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Look who’s talking! Getting very young learners to speak in English

Children in playgroundGabby Pritchard, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for encouraging your Kindergarten children to communicate in English.

From the moment toddlers begin to discover the exciting world around them, they begin to acquire the language they need to express their curiosity and be understood by others. They very quickly learn to use simple questions to find answers. What? Where? When? How? and Why? become favorite words as they explore how their world works.

So, how can we create a classroom environment that encourages young children to continue their exploration of the world through a new language? Here are some ideas.

1. Begin with questions

Use posters, photographs, toys and real objects to stimulate children’s curiosity about a new topic. Let them feel the objects. Ask plenty of questions: What can you see? What’s this? What color is the…? How many…? Where is…?

Use the same questions every time you introduce a new topic so the children become familiar with them. As they gain confidence, encourage the children to ask some questions of their own too.

2. Cooperative learning

Organize children into small groups to carry out simple investigations and experiments, play language games, act out stories and complete craft activities.

By working cooperatively, your children will find they need to talk about how to complete tasks, assign roles and solve problems. They will also develop their social skills, such as learning to share and turn taking.

Always encourage children to use polite language when working alongside each other. Phrases such as: Let’s play with the… Please pass the… and You’re welcome are very useful phrases. They will help children develop respect for others and form positive relationships. Try teacher trainer Freia Layfield’s idea for a role-play activity that teaches children valuable life skills while getting them to talk in English.

3. Get more from stories

Young children love to immerse themselves in the world of make-believe. Using stories in class provides a great basis for getting children to talk about motivation, consequences and feelings.

Read aloud, or play audio recordings of, short, simple stories. Then ask questions to get the children to think carefully about the characters and events. The questions should encourage a deeper understanding of how and why things have happened.

You can begin by asking simple questions, for example, Is the giant happy? Are the bears angry? Then move on to more probing questions: Why is Jack scared? Why are the bears angry?

When the children have explored a story, encourage them to work in groups to act out the story using props. You may be surprised by how much more enthusiastic the children are, and how much more they put into their acted versions of the stories, once they have explored the meaning thoroughly.

4. Show and Tell

A great way of rounding up a topic and reinforcing what children have learned is to set up group or class projects. These can include:

  • topic-related craft activities
  • hands-on tasks such as growing plants or preparing snacks
  • recording activities such as making graphs of class preferences or talents
  • bringing to class a favorite toy or book to talk about.

Start ‘Show and Tell’ sessions by talking with the children about what they are going to produce, getting them to contribute ideas about how they will do this and the sorts of equipment they will need to complete the project. Get the children to work together to produce different parts of projects where possible. If they need to work individually on a project, prepare sets of materials for groups to share, to encourage them to observe others and discuss ways of working in order to produce the best results.

Finally, have the children present their work to the class, to other classes, or even to their parents. This will help build confidence in their ability to express themselves and give them a real sense of achievement.

For a simple way to introduce the idea of Show and Tell to your kindergarten class, visit the page on ‘Teaching 21st century skills with confidence’ for another video tip from Freia Layfield. It comes with a free worksheet that you can download from the Oxford Teachers’ Club (it’s quick and free to register).

We’d like to hear from you

Please do share your experiences of getting children talking in class – we would love to hear about them. You can use the comments box below this blog.

Would you like more practical tips on developing communication and other 21st century skills with your Kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


Speaking in the monolingual classroom

Group of adult students talkingMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on creating effective speaking activities for monolingual classes.

We often hear that people who have a lot in common tend to have the best conversations. But if you teach a class of learners who all have the same native language and all live in the same town ­– and maybe even work at the same company – you’ve probably noticed that this isn’t always true.

While some monolingual classrooms are vibrant, chatty places, others can be quiet and awkward. Here are a few of the main reasons why this can happen and some ways to address the problem.

“We’re all the same, so there’s nothing to talk about.”

This is a common feeling among learners in monolingual classes. Unfortunately, some teaching materials worsen this problem with questions that assume an international classroom, for example, “What’s the most popular festival in your country?”

For a speaking activity to succeed, learners need to feel that they are saying something truly interesting that their partner doesn’t already know. In monolingual classes, this means choosing, writing, or adapting speaking activities so they are local, personal, or elicit differences. For example, the ineffective question above could be changed to:

  • What do you like about the New Year holiday? What don’t you like?
  • What’s your favorite holiday? Why? Is there a holiday you dislike? Why?
  • How does your family celebrate the New Year? Do you have any unusual traditions?

