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Building language skills. Part 2: Speaking

by Elaine Gallagher    The second language skill that humans develop is speaking. Speaking is a human ability that is attained ONLY if the human has heard others speak. The more we hear others speak, and the greater the vocabulary of those who speak to us, the better we will be able to speak. There […]

Autor: UNOi

Fecha: 11 de noviembre de 2015

by Elaine Gallagher

   The second language skill that humans develop is speaking.

Speaking is a human ability that is attained ONLY if the human has heard others speak. The more we hear others speak, and the greater the vocabulary of those who speak to us, the better we will be able to speak.

There have been cases of children who grew up without any human contact, and no speech to imitate, and were found, at about age 15, having absolutely no human speech. The unusual thing (that might be very interesting for you to research) is that these children, the few that scientists know about, NEVER were able to speak. It seems as if there is a window of opportunity, between birth and 15 or 16 years of age, during which humans can learn speech. If the window of opportunity is missed, speech cannot develop. Studies seem to support that if certain neurons are not used, they become dysfunctional. More research is being conducted in this area of language acquisition.

(BRAINWORK activity: Research these children that were found without human contact and without being able to speak.)

We know that listening ability is the base for oral language development. So, the more we listen, repeat, listen, and speak, the better we will be at it.

Now, in the 21st Century, there are many movements towards emphasizing oral language communications, with less emphasis on writing than in previous times. Gone from modern language teaching is the old-fashioned stress on grammar, structure, memorization, drill, translating sentences, and copying. With current teaching methods, fluency is more highly regarded than accuracy. Of course, the ultimate goal is accuracy and correct structures, but as students learn to speak, the emphasis is on fluency, smoothness, and the development of vocabulary, in order to communicate ideas.

In order to implement and support fluency, teachers MUST talk less and allow and encourage students to talk more! This includes both free speaking among each other, as well as organized activities where students speak. When students are doing free English speaking in class or recess, they do not need to be corrected so as not to break up the fluidity of their speech. When, however, they are having an organized lesson, the teacher can make corrections in both structure and pronunciation, using casual tact and patience so as not to pressure the student.

If a student should ask for a specific word or a way to pronounce a word in English, the teacher should provide it. For example, “How do you say “libro” in English?” The teacher should simply answer: “book”. Do NOT tell students to look it up in a dictionary because it will discourage them from peaking, and it is tedious. Plus, we want to encourage the students to use an English-English dictionary, using the teacher and texts as a resource for expansion of English vocabulary. This is the best method to get students who will think in English, which is the key to fluency.

Part of speaking, of course, is oral communication with others. An extension of oral communication is oral presentation so that others will hear what ideas we have to present. When we give oral presentations, there are things to note so we can do a good job. Using Power Point, Keynote, or Prezi will help students organize their presentations, keep ideas visible, and serve as guidelines to not have to memorize anything. Also helpful, instead of digital presentations, could be posters, mind maps completed on an i-Pad and projected on a screen, or real, tangible articles that students bring to class to show and describe as they talk.  Below are more ideas.


Activity 1

Role plays These are a form of pair-practice which gives students freedom to play, improvise, and create. These are useful as a way to practice not only language, but also culturally appropriate behavior.


  1. Create situations and roles for students. You may want to base these on a dialogue or something else you have studied in class.
  2. Pair students, give them the situation and their roles, and have them carry out the role play. While students should practice material they have studied, also encourage them to be creative and improvise.
  3. One way to close is by having one or two pairs do their role play for the whole class. This serves primarily to give a sense of closure and need not go on long. (If each pair performs, too much time is taken and other students spend too long sitting and waiting. Listening to classmates stumble through dialogues is not very good listening practice.)
  4. Another way to close is by asking a few students what the outcome of their role play was (was the invitation accepted? etc.). This is much quicker than having students perform, but still provides a sense of closure.

Tip: Encourage creativity. If students make an effort to entertain, role plays are more fun to do and much more fun to watch. Be realistic, however, about the fact that not all students will be great public performers.

Activity 2

Show and Tell This informal but engaging activity involves bringing pictures or other objects to class, showing them, and talking about them. Show and Tell is good for providing listening practice and arousing interest in a topic. It also serves as a good informal warm- up or as a break from “real” class.


