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).




S is for Speaking (1)

30 04 2017


reading aloud

Reading aloud becomes speaking

Last week I gave a workshop to two groups of teachers in Ramallah and Gaza City – teachers who are working in fairly tough conditions, with large classes and few resources. I needed to be able to demo some practical hands-on activities that they could use in their classes on Monday morning. Activities, moreover, that would provide plenty of opportunities for speaking. Hence, the title of the talk: My ten favourite speaking activities. There were no PowerPoint slides, so the following will serve as a summary of five of the activities that I workshopped (with more to come), and of the principles that we extrapolated from them. I ought to add that none of these activities I invented myself – they are all in the ‘public domain’ as it were. And have been for a long time. Which is proof of their worth.

  1. What animal am I? Or any number of guessing games involving yes/no questions. After the teacher demoes it, individual learners take the hot seat. Great for practicing really useful questions like ‘Do you lay eggs?’ Other variations include the well-known ‘What’s my line?’ (i.e. ‘What’s my job?’ ).
  2. Spot the lie. Tell three short anecdotes about yourself, two of which are 100% true and one of which is 100% false. Students have to spot the lie – they can ask questions to try and catch you out. They then do the same in pairs or small groups. Travel stories are good material, or minor mishaps, such as things you lost.
  3. Reading aloud (heads up): Reading aloud can be the most turgid classroom activity, as students mouth words without any hint of understanding, and mouth them badly to boot. However as Michael West realized, as long ago as 1955: ‘With a slight modification… Reading Aloud can be made one of the most valuable exercises in the early stages of teaching pupils to speak a foreign language. The pupil should be made to look up when they read aloud. The teacher says, “Don’t read to the book! Read to me. Look up at me.” He makes them read a phrase or short sentence silently then, looking up, say it to someone – to the teacher, or to another pupil, or to the class. In doing this the reader must look up during the speaking of the whole sentence; he must not just look up for a second and then look down again.’ West argues that the effect of this is that the reader must hold the material in the mind in such a way that its meaning is processed, and then recall it meaningfully. Moreover, meaningless reading becomes meaningful speaking because there is an audience: ‘The pupil is speaking to someone – not to the book or the empty air; and the more realistic recall is, the more vivid and effective as the learning.’
  4. Carousel: This is less an activity than a way of organizing speaking activities so that there is built-in repetition. It takes its name from the fact that carousels go round, stop, pick up new passengers, and continue the ride. So, one half of the class stand in a circle, e.g. around the walls of the rooms, while the ‘carousel’ consists of the other half of the class, so that individuals in each circle face one another. They then do the speaking task and, at a signal form the teacher, the inner circle moves around one, and the task is repeated, this time with new partners. When the inner circle has ‘revolved’ one complete turn, the two circles change places. An easy task might be for each student to draw their family tree (brothers, sisters, uncles. aunts etc) and attach it to the wall. They stand next to their picture and answer questions about it. Another one is the headlines activity, where students write, and post up, a catchy headline to describe their recent activities, e.g. JOYFUL WEDDING PARTY; FRUSTRATING SHOPPING TRIP, etc.

    carousel task

    The carousel in operation

  5. Dialogue build: I was taught this technique on my pre-service course, and I couldn’t have survived my first year of teaching without it. Very simply, the teacher uses a picture prompt (e.g. two people on the phone or in a hotel reception) to elicit and drill, line by line, a dialogue of anything between four and a dozen turns. Students practice it, first with the teacher, then with each other, changing partners frequently, and then perform it – perhaps with variations – to the class.

Principles of good speaking tasks that underlie these activities include:

  • repetition – e.g. of the same questions in What animal am I? or of the answers, in Carousel, or of both questions and answers, as in Dialogue build.
  • interaction – students not only have to speak but they have to listen and respond to one another – as in Spot the lie and Carousel.
  • support – activities are supported in a secure framework, e.g. a script or a text, so that the anxiety often associated with spontaneous speaking is reduced, e.g. Reading aloud, Dialogue build.


West, M. 1955. Learning to read a foreign language and other essays on language-teaching. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Thanks to Ahed Izhiman for the photos.

S is for SLA

1 03 2015

The criteria for evaluating the worth of any aid to language learning (whether print or digital, and, in the case of the latter, whether app, program, game, or the software that supports these) must include some assessment of its fitness for purpose. That is to say, does it facilitate learning?

But how do you measure this? Short of testing the item on a representative cross-section of learners, we need a rubric according to which its learning potential might be predicted. And this rubric should, ideally, be informed by our current understandings of how second languages are best learned, understandings which are in turn derived — in part at least — from the findings of researchers of second language acquisition (SLA).