“I can’t explain it in English. Why can’t I just use my own language?”

This often happens when learners feel they have something interesting to say but lack the words to express their ideas, or don’t know how to pronounce them.

Before you set up a speaking activity, make sure students have the language they need to do it successfully and – just as importantly – feel confident with the pronunciation of that language. You could start by building up a list of relevant language on the board, for example, and practicing the pronunciation. (The Vocabulary Bank in American English File Second Edition is also a great reference for students to have nearby as they speak).

Also, it’s important to pre-teach not only topic-related vocabulary but also expressions for things like deciding whose turn it is, politely disagreeing, building consensus, adding a related point, and of course, describing something when you don’t know the word for it.

“It’s embarrassing to speak English with my peers.”

All learners need to overcome their fear of mistakes in order to succeed. This fear is often greater for learners in monolingual classrooms, perhaps because their speaking partner might be their friend, neighbor, or work colleague.

It’s essential to help students get over their fears and get them talking. Remind them that the only way they will ever learn to speak with fluency is through practice. It’s like learning to drive. You need hours of practice before you can drive confidently. If students are learning English in their own country, probably the only place where they can get effective face-to-face oral practice is in the classroom.

In addition, there are things teachers can do that will lessen the fear of making mistakes in any classroom, whether it is monolingual or multicultural. Let your learners know that the main goal of speaking activities is to build fluency and confidence rather than develop accuracy. Avoid correcting mistakes during speaking exercises unless communication completely breaks down and students need help getting the conversation started again. If a number of students are making the same sort of error, you might want to address that later, after the activity is over, without saying which people made the error.

To hear more from Mike on how to get students talking in the monolingual classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

  • 26 September 2013: 12:00 BST (07:00 New York / 08:00 Brazil / 20:00 Japan)
  • 27 September 2013: 16:00 BST (11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan)

Register for the webinar now!


Warming Up the Gears: 7 Fun, Field-Tested Vocal Exercises

Woman massaging her facial musclesGetting students speaking is one of the toughest challenges a language teacher can face. In this article, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, introduces some vocal exercises you can use with your students to help get them speaking.

Does anxiety seem to prevent your students from participating in class, from enjoying practicing speaking with their peers, or from doing oral reports individually or as a group?

In one my previous posts on helping learners to minimize anxiety in speaking, I included a tip for “warming up the ‘gears’.” For any ELT practitioners who wish to experiment with ways to help students feel more at ease in speaking, this post shares a set of vocal exercises to warm up learners’ “gears” that I have learned through researching and voice training, used in my teaching of English-as-an-additional-language learners, and shared with practitioners through workshops.

These vocal exercises are enjoyable ways for learners to learn how to loosen their facial muscles before speaking, to develop a thick skin, and to enhance the vocal image that is critical to speaking.

1. Articulate Clearly

Minimize lazy tongue.

Step 1: Ask learners to work in pairs and take turns practicing saying the following common tongue twisters or any fun tongue twisters you use in your teaching.

  • How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
  • She sells seashells by the seashore.
  • When you write copy you have the right to copyright the copy you write, if the copy is right.
  • You’ve no need to light a night light on a light night like tonight, For a night light’s a slight light, and tonight’s a night that’s light. When a night’s light, like tonight’s light, it is really not quite right to light night lights with their slight lights on a light night like tonight.

Step 2: Gradually increase the speed of delivery, but one must say each tongue twister accurately before increasing the speed.

Step 3: After the pair work, ask for individual volunteers to practice saying the tongue twisters to the class. Increase the speed of delivery with each turn. Each learner must attain accuracy and speed before moving on to the next volunteer. While each learner practices saying the tongue twister, the rest of the class could hit the table to create a rhythm that will help the learner deliver the tongue twister following the beats.

2. Control the Breath

Minimize breathlessness.

Breathing is fundamental to speaking. This exercise helps release tension and slows the heart rate during speaking.

Man with a party hat and whistleStep 1: Try to say the entire alphabet, using only one breath (A → B → C → … → Y → Z).

Step 2: Ask students to stand up and say the alphabet in a manner that conveys excitement about sharing each letter with their peers. Encourage learners to make proper eye contact with each person in the room while saying the alphabet. Beyond lengthening the breath, convey the message that, if learners are not enthusiastic about what they want to say, they cannot expect others to be enthusiastic.