Activity 3

Songs are great for making class a warmer, nicer place. For maximum value in language classes, you might first sing or play the song to get everyone interested, and then teach all or part of the words to the song by saying the words and having students repeat (and perhaps memorize) after you. You may not be able to teach all of the words this way, especially if the song is long, but try to have students learn as much as possible of the song by listening and speaking rather than just reading.
There are many CD’s with children’s songs available. Interestingly, many people who do not even know a language well, can sing songs (from rote memory) without their native language accent; therefore, singing can greatly help to develop excellent pronunciation skills.

Activity 4

Surveys involve asking the same few questions several times to different people, so they are a good way for students to repeatedly practice questions and answers in a format which encourages genuine communication. For lower level students, this is one of the easiest formats for relatively free communicative interaction.


  1. Decide on a topic or list of questions. This activity works better when you are genuinely curious about the results of the survey, and students too.
  2. Tell students what the purpose/topic of the survey is. Either lists the questions you want them to ask or give them a general topic and have them write down their own questions. If you want them to generate their own questions (either individually or in groups), give them time to do this. Variation: Have students work in groups to prepare questions, and then each member of the group asks the same questions. Later they can get back together to compare notes and report results.
  3. Tell students how many classmates they are expected to survey, and approximately how long they have to do it in. Alternatively, assign a time limit for each short interview. 4. Have them conduct the survey. You may need to occasionally encourage them to move on to a new partner. You can either join in or wander and eavesdrop.
  4. Close the activity by having a few students (or groups) report their findings.

Tip: Having students move around the class as they conduct their interviews makes things more lively and keeps everyone awake and involved.

Activity 5

Talks and Lectures are useful for helping students improve their listening and note-taking skills, especially for improving their ability to guess when listening to longer stretches of discourse in which it is not possible to catch every word; also it is useful for teaching culture. (Students are often especially interested in stories you tell about yourself, especially when supported with pictures or other visuals.)


  1. Locate information and prepare the talk.
  2. Tell students what you are going to talk about, and ask them to take notes. (Taking notes forces them to listen more carefully.) Participants may need some instruction on how to take notes.
  3. Give the talk. If students’ listening skills are not strong, it is very easy to lose your audience, so keep an eye out for the glazed-over look that says your audience has been left behind.
  4. After the talk there are a number of ways to check comprehension: ask questions; have students write a summary of your talk; give a short quiz; have students write (and ask) follow-up questions based on what you talked about; have students talk or write about corresponding aspects of their own culture; based on your talk, have students work in groups to list similarities and differences between Chinese culture and yours.


  1. Your country and culture are especially good topics, but other topics such as your experiences in China, language learning, etc. can also be useful.
  2. You can make your talk easier to follow by first giving students a list of questions to listen for the answers, or by writing a simple outline of the talk on the blackboard. Also write down key new vocabulary words that you use.
  3. Visual aids of any kind are very helpful.
  4. For maximum benefit, try to pitch the talk so that students can follow much of what you are saying, but still have to guess some of the time.
  5. You can make talks easier for students with lower listening levels to follow by first giving them clues in the form of questions to answer or outlines, forms, or graphs to fill in. The questions (outlines) help focus students’ listening, make it easier for students to anticipate and guess, and also enhance motivation and encourage active listening.

Activity 6


Teacher Interview A good speaking activity is having your students interview you “press conference” style about a topic, often after they have prepared questions in groups. This is good for speaking and listening practice, and for encouraging student initiative; it also helps students to get to know you and your culture better.



  1. Be sure you are prepared for any questions students might ask on the topic.
  2. Tell students that they are reporters interviewing you so that they can write a story for the local paper. Then give them the topic and some time to prepare questions related to the topic. This can be done individually, but it is often better for speaking practice to have them work in groups.
  3. Have students conduct the interview like a press conference.
  4. If you plan to require a written report, have students take notes. You may also want to put new vocabulary on the board.
  5. To close, ask comprehension questions, or ask a few volunteers to tell you what they found most interesting or surprising about what they learned from the interview. Alternatively, you can ask each student to write a short report based on the interview. (For more suggestions on checking comprehension, see Talks and Lectures.)

