ESL Speaking for Advanced Students
No one doubts the importance of speaking in the ESL classroom. Language is for communication after all, and that means speaking ends up as the most used skill in the real world (along with listening). A lesson should contain effective activities which stretch the skills of the class, especially with advanced students who are working on the more subtle aspects of language acquisition. For example, advanced students must eventually learn how to adjust tone and stress, or use idioms in the correct context and situation. But a lesson can also quite easily contain ineffective activities which, when examined, really seem like nothing more than a comfortable chat or free conversation. Neither allows advanced students to practice grammar and vocabulary, nor develop speaking strategies and skills which may be of importance in school, work, or travel environments.
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Two different areas of speaking:
Speaking can more or less be divided into two categories: accuracy and fluency. Accuracy focuses on the correct use of grammar, vocabulary, and other skills. In most lessons, the teacher builds accuracy in the early stages through controlled or semi-controlled activities. Students practice a pattern, and see and use the language in context. Drills, scripted dialogues, and short questions which prompt the language are all common examples in any level of lesson.
Fluency is the ability to speak smoothly and clearly. With advanced students, it also refers to the ability to participate rather than react to a conversation. (Many conversations with lower-level students feel more like an interview. Student A asks a question, student B answers it, and the process continues back and forth.) Activities which focus on fluency often appear towards the end of the lesson, when more open ended (yet focused) activities appear.
It's important to note that all speakers, both non-native English speakers and native ones, need to be exposed to a new word, grammar point, or phrase several times before they can remember it. Even more exposure and practice with the language is needed before it can be comfortably and correctly used. So think of the initial activities as setting the needed patterns for a better and realer use of the target language. Effective lessons will thus devote at least some time to both aspects of speaking. It's not necessary to equally divide class time into fluency and accuracy activities, though.
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Let's look at one example activity for each.
(Step One) Students receive a scripted monologue or dialogue with the grammar, vocabulary, or idioms in context. They should first read through the whole script silently, and check any unknown words or phrases in a dictionary.
(Step Two) The class listens and repeats after the teacher or tape at least twice. Although students should work on individual letter and word sounds, at the advanced levels they should also work on stress, tone, and rhythm with the teacher.
(Step Three) Students get into pairs and practice through the script several times. With a dialogue, each student takes a role and practices. With a monologue, one student reads anywhere from some to all of the script, and the other student listens and offers advice.
(Step Four) Students add body language, intonation, word stress, and so on, as directed by the teacher. The class may practice several times, altering the situation slightly every few minutes. For example, with a dialogue, students first practice the conversation as friends talking in a noisy restaurant. Next they practice the conversation in conspiratorial whispers at the office. Following these situations, students sit back to back, and speak as though on a phone. The dynamic of the conversation not only changes each time, but students link the various speaking styles with appropriate situations.
Monologues work equally well, as they often feel much like mini-presentations. As such, students can adapt the accompanying tone for persuasion or information, speak (and gesture) angrily, passionately, and so on.
(Step One) Students write down five key vocabulary words to use in a discussion, debate, or role play.
(Step Two) Break the class up into pairs. Everyone exchanges papers with the five vocabulary words.
(Step Three) Students discuss or debate some pre-determined questions. Whenever a student uses one of his/her key words, the partner marks an appropriate check. Students should be encouraged to use each word more than once. With a role play, students similarly listen for one another's key words.
(Step Four) After several minutes, tally the points. This is the base for which students will shoot in subsequent conversations. It's always a good idea to switch partners, and have the same conversation or role play again. Each student will use more vocabulary than before, and will also speak with improved fluency.
A Few Final Comments:
Don't assign a controlled activity towards the end of the lesson, because students won't be able to freely practice the language. An open-ended or free activity doesn't mean a directionless chat. Students should have enough room to experiment with the target language, mix ideas and language points from previous lessons, and make mistakes.
Do repetition, as provided through drills, isn't patronizing to advanced students. I've heard this argument numerous times. Yet at all levels, students need repeated exposure to new material before they can realistically be expected to use it.
Do assign new tasks to extend activities. An advanced lesson doesn't need five different activities to practice the language. For example, assign two very general questions to discuss on the topic as a warm up. Teach and practice the main focus of the lesson next. After that, give additional questions to discuss with the target language. Have the students repeat the conversations several times with different partners. Finally, having practiced the language, the students are ready to debate, which is what they have been building towards all along. Several different speaking strategies will be used here, plus the target language.
For more ideas and information:
- ESL News Lessons
Lessons based on current events provide real and relevant opportunities for language building. The information provided here will walk you through some ideas and steps for a successful news lesson.
- ESL Teaching Tips for Advanced Students
Need ideas and tips for your advanced classes? Take a look at the information provided here.
- Heads Up English
This site is entirely devoted to providing free lesson plans. Activities focus on speaking (or other skills) are available.
- ELT Notebook
A rich site with short articles on ESL methodology and teaching ideas.