Sunday, 26 November 2017

Strategies for developing speaking skills in the pupil-centred classroom - Indonesia 2017

This is the first part of the workshop I gave in Jakarta and Surabaya as keynote speaker for Cambridge University Press. All the materials shown come from Cambridge Global English, Stage 3, ©CUP

Oral language skills are an essential part of a student's language and literacy development. For some English language learners, speaking and listening may be much easier than reading and writing.  For others, however, the challenge of speaking in front of classrooms, reading out loud, or making a presentation in front of the class can be overwhelming. We always see a number of students, from every cultural background, who are too shy to speak up in the classroom or to answer a question, even when they have the answer.

How can we support our learners’ language development and specifically their ORAL language development in the classroom, especially at a young age?

Let’s look at four key areas: 

Setting up the primary classroom

We know that there is not always a lot of flexibility in this, but, if possible, it would be useful to set up the classroom in this way:
• Have some open space where learners can do role plays, etc.
• Have a flexible seating arrangement, so that you can mix up the groups and pairs, and the learners become flexible about working in different ways.
• Make sure that you have display areas where you and the learners can bring in pictures and items linked to the themes you’re working on. Also display examples of good work and creative work. Make small cards and display important words for the learners to remember.
• Change displays regularly to keep the learners interested and engaged.

We need to change the paradigm from teacher-centred to learner-centred learning. This change has major pedagogical benefits, which are particularly relevant to language learning.

Learner -centred learning puts more responsibility on the learners for their own learning. It involves them in more decision-making processes, and they learn by doing, rather than just by listening and performing meaningless tasks which are often not in context and therefore ‘unreal’ to them.

Because learning becomes more active, it becomes more memorable and because it is personalised and relevant to the students’ own lives and experiences, it brings language ‘alive’ and makes it relevant to the real world.

When planning more student-centred lessons it is useful to remember the following:

 Ask don’t tell: always try to elicit information, ideas, and answers from the learners. They have knowledge and experiences of life, as well as language which can contribute greatly to the learning process. The more they contribute, the more they are likely to remember.

Focus on students’ experience and interests: using the course book as a starting point and then moving on to practice activities related to the students' personal lives and areas of interest and experience (personalisation) will help them become more involved in the lesson and they will remember more.

Communication over accuracy: the main reason for students learning a language is to be able to communicate with other speakers of that language. In reality they will probably speak English with more non-native speakers from the region than with native speakers, and the ultimate goal is to be able to understand and respond to each other. Students therefore need opportunities to practise communicating in English without the constant fear of making mistakes hanging over them. If you feel the need to correct their mistakes, don't interrupt their conversations, make notes and give feedback later.

Learning by doing: the more actively involved students are in their own learning, the more they are likely to remember what they learn.

Students have choices and make decisions about learning. Group work requires negotiation and decision making – working together towards a common goal.

Focus on confidence building for real-world skills. By developing communicative competence, language again becomes more ‘real’ and part of the students’ lives.

Encourage interest in English used in the real world. By using materials familiar to the students (magazines, the internet, video, television, letters etc.), students are constantly in touch with the language in an absorbing way.

 Tasks are open-ended, i.e. there is more than one possible answer. Traditional grammar based tasks are either right or wrong and test only one skill at a time. They are generally unimaginative, often in the form of multiple choice answers (so the students have a 25% chance of being right without actually knowing the answer at all) and totally divorced from ‘real world’ situations. Open-ended tasks are wider in their focus and involve a variety of language skills.

High exposure to English through the use of authentic materials: students may be set homework involving research undertaken using the internet or other English language reference sources. 


When choosing learner-centred materials for using in class, consider the following:
Ø  Are the learners involved?
Ø  Do the students have some choice?
Ø  Will the students really USE language to communicate?
Ø  Is the task is open-ended (i.e. there is more than one possible answer / outcome)?

Materials should reflect the following principles:

• An international focus. Taking into account that our classrooms are becoming increasingly multi-cultural, the themes and situations should reflect diversity and help learners learn about each other’s lives through the medium of English. This fosters respect and interest in other cultures and leads to awareness of global citizenship.

An enquiry-based language-rich approach to learning which engages children as active, creative thinkers. If learners participate in a wide variety of curriculum-based activities, they simultaneously acquire content knowledge, develop critical thinking skills through tasks that encourage a personal response and practise English language and literacy. Materials which incorporate a ‘learning to learn’ approach, help children acquire skills and strategies that will help them approach new learning situations with confidence and success.