Tip: To ensure that the process isn’t dominated by a few zealous students, one approach is allowing each group in turn to ask one question. This allows shyer students to get their questions asked by the group representative. If there is less need to protect shy students, another alternative is to simply require that everyone ask at least one question.

Activity 7

Total Physical Response (TPR) This is a “Simon Says” type of activity that we saw in the “Listening” article previously presented in THE ENGLISH CORNER.

“Simon Says” is a game in which the teacher gives students instructions, and they respond by doing what the teacher asks (rather than by speaking). Because students respond with action rather than speech, they can focus their attention more fully on listening to what the teacher says (rather than having at the same time to worry about constructing an oral response). This method is good for building listening skills, especially for students at lower levels, and can also be used to introduce or review vocabulary and even grammar structures.
 Once they play it for a few minutes, with the teacher giving the instructions, the teacher should select names from the students’ name cards, and let a student give the directions. He or she has a turn until the first person makes an error. Then the teacher selects another name, in this way, students get speaking experience, and they learn how to give directions with the goal being to “trick” the others into responding incorrectly, which takes some thinking skills, as well.


  1. Before the activity, make a list of the instructions you wish to use. (Ex: “Open your books.” “Turn to page six.” Touch your nose with your friend’s pen.” etc.)
  2. Conduct the activity in a game-like manner, repeating instructions and building for faster student responses.
  3. If you want to make it more like a game, add the “Simon Says” element; i.e. tell students they should only carry out the instruction if you preface it by saying “Simon Says”.
  4. When the students become the “teacher”, make sure they speak loudly enough for all to hear.

Tip:  This activity can be especially useful for teaching basic classroom instructions to students with very low listening skills.

Activity 8

True/False Listening: For this activity, prepare a number of short statements, some true and some false, and then present them to students as an informal “true/false” quiz. This activity is good for reviewing vocabulary and culture content from previous lessons while also providing listening practice.


  1. Write up a set of statements for a short true/false quiz, drawing material (vocabulary, cultural information) from previous lessons. This is most fun if the statements are a little tricky without being mean. The more this seems like a game instead of a test, the better.
  2. Ask students to listen to each statement, decide if it is true or false, and write down T or F on a numbered sheet. After the exercise, the answers can be checked as a group. Alternatively, just ask everyone to shout out the answer.

Activity 9

Interviews are especially good for intermediate or advanced oral skills classes because they allow in-depth exploration of a topic and provide students with practice in explaining opinions.


  1. Decide what topic(s) you want students to interview each other on.
  2. Give directions for the interviews. Students need to know the suggested topic and approximately how much time they will have. If you want students to write up their own list of questions, they will also need a few minutes to do this.
  3. Pair students. Often it is good to find a way to pair students with someone other than the person sitting next to them (who they probably already know fairly well).
  4. Have students carry out interviews. Once student A finishes interviewing student B, you can ask them to switch roles, or even switch partners. You may want to set a time limit, and call out when partners should switch roles.
  5. To close, ask a few students to report some of the more interesting things they learned from their partner during the interview.


  1. Topics which involve opinions or information not shared by everyone in the class are best because they make interviews more genuinely communicative.
  2. Role playing and interviews mix nicely; for example, one person might be a reporter and the other a famous person.

Activity 10

Cocktail Party is a free form of speaking practice in which students get out of their seats and converse with different partners in a style similar to that of a cocktail party.


  1. Explain the basic “rules” of a cocktail party to students:

Rule #1: You should talk to more than one person rather than talking to the same person the whole time.

Rule #2: After talking with someone for a while, you must close your conversation and move on to someone else.
Also teach students a few lines for striking up conversations
(Ex: “It sure is hot today”), and for closing them (Ex: “Well, it’s been nice talking to you, but it’s getting late, and I need to get going.”).

  1. Let students know whether or not you want them to practice specific material (from a model dialogue, for example), how long they have to talk, and how many people you expect them to talk to.
  2. Turn students loose, and join in.
  3. When time is up or enthusiasm runs thin, call everyone back to their seats. Close by asking a few students about their conversations. This is generally more fun — and other students will pay more attention — if you ask a specific question appropriate to the activity (Ex: “Tell me a little about the most interesting conversation you had.” “What new things did you learn?”) rather than having students summarize all their conversations.


