One of my Chinese students, let’s call her Hui, had an IELTS score that would make someone think two people took it. She did well on each portion except the speaking, which she bombed. Completely. For a while, I suspected that she clammed up entirely and didn’t say a word. No matter the exact reason, improving speaking skills was her priority.
Shy by nature, Hui’s affective filter would shoot off the roof whenever she had to speak aloud, even when surrounded by supportive classmates. Terrified of making an error, her extensive vocabulary would disappear, her firm grasp on grammar dissipate, and she’d inwardly berate herself over and over until the person conducting the interview would dismiss her. Getting past all that wasn’t her only hurdle to jump when it came to improving speaking skills. She had another challenge, though.
Her worldview was sheltered after spending a lifetime studying, her life experiences very narrow, and her opinions on current events non-existent.
“Even if I could make myself speak, I never have anything to say!” she wailed in class one day.-Hui
What do blank slates have to talk about?
They say their hobby is sleeping. They spend more time on their phones than in the community. Your students look at you blankly when you ask them, “What do you think about __?” They’re shrugging their shoulders and avoiding eye contact. You’re ready to pull your hair out and/or refuse to teach a speaking class again.
Getting students to express thoughts, opinions, and ideas that they didn’t know they have.
It’s not that they are blank slates with no opinions of their own. It’s that they’ve rarely had the opportunity to think about it, much less discuss it. So, where do you begin? Start with the themes in whatever textbook you are using. Develop as many hard-hitting, deep questions as you can for a theme and give students timed response practice.
At first, I’d give each student two cards, allow them to discard one, and then they would have to start talking on that topic for as long as they could. Later, they would be permitted only one card, and I would time them…forcing them to talk without stopping for one minute, then two minutes.
We did this again and again. Hui’s score jumped dramatically, but EVERYONE benefitted. By improving speaking skills with impromptu speeches, they all gained more confidence in initiating conversations with people they didn’t know.
My students don’t need to take the IELTS.
Two words. Class participation. Many professors require active class participation and count it as part of the grade. Here are two more words: real life. In real life, unless we live as a hermit, we are often called upon to speak. That’s easy enough in our native language, but quite a challenge in another language. Give them practice in doing more than making small talk. Everyone can benefit from activities focused on improving speaking skills.
Strong speaking skills enable our students to
- inform and persuade others
- stand out from the crowd
Strong speaking skills also
- increase negotiation skills
- improve confidence
- enhance careers
Create classes of students who can talk through the entire class period!
Try it! Give your students the chance to speak on a given topic for 1-2 minutes without prior preparation. How well can they do? How much practice do they need? Join your students in the challenge. Draw a card and talk on that topic. Show them how it’s done!
Want to create your own library of topics to use when creating lessons focused on improving speaking skills but aren’t sure how to get started? Read How to Cultivate Insightful Discussion Questions for ESL Students. Don’t have the time and want it made for you? Take a look at the discussion topic cards I have in my TpT store.
More on improving speaking skills in adult ESL
- 3 Powerful Reasons to Incorporate Conversational Visits in a Speaking Activity
- Free Talking: Getting Low-Level ESL Students to Talk
- Discussions: How to Ensure All Your Adult ESL Students Participate
- The Amazing Power of Role Plays in Adult ESL
- Everyday Role Plays Perfectly Tailored for Adult ESL: 3 Easy Steps