English for educational success. To meet the challenges of the future, children need to develop facility with both conversational and more formal English. From the earliest level, materials should present authentic listening and reading texts, writing tasks, and culminating unit projects similar to those students might encounter in a first language school situation. Emphasis is placed on developing the listening, speaking, reading and writing skills students will need in order to be successful in using authentic English-language classroom materials.

Rich vocabulary development. Building a large and robust vocabulary is a cornerstone to success in both conversational and academic English. Materials should expose learners to a wide range of vocabulary. Many opportunities for revising these words and using them in personalised, meaningful ways are woven into the activities and lesson plans.

Individualised learning. Materials should approach learning in an individual way by both acknowledging the individual nature of the knowledge and background of each child and encouraging their specific input. They should also provide for differentiated learning in the classroom by offering a range of activities of varying difficulty and extra challenges. 

Strategies for developing speaking skills


The strategy works for coming up with writing topics, project ideas and solutions to problems, both inside and outside of the classroom. And, interesting activities teach kids how to brainstorm, giving them practice so the skill becomes natural and easier for them. Successful brainstorming activities encourage all kids to participate without focusing on correct or incorrect responses. The goal is to spark creativity to create lots of potential ideas rather than finding the one correct solution.

At elementary level, brainstorming:
Helps your child focus her attention on the topic.
Generates a number of different ideas.
Encourages your child to share her ideas and opinions without fear of criticism.
Shows your child that she will have more to say if she has already given her topic some thought.

Some tips:

Set ground rules about respecting every person's contribution without making fun of anyone when several children are participating. Explain that the point of all the brainstorming activities is to come up with a lot of ideas, whether or not they are used.
Announce the main topic or theme the kids will brainstorm about.

Write the main topic at the top of a large piece of paper. Ask the kids to think of as many ideas as possible that would fit under the selected category. Write all of the ideas on the list, even ideas that don't fit as well into the topic. Challenge the kids to think of a set number of ideas for the topic.

Create a brainstorming web. Draw a circle or cloud shape on a large piece of paper with the topic written inside to start the web. Draw several lines out from the center. Ask the kids for suggestions that fall under the selected topic and write each one at the end of a separate line to show how they are related but different.

Warm up
• Show some pictures of inventions. Ask the class if they know the names, e.g. TV, plane.
 Ask what they are and elicit the word ‘invention’.
Talk about it
• Ask learners what an inventor is. Elicit a few ideas. Ask if they know the names of famous inventions.
  Show a few pictures to give learners some ideas.
• Ask if they know the names of the inventors. Supply the names as necessary. Ask what they invented. 


Personalising teaching activities has many benefits to students learning English. It allows ESL/EFL students to communicate real information about themselves, which makes the learning of English more relevant to the students. Personalising activities also helps the learner to remember vocabulary and grammar more effectively, and it provides them with the chance to use English in meaningful communication.

Pairwork + feedback

Whatever is terrifying alone becomes much less daunting in a pair. First, there is less of the spotlight, because you and the rest of the class are not watching every person’s interactions. Everyone also has someone dedicated to giving them support, encouragement and direct feedback.

So, when you’ve got a conversation topic you’d like your students to tackle, start with pair work. Get students to debate all questions or topics in pairs first. Not for long, just a few minutes. Then have them share the results of their conversation with the whole group and build discussion on that. The magic is that, when you ask them in front of the whole class, they are already prepared. They do not have to think something up on the spot and they are not totally responsible for what they say, since it is the result of a joint effort. This takes away the sting of failure and the fear of speaking up.

The tendency with primary learners is to treat the class as a whole group and underestimate their ability to work in pairs or in small groups. Even very young learners can become independent in their learning and guided early on they will be more likely to grow into autonomous and successful language learners.

The advantages of pair work and small group work
      Gives learners more speaking time
         Changes the pace of the lesson
      Takes the spotlight off you and puts it onto the children
      Allows them to mix with everyone in the group
          Gives them a sense of achievement when reaching a team goal
Teaches them how to lead and be led by someone other than the teacher
Allows you to monitor, move around the class and really listen to the language they are producing

Wander around between the pairs to interact, listen, question or correct, wherever you are needed. This is a lovely learning environment for the students because it feels informal and they can ask questions they might otherwise fear to when all eyes and ears are on them. They get to know and trust their peers better. And they get to talk to you on a more personal level. Just this alone puts them more at ease.

Once they have had ample time to talk with their partners—and with you if needed—write up the various answers on the board for further group discussion. You can either have students call out answers while you write or you can have them all scramble up to the board and write things down. Note interesting themes.

Everyone is now warmed up, has plenty to say and feels part of a group process.

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