This format is relatively noisy, so consider the impact this chaos will have on nearby classes.

Activity 11

Make a Budget

This activity has the students working in pairs, a boy (man) and a girl (woman) working together. If you have an uneven number of boys/girls, it is OK, as they can pretend they are roommates.
The objective it to make a livable, sustainable budget for two people. The teacher can decide how much money the pair “earns”, quoting it in Euros, Mexican pesos, Brazilian reales, or US dollars.

Ideally, this activity spans over several days, or even a few weeks, with students having time to talk and decide their expenses and earnings based on newspapers from the city where they live…or where they propose to live.


  1. Teacher must explain what a “budget” is….The teacher must circulate among the students as they work, to assure that they are speaking English as they work…and to help them with vocabulary words they may need to use.
  2. Then over days or weeks, depending on how much time per day will be devoted to this project, students, guided by the teacher, do the following:

First: Students make a list, as a pair, of logical expenses they will need to live well. This is labeled as “IDEAL BUDGET #1”.

Second: Students add up the expenses from “Ideal Budget #1” to see how much the expenses total. A SAMPLE list of expenses that could be included follows these procedures.

Third: The students INCOME must be determined. This can be done by chance, or by planning.

CHANCE: The teacher has two bags with slips of paper inside. One bag is for one person of the pair, and the other bag is for the other person in the pair In one bag, each slip has a monthly salary amount written on it, from low salary amounts to rather high amounts. The second bag has slips with salaries, but, also, in the bag are slips that say: “unemployed”, or “stay-at-home Mom”, “college student”, or other designation. Each person in the pair draws from a different bag to provide a realistic balance of what actually happens in some households.

PLANNING: The students as a pair determine what their salary will be based on three things they need to establish: (1) How much education did they complete? (2) What is their career? (3) What are they earning? This should be based on newspaper job advertisements or Internet research.

ALL students who choose this route, MUST pretend they are in the first year of their job. This will prevent students from unrealistically saying that they are the “top boss at IBM, earning a million dollars a year!”


Fourth: Once students know their combined salaries, they will need to prepare a REALISTIC BUDGET #2, adjusting the sums from the IDEAL BUDGET to reflect the reality of their income. Each pair of students will have to discuss and decide which budgeted items need to be adjusted, either lower or higher.

  1. Once the IDEAL BUDGET has been adjusted in order to prepare a REALISTIC BUDGET, students will share with the class , orally and visually, with written posters, or with transparencies, or Power Point, or on the board, a summary of what they learned in this project.
They should be prepared by the teacher on how to make summary statements, explaining what was the one, most important thing they learned from the project.


  • rent or mortgage
  • electricity
  • water
  • cable TV
  • house repairs
  • food
  • household paper and cleaning products
  • eating out in restaurants
  • savings
  • insurance: health
  • car payments
  • car maintenance: oil, tires
  • miscellaneous expenses
  • laundry (soap, bleach, dry cleaning)
  • personal money for books, movies
  • personal money for hair cuts or manicures
  • property taxes
  • cleaning service (home)
  • clothing, and shoes
  • medicines / vitamins
  • doctors / dentists
  • going out /movies vacations / travel
  • gifts
  • insurance: life insurance:
  • car gasoline
  • furniture replacement
  • hobbies / sports

“Personal Money” includes beauty items (face and body creams, lipstick, makeup, cologne, perfume, etc.), and cleanliness items (shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, razors, special soaps, etc.).

Activity 12

Use puppets: By using puppets that you buy or make, or that students make, you can encourage speaking activities and role-play, even developing plays with various puppet characters. Developing conversation skills using puppets is very easy because students feel less self-conscious speaking through a puppet than by themselves.

Activity 13

Use pictures: Cut out pictures from magazines and paste them onto index cards. On the back of each card, you can write some vocabulary words that could be derived from the picture. Students can use the cards in pairs to stimulate discussion, with questions and answers, or giving an explanation of the picture to his/her partner. The words on the back can be used for support…or for the student to check AFTER a pair activity to see if he/she used many of the words. Example: a picture could be a mother holding a baby, kissing it on the cheek. Words on the back of the card could include: MOTHER, BABY, LOVE, KISS, AFFECTION, CARING, TENDERNESS, FACE, HEAD, EYES, MOUTH, PARENT, CHILD.