Step 3: Reduce the rate of delivery or lengthen the duration of uttering each letter in the alphabet.

A great way to recycle the task is to give each learner a party noise maker or a blower that enables the instructor to see when each learner runs out of air. It is also a fun way to switch up the exercise.

3. Vary the Pitch

Eliminate a monotone or an overly high-pitched voice in order to engage listeners and convey authority. I usually begin by speaking like a robot or playing a clip of a monotonic speaker before introducing the exercise.

Step 1: Say the words by going down the musical scale: low-low-low-low-low-low

Step 2: Say the words by going up the musical scale: high-high-high-high-­high-high

Step 3: Switch up the exercise by mixing low and high as each student takes a turn to practice. You will surely encounter some students who cannot tell the difference between the pitch of each word with its accompanied note, and these students usually get big cheers when they are able to accomplish varying the pitch through this exercise.

4. Vary the Speed

Embrace variety in pace to convey the relative importance or urgency of one’s message. Refer to Dlugan’s Six Minutes blog for more information about the average speaking rate.

  • Try speaking at a slow pace and time yourself (e.g. 140 and fewer words/min.)
  • Try speaking at a medium pace and time yourself (e.g. 141-­‐180 words/min.)
  • Try speaking at a quick pace and time yourself (e.g. 181 and more words/min.)

5. Vary the Volume

Raise learners’ awareness of the need to adjust the volume to the situation and the setting. Learn to project the voice and be aware of how a speaker may be perceived as speaking too softly or too loudly.

Step 1: Say the following words with the intended volume as indicated.

soft → very soft → loud → medium → very loud → soft → extremely loud

Step 2: Ask each student to stand at the very far corner of the room where the lesson is taking place and to self-introduce in order to receive the group’s feedback on the volume. This works especially well if doing it in a lecture hall, as most learners will quickly realize that they need to speak up and project their voice.

6. Vary the Stress and Use Pauses

Use appropriate stresses and pauses to clarify meaning and create impact. Using pauses effectively can help one to gather thoughts; give the listener time to breath and to reflect on what was just heard; and signal transition, create impact, and draw in the listener.

Ask the students about where the stress and pause should be placed in the following examples:

  • Don’t exit Excel
  • Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country (JFK)
  • Action needs to take place now not later
    This is an appropriate time for action
    We need to act, period
  • Success is never final failure is never fatal it is courage that counts (Winston Churchill)

7. Vary the Tone

Change the emotional register of one’s voice. If one’s tone conveys interest and enthusiasm, the listener will pay more attention to the message. Use Shakespeare’s sonnets to practice infusing emotion in what one is saying.

Portrait of ShakespeareShall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18)

These vocal exercises are fun, enjoyable ways for learners to learn how to loosen their mouth muscles before speaking, to develop a thick skin, and to enhance the vocal image that is critical to speaking. Have your learners bring their funny bones and sense of adventure to your “warming up the ‘gears’” segment. Integrate the segment at the beginning of a speaking class at least a few times, switch up the exercises by incorporating some of the suggestions offered here, and be prepared for plenty of great fun and laughter!


Getting children to talk in English from the beginning

Karen Frazier, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get children speaking in English from the very beginning.

Would you like your young students to speak more in English? Getting children to speak has always been one of my main goals when teaching English language learners. Yet students are often very reluctant to speak. Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

Sometimes, students are afraid of making mistakes. They think they will be misunderstood, and they don’t want to be embarrassed. Other students are shy and just don’t want to talk. So how do we get them talking?

One thing we can do is to make sure that students are comfortable with the language we expect them to use. If they are not comfortable, they will probably hesitate to speak.

Do you remember being in a class where you weren’t confident about something you had learned? For me, it was my geometry class. Perhaps for you it was a science, history or language class. If your teacher began the next lesson by asking you to demonstrate something from the previous lesson, without reviewing it first, how did you feel? Many of us probably would have been anxious about volunteering or speaking out in that class. And we might have tried to avoid talking as much as possible. The same is often true for our language students.

We should remember that young students usually leave a language class thinking, and maybe hoping, that they’re finished with the language learned. They seldom think that they might need it again for the next lesson. That’s why it is important to prepare our students for a new lesson by reviewing what they already know at the beginning of every class.

