for our team? It may seem childish to you, but actually my wish to win/gain points/stickers overcomes the anxiety I sometimes feel and motivates me to speak.
  5. Talking of anxiety, not everyone likes speaking in front of the whole class.
    If you moved around the class and came to individual groups/pairs, we would feel happier speaking to each other with you listening in. Then you can correct us individually in a more intimate situation and not with everyone listening.

My lack of speaking is nothing personal. My lack of speaking is simply because I don’t like looking a fool in front of others. So I’d really appreciate it if you could eliminate the thinking that making mistakes is foolish and encourage the attitude that having a go is courageous. I think, then, I would be a better speaker in your classes.


How do I stop students from using their mother tongue?

Solutions Speaking ChallengeGareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the first of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: reducing the use of L1 in class.

In a recent survey on speaking challenges run by Oxford University Press, teachers were asked to vote on their top speaking challenge. The problem that received the most votes was ‘in group or pair speaking activities, my students chat in their mother tongue’.

I am not sure if this is good or bad news, in some ways it is comforting to know that teachers all around the world have similar problems to ones I am facing, but on the other hand I know that speaking is an important part of the learning process and the final exams, so I know my students need as much practise as possible. So how do I get my students to stop using the comfort blanket of their mother tongue and encourage them to speak in English?

Taking away the comfort blanket

My first answer to this question is don’t worry about it. This might sound controversial but in my experience the more you nag teenagers, the less likely they are to do what you ask them to do. There’s an old expression: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. So our job is to explain why it’s a good idea to use English and create the right environment but not to force the students to do it. So I suppose the question could be: how can I create the right environment to encourage my students to stop using the comfort blanket?

If we know what is stopping the students from using English then we might be closer to the answer. I think there are three main reasons why students don’t use English in pair work and group work.

1. They are scared to make mistakes

School culture often makes students scared to make mistakes; it might not be what we are doing in our English lessons but what is going on when they are not being taught languages. That means we need to work hard to overcome their resistance to error rather than highlight every error the students make. Often students are scared that if they make mistakes they will be marked down, so let’s let them know that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process.

To do this we could have ‘quantity not quality’ days where we tell the students they will be marked on how much they say not on how they say it. Also we could have a dice or spinning wheel with typical mistakes written on it. For each speaking activity we spin the wheel and whatever it lands on is the mistakes the teacher listens for and corrects. This shows students they can learn from their mistakes. Finally, as a teacher it is really important to respond to the content of what is being said. So if your student says “I went in Rome”, initially respond to the fact they were in Rome rather than the fact they have their preposition wrong.

2. They don’t have any ideas

An oft heard quote is that students don’t have any ideas, but in the feedback to the survey many teachers said the students were on task but just not using English. So can we use this to our advantage? Could we allow the preparation time to be in the students’ L1? Allow them time to come up with ideas and then translate them. Would this give them the tools to give more than just one- or two-word answers?

Whatever we do, I think for speaking activities to work, preparation time is a necessity not a luxury. I also think it is important to give students a chance to work in pairs to plan what they are going to say before changing pairs and asking them to do the activity. It is often a nice idea to repeat the activity with a new partner, the students will feel the first one was a rehearsal and they feel more relaxed second time around, (maybe even stealing some of their previous partner’s ideas.) Finally, you could give the students opinions; maybe students are too shy to say what they really feel for fear of being ridiculed, so if we tell them they have to argue against X or in favour of Y then they can hide behind the ‘role’ they have been given.

3. They don’t see the point

I often hear teachers say that students don’t see the point. Maybe a reason for this is that if they are in a class of twenty then they realise the teacher can’t listen to all of them at the same time, so they only feel they are learning when the teacher is listening. One thing we could try is to ask the students to record themselves using their phones or other recording devices. They could send us their recordings so we can use something from it in the next lesson and they can keep a record for themselves.

A lot of respondents to the survey said their students don’t listen to each other. This is a common problem, turning speaking into a series of monologues. One way to combat this is to have an activity within an activity. For example, ask your students to answer as a famous person or as another student in the class, or try to get random words into the speaking activity, or to slip in a lie. Their partner has to listen and guess who they are, or guess what the word was or what the lie was, training them to listen.

So throw away your ‘No L1’ signs, stop worrying when L1 pops up, and allow students to have their comfort blanket when they need it. But let them know why you want them to speak English, let them know that you actually welcome mistakes not frown on them, they are part of the process of learning, and encourage students to listen to each other by bringing fun to speaking activities and hopefully you’ll soon have them leaving their comfort blankets behind by themselves.


Teachers tell us about their classroom speaking challenges

Solutions Speaking ChallengeIn October and November 2013 we asked teachers of teenagers to vote on their top speaking challenge.  Over 500 teachers took our survey and the results are now in.

With 20% of the vote, the most popular speaking challenge was: ‘In group or pair speaking activities, my students chat in their mother tongue’.  Most of the teachers who took the survey seem to agree that group and pair work is a valuable activity, but one that can be difficult to manage in the classroom.

Albina in the Czech Republic said: “I’m sure that doing speaking activities in pairs or in small groups of peers is a great way to practice what the students have just learned. However, as long as my students know that I’m not listening to their pair, after saying a few words in English, most of them immediately start speaking in their mother tongue to avoid difficulties with finding words to express themselves. So the activity doesn’t work in the proper way. I really want a break through.”

Dusican in Serbia faces a similar challenge: “Most of my classes are quite big – even up to 40 students, so group or pair work is absolutely a must-have. However, most of the students scribble a few notes down and proceed chatting in Serbian. To be fair, they often talk enthusiastically about the given topic! I feel that they think it’s only learning if they talk directly to a teacher, or at least it only counts.”

We will be tackling this challenge in January and February so look out for further blog posts in the next few weeks with ideas to motivate your students to speak more in English during group and pair work.

The second most popular challenge with 15% of the vote was: ‘My students say the absolute minimum’.  Rachel in Switzerland articulated how frustrating this can be:  “I just want them to naturally speak as much English as possible in the classroom without me hissing ‘in English’ every 2 minutes!”

Martina in Czech Republic could also relate to this challenge: “When I want my students to speak in pairs, they just say basic things and are not willing to add details. Even when I ask them, they just answer it and that’s it.”

Another teacher in the Czech Republic expressed how demotivating this can be in class: “I feel exhausted when I explain the activity several times for everybody to understand the task perfectly and the only reply is one or two word answers.”

We will be tackling this challenge in March and April 2014.

The final challenge that made it into our top 3 with 14.5% of the vote was: ‘it’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in.’ Jana from Czech Republic explains: “Weaker students are too shy to speak in front of the class and when I ask them to discuss things in pairs or small groups, the stronger students dominate the conversation.”

Plamen from Bulgaria adds: “In mixed-ability classes students that learn faster, or that have a prior knowledge, tend to be more active in the speaking activities and, answering correctly, further discourage the weaker students, who don’t want to make mistakes in front of the class and the teacher. This trend deepens with the progress of the school year.”

In May and June 2014 we will be asking our Oxford Teacher Trainers for some ideas and hints on how we can get our weaker students to contribute more in English.

Do you agree with the top three speaking challenges?  What would you have voted for?