Activity 14

Role playing is an activity that can be very structured at the beginning, practiced as a large class group repeating after the teacher. Later, it can be an opportunity for free, flexible responses by the students as their language fluency and vocabulary grow. STRUCTURED EXAMPLE: (following a script the teacher provides and practices with the entire class first…)

  1. Good afternoon. Can I help you?
  2. Yes, I want to buy shoes for my child.
  3. Hi, young lady. May I measure your feet?
  4. She’s a bit shy, but, yes, please measure her feet.
  5. OK. She seems to need a size 1.
  6. Please show me some white shoes for her size.

UNSTRUCTURED, FREE CONVERSATION EXAMPLE: (invented as they speak with no prior script…)

  1. Hi! Can I help you find something?
  2. No, thanks. I’m just looking for now.
  3. OK…Let me know if I can help you later.
  4. Thanks, I will.
  5. (Later) Did you find anything interesting?
  6. Yes. Can you explain this computer game to me, please?


Activity 15


Pick a topic: The teacher will have strips of paper in a bag. The strips have various speaking topics written on each one. Students will draw a strip from the bag and speak on the topic. Topics can be simple, one-word topics to sentences, depending on the vocabulary level, ability, and experience of the students. Teacher can set the time to present, from one minute to 3 minutes. Since the audience can find this boring, only use this activity with 3 or 4 students each time. Also, if the talks are 3 minutes or more, give the audience a rating chart so they can participate by rating the speakers.

(SEE the ASSESSMENTS section which follows to obtain a sample PEER ASSESSMENT form.)



  1. Comments about assessing students
  2. What are we looking for? Once we decide, that is how we evaluate. Many school systems do NOT give grades to primary students. Instead, they use narrative explanations or lists of what they expect from a normal child at a specific grade level. They use three levels to assess the students’ progress:

Below expectations (Still developing skills in this area)

Meeting expectations (On target; good job)

Exceeding expectations (Over and beyond, excelling at all work, and using high level thinking skills)

  1. The use of projects, in place of traditional exams, can help us see the various abilities of our students. (Multiple intelligences)
  2. The use of alternative grading tools: RUBRICS. These allow a much fairer way to assess essays, projects, drawings, and other types of work that require a subjective, rather than objective, assessment.
  3. Grade for both content and mechanics so that students can get credit for their entire work: ideas as well as technical details. This helps students pay better attention to their work, and allows them to see where they need to improve. Otherwise, they just see the bad grade and give up, not really knowing where they went wrong.
  4. Grading/Assessing

Sometimes you may want to use a different way to evaluate or score your students’ work. Here is a list of several ways: points, words, or percentages. Feel free to use them as you want.
In this rubric, a score of ONE is the lowest and FIVE is the highest. Students should have access to the rubric before they have a speaking assessment so that they will be able to set their goals.

  1. Sample Oral Presentations Assessment (for PEERS or Teachers)

Person Presenting:_____________________________________

Topic: ________________________________________________

Please rate each of the following criteria on a scale of 1 to 5:

(1 = needs much improvement       5 = excellent)

  1. The presenter spoke clearly.
  2. The presenter spoke at a good volume. (not too loud or soft)
  3. The presenter spoke at a good pace. (not too fast or slow)
  4. The presenter faced the audience.
  5. The presenter appeared relaxed.
  6. The presenter stood up straight.
  7. The presenter used effective hand gestures.
  8. The presenter made eye contact with me.
  9. The introduction caught my attention.
  10. The speaker held my interest for the whole talk.
  11. The presenter provided some good examples.


  1. The conclusion wrapped up the speech.


Comments / Specific Notes on Strengths and Areas to Improve:



Remember to give students many opportunities to speak English:  to each other, to you, and to speak to the class as a presenter. The more time students speak, the more practice they’ll have, and their fluency level will rise.

The next section (#3) in the BUILDING LANGUAGE SKILLS series will be IMPROVING READING SKILLS.