The Development of Oral fluency in the TEFL Classroom
Teaching conversation to adults has always been a difficult area of EFL. So many students who come to English as a second language classes already have a basic school level of English and have achieved a degree of competence in vocabulary and grammar. However, regardless of their competence in these areas, their main aim is ultimately always to be able to “speak better”. This is how they judge their success and ability in the language, and it is an endless source of frustration for many at their inability to speak ‘competently’ in the second language.
This is partly because communication is personal. Speakers want to show themselves fully in their thoughts, ideas, and personality. Being able to do this in a language you do not fully command can sometimes be seen as an unattainable goal.
Although people speak for many different reasons, these generally fall into two broad categories:
- Transaction - using language to get things done by making requests, exchanging information, or asking and responding to questions. A typical example would be a service encounter in a shop or restaurant.
- Social interaction - using language to talk with friends, to share and discuss feelings and ideas, and to tell stories and anecdotes. To do this well requires the kinds of ‘soft’ language skills we use every day to maintain and manage our social relationships.
In the accompanying EFL conversation lesson plan and materials, I aim to focus on these conversational skills rather than on transactional ones.
If learners are to develop these social skills in English as a second language, they first need the confidence to be able to speak at length - so, an awareness of conversational strategies can help to give learners more control here. Good group dynamics are valuable in all areas of language learning but are essential in the development of natural speech. Good communication relies on people wanting to talk to each other - and this is helped immensely by shared knowledge and interests. This can only be put into practice in the classroom if students know about and are interested in each other. Therefore, EFL speaking activities which can be personalised to incorporate the learners’ opinions and experiences are good for establishing an environment where conversation classes will be more productive. In addition, it is often the case that language which is personalised is more memorable.
Because speaking has an immediacy, the integration of new language into “fluency practice” will always be problematic. This is why input in the set-up stages is essential and the teacher must work hard during these to ensure that pre-taught phrases, vocabulary, and the relevant language skills are worked on in advance of the main task. At this stage, it is also important to personalise the content and context to it to make it “worth remembering”.
A great deal of classroom time is spent on working towards oral fluency by learning vocabulary, phonology, structures, functions and by practising listening comprehension. However, it would appear that these skills alone are not sufficient to provide a guarantee of communicative competence.
Although extended oral fluency practice is sometimes called ‘free speaking’, most tasks are set in the hope that the learners will incorporate recently studied language items into production. While semi-controlled activities can, on occasion, achieve this, I find the items selected by teachers and course books are sometimes not really suited to achieving real, authentic conversation or interaction.
With more advanced EFL students, it is even more important that tasks offer opportunities for genuine communication. Artificial tasks provide no impetus or motivation for students to communicate. When a carefully chosen task forces the use of new language, learners will simply treat it as an opportunity to show they can use the target language, rather than for fluent communication.
EFL activities that call on the students’ knowledge, opinions, and experiences as a classroom resource have major benefits. Firstly, we can be sure that the language the students are producing or attempting to produce, is relevant to them. This language can be made the focus - and is more likely to be internalised because a need or desire has already been demonstrated.
Secondly, students are encouraged to relate to one another as people and not just language learners. Having this dynamic in the classroom creates the right conditions for genuine communication.
So, for authentic rather than contrived communication, I want to focus on “anecdote telling” as a way of extending speaking time and building confidence to “hold the floor” in a conversation. This will be done by using a transcript that will focus the students on the following linguistic items:
- Fixed expressions
- Vague language
- Discourse Markers
- Openings, Closing.
Learners at all levels have a store of fixed or semi-fixed expressions. However, they may worry they are inappropriate or that they have not have assimilated them sufficiently for them to come to mind during a conversation. The contexts provided by transcripts can be invaluable in guiding learners to an increased awareness of these devices.
Anecdote-telling is useful, not only in the sense that the language produced is personalised - but also because the speaker is given the opportunity to speak for longer. It allows for a clear and easy way of ensuring maximum speaking time. It also has the benefit that it can be prepared in advance and, at the conversational practice stage, doesn’t ask for highly focused language reproduction – as would be normal using the Presentation, Practice and Production paradigm.
Stages to consider in Anecdotal storytelling.
- How does your anecdote relate to what has just been said?
- What is your story going to be about?
- Inclusion of details: Who? Where? When?
- What happened?
- How was the situation resolved? What happened in the end?
- How does your story relate to yourself and your listeners?
These questions can help students outline all the stages of their story - giving it a much better chance of being successful. By familiarising themselves with the stages involved and by providing classroom practice, the aim is to help learners internalise a simple structure - and to make them far more likely to engage in recounting events and storytelling going forward.
This lesson aims to provide the learners with an opportunity to combine previously studied language with some of the secondary skills of speaking to prepare and deliver an anecdote. If successful, the learners will begin to transfer some passive language into oral production, thereby consolidating their knowledge, whilst communicating their own ideas and memories. It should also make the learners aware of the value of student-student interaction and help to create positive group dynamics.
In the early stages of the lesson, the students are asked to consider important first experiences. This should prepare the group for the listening activity which follows and generate ideas for their own anecdotes.
By using a text, the learners are provided with a model or pattern they can use when preparing to tell their own anecdotes. The analysis of an existing anecdote helps students to grasp the key points. Have learners mark with a highlighter, certain language points, such as past tenses and intensifiers. This will encourage them to use these in their own anecdotes.
The preparation time provided for their own anecdote allows the learners to combine all the relevant components of an anecdote and include any specific language they feel is necessary for the final activity.
You can download a PDF version of this lesson plan here:
Written by Trevor Kelly