Speaking for a reason: the Last Proper Class of 2014-2015

It was my last “proper” lesson yesterday. By proper, I mean one unaffected by exams and general end of termness, as the class I question are an ESOL for employment class and have a further two days of lessons before they finish. They’ve been an interesting group to teach: seven very quiet female learners and a stronger, much more confident male learner. In this last class, however, there were only five students, very very quiet, and very hard to draw much out of in a whole class setting, and we had a three hour lesson. I sort of knew this wasn’t going to be a high energy, zingy kind of session.
Speaking tasks have always been hard with this group: when the strong male speaker was in the class he very much dominated the interactions, and his frustration was very visible when you asked one of the other students to contribute: not because he didn’t respect their opportunity to participate, but because of the inevitable pause that would happen, followed by a whispered, minimal answer from the student. I had hoped that with the strong speaker not there, this might encourage a little more vocal participation, and I really wanted to see how this could be done. This last lesson in particular did make me think about a few factors that make for decent speaking tasks.
Conversation, broadly, falls into two categories: transactional, where the participants are trying to achieve something, and interactional, where the people involved are engaging in social bonding, what I think of as a human parallel to chimpanzees picking fleas out of each other’s fur. Interactional conversation is about forming and developing social and personal interactions, rather than trying to make something happen. The second one is much harder, I think, to achieve in a second language: the social and interpersonal nuances are much harder to follow.
This is why “talk to your partner about…” so often bombs: students aren’t sure what the point of the conversation is, aren’t clear about what the conversation is trying to achieve. And so it was, to begin with, in my lesson yesterday where I gave the instruction to “tell your partner three things you are going to do this evening”. There was silence. A kind of gaping awkward silence. The group of 3 (five students, remember) finally started, triggering the pair to get started, but after a few moments the whole thing ground slowly to an uncomfortable halt.
It’s hard, at this point, not to feel frustrated, even a little angry. As a teacher who enjoys using emergent language and student talk, it’s even harder. “Come on,” you want to yell, “bloody speak. I know you’ve only shared one thing each and now you are sitting there just… Oh for crying out loud!” It’s hard not to blame the students, and a lot of trainees and indeed teachers do just that. “They just sat there!” you hear, “I gave the instruction, it was a clear task, why didn’t they do anything?”
Because the task was shit, that’s why. Yes, this class is a very quiet group. Very very quiet, in fact, not to mention shy. So my job as teacher is not to assume that they will just talk, but to design tasks that support and help them to talk.
So I made some changes.
Change 1: move some students around. At this point they’d been sitting not so much in friendship groups but in the seats they just sit in. There was no real direction to the groupings. So I shifted the stringer students together and the weaker students together. This meant that I could modify the upcoming speaking task very slightly.
Change 2: change the task. Once the students had moved, I told the groups they were going to have to find out a certain number things that they were all going to do this evening. I differentiated this by quantity (stronger had to find more things than weaker), but also because the “stronger” group were larger, this meant the task was a touch mor challenging. This was also a better speaking task. Instead of being merely communicative (“tell each other….”) it was interactive: in order for the task to be successful, they had to speak to each other. I gave a time limit, and they knew that they had to speak in order to have something to say. I added to this by saying that I would ask each group to tell me.
Change 3: remove myself. In this small class, a great lump of a teacher can be quite a domineering presence. So having set the task, I took myself off to the back of the room. This meant that the focal point of the classroom was no longer me, but instead it was the students.
I’ll admit that it was hardly a “light the blue touch paper and stand back” moment: but then I wasn’t expecting fireworks The class was still the same small group of shy, quiet students. However, after a slightly sluggish start, the conversations began, in English, about what their plans were for that evening, using, as was the point, the target language of going to or present continuous for future intentions and arrangements. After a few minutes, they had achieved the task. I returned to the front of the room, and quickly found out from each group what they had discovered.
The revised task was better, much better than the original one, and I was kicking myself for not having planned it that way. “Talk to your partner…” is just too vague and woolly. “Tell your partner 3 things about…” appears to be better, but is essentially the same thing. “Find out 3 things you have in common and be ready to tell me about them” is much better: it’s not a particularly natural conversation, but it is a focussed conversation with an aim to it. Not everyone is a natural with chit chat, myself included, and having something like a transactional type task focus removes the awkwardness of the conversation. Students have a reason to communicate, even if that reason is a slightly unnatural one. By changing the activity, the groupings and my position in the room, I got probably 100% more speaking from those students than I would otherwise expect. All in all, not a bad thing.


  1. Love this: ““Talk to your partner…” is just too vague and woolly. “Tell your partner 3 things about…” appears to be better, but is essentially the same thing. “Find out 3 things you have in common and be ready to tell me about them” is much better: it’s not a particularly natural conversation, but it is a focussed conversation with an aim to it.” I’m always trying to improve my own and my trainees’ consistency in this area: more intentionality and specificity around pairwork…things like ‘compare your answers’ is a missed opportunity for more eg ‘compare your answers – if different, compare reasons and try to decide which is right. If same, identify the common reason – how do you know?” etc.

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