This is easier said than done, of course, as there is (still) little real consensus on how the burgeoning research into SLA should be interpreted. This is partly because of the invisibility of most cognitive processes, but also because of the huge range of variables that SLA embraces: different languages, different aspects of language, different learners, different learning contexts, different learning needs, different learning outcomes, different instructional materials, and so on. Generalizing from research context A to learning context B is fraught with risks. It is for this reason that, in a recent article, Nina Spada (2015) urges caution in extrapolating classroom applications from the findings of SLA researchers.

Cautiously, then, and following VanPatten and Williams’ (2007) example, I’ve compiled a list of ‘observations’ about SLA that have been culled from the literature (albeit inflected by my own particular preoccupations). On the basis of these, and inspired by Long (2011), I will then attempt to frame some questions that can be asked of any teaching aid (tool, device, program, or whatever) in order to calculate its potential for facilitating learning.

Exposure to input is necessary

Here, then, are 12 observations:

  1. The acquisition of an L2 grammar follows a ‘natural order’ that is roughly the same for all learners, independent of age, L1, instructional approach, etc., although there is considerable variability in terms of the rate of acquisition and of ultimate achievement (Ellis 2008), and, moreover, ‘a good deal of SLA happens incidentally’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  2. ‘The learner’s task is enormous because language is enormously complex’ (Lightbown 2000).
  3. ‘Exposure to input is necessary’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  4. ‘Language learners can benefit from noticing salient features of the input’ (Tomlinson 2011).
  5. Learners benefit when their linguistic resources are stretched to meet their communicative needs (Swain 1995).
  6. Learning is a mediated, jointly-constructed process, enhanced when interventions are sensitive to, and aligned with, the learner’s current stage of development (Lantolf and Thorne 2006).
  7. ‘There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning’ (Ellis 2008).
  8. Learners can learn from each other during communicative interaction (Swain et al. 2003).
  9. Automaticity in language processing is a function of ‘massive repetition experiences and consistent practice’ in ‘real operating conditions’ (Segalowitz 2003; Johnson 1996).
  10. A precondition of fluency is having rapid access to a large store of memorized sequences or chunks (Nattinger & DeCarrico 1992; Segalowitz 2010)
  11. Learning, particularly of words, is aided when the learner makes strong associations with the new material (Sökmen 1997).
  12. The more time (and the more intensive the time) spent on learning tasks, the better (Muñoz 2012). Moreover, ‘learners will invest effort in any task if they perceive benefit from it’ (Breen 1987); and task motivation is optimal when challenge and skill are harmonized (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

On the basis of these observations, and confronted by a novel language learning tool (app, game, device, blah blah), the following questions might be asked:

  1. ADAPTIVITY: Does the tool accommodate the non-linear, often recursive, stochastic, incidental, and idiosyncratic nature of learning, e.g. by allowing the users to negotiate their own learning paths and goals?
  2. COMPLEXITY: Does the tool address the complexity of language, including its multiple interrelated sub-systems (e.g. grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse, pragmatics)?
  3. INPUT: Does it provide access to rich, comprehensible, and engaging reading and/or listening input? Are there means by which the input can be made more comprehensible? And is there a lot of input (so as to optimize the chances of repeated encounters with language items, and of incidental learning)?
  4. NOTICING: Are there mechanisms whereby the user’s attention is directed to features of the input and/or mechanisms that the user can enlist to make features of the input salient?
  5. OUTPUT: Are there opportunities for language production? Are there means whereby the user is pushed to produce language at or even beyond his/her current level of competence?
  6. SCAFFOLDING: Are learning tasks modelled and mediated? Are interventions timely and supportive, and calibrated to take account of the learner’s emerging capacities?
  7. FEEDBACK: Do users get focused and informative feedback on their comprehension and production, including feedback on error?
  8. INTERACTION: Is there provision for the user to collaborate and interact with other users (whether other learners or proficient speakers) in the target language?
  9. AUTOMATICITY: Does the tool provide opportunities for massed practice, and in conditions that replicate conditions of use? Are practice opportunities optimally spaced?
  10. CHUNKS: Does the tool encourage/facilitate the acquisition and use of formulaic language?
  11. PERSONALIZATION: Does the tool encourage the user to form strong personal associations with the material?
  12. FLOW: Is the tool sufficiently engaging and challenging to increase the likelihood of sustained and repeated use? Are its benefits obvious to the user?

Is it better than a teacher?

This list is very provisional: consider it work in progress. But it does replicate a number of the criteria that have been used to evaluate educational materials generally (e.g. Tomlinson 2011) and educational technologies specifically (e.g. Kervin and Derewianka 2011). At the same time, the questions might also provide a framework for comparing and contrasting the learning power of self-access technology with that of more traditional, teacher-mediated classroom instruction. Of course, the bottom line is: does the tool (app, program, learning platform etc) do the job any better than a trained teacher on their own might do?