Another way to encourage our students to speak is to create lessons that incorporate a reason to communicate. In many English classes, students answer, but rarely ask, questions. Lessons are often full of drills and other practice activities that are boring for students. Students quickly lose interest and focus. Our challenge is to plan lessons that expect students to ask questions to get information, thus keeping them involved in the learning. There are a number of ways to introduce language that will have your students asking questions from the beginning. Here’s an example of one activity using puppets to do this. (I’ll be sharing some more activities that have worked in my classes in my webinar on 30 November – do join me.)

Engaging lessons not only help our students remember language, but also help them develop positive attitudes toward using new language. Language learning involves a memory that comes from more than just remembering the images, sounds and words for objects. This memory also includes how the language was introduced and the context for that introduction and practice. If language is presented in an interesting way, children will remember that it was exciting. They will want to use the language because they see it as something fun to do.

Of course, students have to practice language over and over to imprint it on their memories, much like a dancer or an athlete works to develop muscle memory. Practice and repetition in a language class is important to make using basic language patterns automatic. But drills don’t need to be boring for young students and we can borrow ideas for creating engaging activities from watching the ways children interact with games and media available to them.

It is possible to make language presentation and practice fun and interactive! Tools like puppets, teacher and student cards, and even mobile phones, can be used in lessons that will get your students to enjoy talking so much that they’ll forget they are learning.

Here’s a sample lesson that incorporates a review and some engaging ways to present and practice a lesson on birthday gifts that will get your students talking. Let me know how it goes!

Visit Let’s Share for more videos, blogs and upcoming events by our Let’s Go authors.

Karen gave a webinar on ‘Getting children to talk in English from the very beginning’ on 30 November 2012. If you missed it, you can watch the recording here.


More voice-based activities to raise learners’ awareness of the power of their voice

Young woman covering her laughFollowing his first post on giving the learners a ‘pragmatic shock’, Arizio Sweeting returns with more voice-based activities to get your students speaking in English.

In this second voice based post, I would like to share with you two activities to help learners become more aware of the power of their voice.

I have called these activities: Intonation Gap and Voiceover, respectively.

The first activity, Intonation Gap, aims to encourage learners to notice what their voice sounds like when expressing emotions such as fear, shock, excitement, and so on in their speech.

The activity works like this:

  • Divide the class into two groups: A and B.
  • First, give the learners some nonsense sounds on the board e.g. piupiu, etc.
  • Tell the learners that they are going to ask a question using the nonsense sounds.
  • The questions must be short, preferably one-word questions e.g. piupiu? Demo what to do.
  • On the board, write up some adjectives such as afraid, surprised, angry, pleased, excited, questioning, etc.
  • Using the nonsense sounds, learners practise asking questions expressing the emotions on the adjectives on the board. If you have small mirror, give these to the learners so they can see the facial expressions or mouth articulations. The same procedure is repeated for answers.
  • Give each learner the name of a suburb. Alternatively, you could use shop names, street names etc.
  • Tell the learners to mingle and ask each other questions to find someone with the same information, trying to communicate the emotions that would go with the adjectives on the board. This time, they should use real words e.g. Marble Arch? And short answers such as Yes and No.
  • Learners should respond in the same way, paying close attention to the emotion being expressed before giving an answer.

The second activity is called Voiceover, and it is ideal for a class project. Personally, I have found this activity a great confidence builder as well as a challenger of misguided learner perceptions that a ‘beautiful voice’ is only that of a BBC announcer, for instance.

In fact, it has been a great help to show the learners that their voice can be as good as anyone else’s, given the proper work, of course.

This activity works like this:

  • Select a YouTube video with no voice over. Wildlife videos can be a good source of material.
  • Learners using iPhones, iPads and Android devices can access the videos on their gadgets.
  • Learners watch the video and identify the various themes on it e.g. love, bravery etc.
  • Select a song or poem which you think would go well with the video. If you decide to use this activity as a class project, give learners time to find their own poems or songs.
  • Learners watch the video and match the song or poem with the video. Encourage the learners to use their creativity as well and write new lines to go with the video.
  • Using speech symbols, learners study the poem or song, marking it with speech symbols and practise saying it on their own or mirroring each other’s mouths without making a sound.
  • Engage the learners into breathing exercises for relaxation and confidence.
  • Organise the learners into groups for them to narrate the videos in real time.

In summary, I hope you will find these activities of useful for helping your learners discover the power of their voice so that they can use it to do the work for their pronunciation development.

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