S is for Speaking (2)

7 05 2017


setting up speaking activity

photo by Ahed Izhiman

Following on from last week, here are five more of my favourite speaking activities that I included (or planned to include) in my talks in Palestine. As in the last batch, they require minimal materials, promote a good deal of productive language use, and have elements of task rehearsal and repetition built in.


Find someone who… This is a classic and hardly needs describing, but there are some interesting variations. It involves learners walking around (space permitting), asking all the other learners questions with a view to completing a survey or finding someone whose answers most closely match theirs. For example, in order to find out how adventurous the class is, learners (either singly or in small groups) first prepare three or four questions that fit this frame:

Have you ever …?  Would you ever…?

For example, Have you ever been sailing? (And, if the answer is No) Would you ever do it? Have you ever eaten insects? Would you ever eat them?) etc. They then survey the rest of the class, making a note of the number of affirmative answers. This will involve the repeated asking of the question(s), but in a context that requires that learners pay attention, not only to asking the right questions, but also to the answers. It is this requirement, the enforced re-allocation of attentional resources, that – in theory – encourages memorization of the forms. Reporting to the class the results of the milling activity (e.g. Maxim said he would never dive off the high board; Olga said …) is also another way of providing repetitive practice where attention is not only on meaning, but, because of the public nature of the reporting, also on form – i.e. on getting it right. Variants involve choosing items from a grid – e.g. holiday destinations, hotels, and months – and asking questions in order to find someone who is going to the same destination, staying in the same hotel, and in the same month.

Show and tell. Another classic: in successive lessons, learners take turns to make a short (two to five-minute) presentation to the rest of the class, e.g. about an interest they have, a hobby, a favourite object, a book they have read or movie they have seen. It is important than the presentation is spoken – not simply written down and read aloud. This requirement, along with the public nature of the task, encourages preparation and rehearsal. A question-and-answer session at the end ensures spontaneous language use. Ideally, learners should have a chance to repeat the presentation, either immediately or at a later date, in order to incorporate any feedback. An alternative organization is to put the students into small groups to share their ‘news’, while the teacher circulates and assists. One person from each group then reports some of the more interesting findings to the class. This is a great way to begin a lesson, and, if done regularly, trains learners to prepare in advance.

Discussion cards. Students in small groups have a set of statements or questions about a specific topic on cards. These can be prepared by the teacher, but, better still, by the students themselves, whose discussion cards can then be exchanged with another group. One student takes the first card, reads it aloud, and the group then discuss it for as long as they need, before taking the next card, and so on. If a particular statement doesn’t interest them, they can move on to the next one. The object is not necessarily to discuss all the statements: the teacher should decide at what point to end the activity. Groups who have finished early can prepare a summary of the main points that have come up. These summaries can be used to open up the discussion to the whole class.

Describe-and-draw race. The teacher pre-teaches or revises nouns relating to geometrical shapes, such as line, square, circle, triangle, and rectangle, as well as prepositional phrases such as on the left, on the right, above, below, outside, inside, so that learners can describe a simple arrangement of shapes. (Alternatively, they could be easy-to-draw objects, such as fruit, items of clothing or of furniture).

To practise, the teacher describes an arrangement so that the learners can draw it correctly. The learners do the same to each other in pairs, and/or ‘dictate’ a picture to the teacher.

communicative activity

photo by Tamar Hazam


Now the game element is introduced. The class is divided into two teams, and the blackboard is divided in two by a line down the middle. Each team has a representative at the board, each with a piece of chalk, or boardmarker. In advance of the game the teacher should have prepared a dozen or so different designs incorporating the geometrical shapes, large enough to be seen by all the class. The teacher ensures that the two team representatives at the board can’t see the designs, and then selects one and shows it to the two teams. Each team attempts to describe the design to its representative at the board, and the first team to do this successfully, so that the design is replicated on the board, is the winner of that round. The teacher then selects another design and the game continues, with new ‘drawers’ at the board.

Paper conversations. Not strictly a speaking activity, but one that simulates the real-time and non-predictable nature of spoken interaction, and therefore is useful preparation for it. Learners have a ‘conversation’ with their classmates, but instead of speaking, they write the conversation onto a shared sheet of paper. While the students are writing, the teacher can monitor their written ‘conversations’ and make corrections or improvements more easily than when students are actually speaking. The conversations can then be read aloud, using the ‘heads up’ procedure described in the previous post.

All these activities, and more, can be found in my book How to Teach Speaking (Pearson 2005).




C is for Communicative

15 08 2010

A communicative activity- Teaching Practice at the New School this summer

The term communicative is applied fairly loosely.  Typically it’s used to describe any activity in which learners are interacting with one another. So, a coursebook activity in which learners perform a scripted dialogue, or a minimal pairs activity which involves pairs pronouncing words to one another and identifying the appropriate picture on a worksheet, might both be labelled  ‘communicative’. No wonder, therefore, that the term communicative approach has become so elastic as to embrace any methodology that foregrounds speaking in pairs or small groups.

But, strictly speaking, communicative means more than simply interactive. In An A-Z of ELT I list the features of a communicative activity as being the following:

  • purposefulness: speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake;
  • reciprocity: to achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak;
  • negotiation: following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other;
  • synchronicity: the exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time;
  • unpredictability: neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable;
  • heterogeneity: participants can use any communicative means at their disposal; in other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.

The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task (of the type that the students are doing in the picture above) where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome. Describe and DrawSpot the Difference and Find Someone Who... are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above.

But what is their particular merit over, say, activities – such as rehearsing a scripted dialogue or playing a game like Pelmanism –  that are interactive but not strictly communicative? The standard argument (and a key tenet of the communicative approach) is that such activities better reflect the way language is used in the ‘real world’. A corollary to this view (and a core principle of task-based instruction) is that language is best acquired through such life-like language exchanges.  Cognitive theorists might add that the attention to meaning required in communicative interaction requires that learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy, and thereby develop strategies – such as ‘chunking’ – that promote fluency.

None of these arguments is necessarily proven nor conclusive: for a start, it’s debatable whether info-gap activities truly replicate real-life language use – when did you last ‘describe and draw’ something, for instance?  And the argument that classroom interaction should model authentic language use overlooks the fact that classrooms, by their nature, have their own discourse norms and practices which may be quite different from “real-life”.  Finally, isn’t there a danger that – if the concern for formal accuracy is ‘parked’ indefinitely – the learner’s overall proficiency might be at risk? (See the post on P for Push, for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, there also seems to be a good case for arguing that only life-like language use can tap into the cognitive and affective factors that both motivate and nurture language acquisition. But this presupposes that  the communication matters: that it is both contingent – i.e. it connects to the real-world in some way – and engaging: that it engages the learners’ needs, interests, concerns and desires. In short, the learner needs to have some personal investment in the communication. This is what I have sometimes referred to as big-C Communication, as opposed to the kind of small-c communication that is characterised by the six criteria above. The difference between big-C and small-C communication seems to underpin this comment by Legutke and Thomas (1991):

In spite of trendy jargon in textbooks and teacher’s manuals, very little is actually communicated in the L2 classroom. The way it is structured does not seem to stimulate the wish of learners to say something, nor does it tap what they might have to say. … Learners do not find room to speak as themselves, to use language in communicative encounters, to create text, to stimulate responses from fellow learners, or to find solutions to relevant problems (pp 8-9).

So, in order to capture the defining qualities of big-C Communication, I would add the following to my list:

  • contingency: the speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc)  in which they are uttered;
  • investment: the speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How you achieve these worthy goals is, of course, another matter!


Legutke, M. and H. Thomas. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Harlow: Longman.