Any suggestions for amendments and improvements would be very welcome!


Breen, M. P. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’, republished in van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. & Norris, J. (eds) 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Low.

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kervin, L. & Derewianka, B. (2011) ‘New technologies to support language learning’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. (2000) ‘Classroom SLA research and second language teaching’. Applied Linguistics, 21/4, 431-462.

Long, M.H. (2011) ‘Methodological principles for language teaching’. In Long, M.H. & Doughty, C. (eds) The Handbook of Language Teaching, Oxford: Blackwell.

Muñoz, C. (ed.) (2012). Intensive Exposure Experiences in Second Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Segalowitz, N. (2003) ‘Automaticity and second languages.’ In Doughty, C.J. & Long, M.H, (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Segalowitz, N. (2010) Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency. London: Routledge.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spada, N. (2015) ‘SLA research and L2 pedagogy: misapplications and questions of relevance.’ Language Teaching, 48/1.

Swain, M. (1995) ‘Three functions of output in second language learning’, in Cook, G., & Seidlhofer, B. (eds) Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Studies in Honour of H.G.W. Widdowson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Brooks, L. & Tocalli-Beller, A. (2003) ‘Peer-peer dialogue as a means of second language learning’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 23: 171-185.

Tomlinson, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: principles and procedures of materials development,’ in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (eds) 2007. Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This is a revised version of a post that first appeared on the eltjam site:  http://eltjam.com/how-could-sla-research-inform-edtech/


S is for Scaffolding

4 04 2010

In An A-Z I include an entry for scaffolding, but don’t mention the fact that it has become such a buzz term that it’s starting to lose all significance. Teachers and trainers regularly talk about their role in ‘scaffolding’ learning, but if you unpick their examples, it’s difficult to distinguish these from simple question-and-answer sequences that have always characterised effective teaching. Here, for example, is an extract that Rod Ellis uses to exemplify scaffolding:

1 Teacher         I want you to tell me what you can see in the picture or what’s wrong with the picture.

2 Learner            A /paik/ (= bike)

3 Teacher            A cycle, yes. But what’s wrong?

4 Learner            /ret/ (= red)

5 Teacher            It’s red yes. What’s wrong with it?

6 Learner            Black

7 Teacher            Black. Good. Black what?

8 Learner            Black /taes/ (= tyres)

 (Ellis, 2003, p. 181)


Ellis explains that “the teacher is able to draw on his experience of communicating with low-level proficiency learners to adjust the demands of the task and to scaffold the interaction so that a successful outcome is reached” (p. 182).  But I’m not convinced. It seems that – far from being an instance of co-constructed learning – the teacher and the learner are talking at cross-purposes, and that all this is mapped on to the traditional IRF (initiate—respond–follow-up) model of classroom discourse. This does not seem to embody Bruner’s (1978) definition of scaffolding as “the steps taken to reduce the degree of freedom in carrying out some tasks so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring” (quoted in Gibbons, 2002).

What, then, are these ‘steps’? Looking at the literature on scaffolding, a number of key features have been identified. Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) in one of the first attempts to define the term, itemise six:

1 recruiting interest in the task

2 simplifying the task

3 maintaining pursuit of the goal

4 marking critical features and discrepancies between what has been produced and the ideal solution

5 controlling frustration during problem solving

6 demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.

 (quoted in Ellis op. cit)


What they seem to leave out – and what is so attractive (to me) about the metaphor of scaffolding – is the relinquishing of the teacher’s role as the learner appropriates the targeted skill – what Applebee (1986) calls ‘transfer of control’: “As students internalize new procedures and routines, they should take a greater responsibility for controlling the progress of the task such that the amount of interaction may actually increase as the student becomes more competent” (quoted in Foley 1994). Also missing is what van Lier (1996) calls the “principle of continuity”, i.e. that “there are repeated occurrences, often over a protracted period of time, of a complex of actions, characterized by a mixture of ritual repetition and variations” (p. 195). That is to say, scaffolded learning is not a one-off event, but is embedded in repeated, semi-ritualised, co-authored language-mediated activities, typical of many classroom routines such as games and the opening class chat. Finally, any definition of scaffolding needs to highlight the fact that this kind of interaction is a site for learning opportunities, and is not simply a way of modelling, supporting, or practising interaction.

Does this tighter definition of scaffolding improve matters? Or is it now so tight that it deprives teachers of a useful metaphor for a whole range of classroom interactions?


Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching, OUP.

Foley, J. 1994. ‘Key concepts: Scaffolding’. ELT Journal 48/1.

Gibbons, P. 2002. Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning. Heinemann (USA)

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Longman,