Maximizing Student Speaking Time in Language Teaching

We, language teachers, have a difficult task. It is not enough to have students listen to our detailed explanations. No, we have to get our learners to improve their speaking skills. As we all know, to achieve this, students must practice… speaking! But how do you get a maximum number of students to speak a maximum amount of time in class—in the language you are teaching?

Failure of the official "reading and vocabulary" method

That was the question I asked myself after teaching two years at a technological university. I felt I was doing the wrong thing. Actually, I was doing what I had been taught at the teaching training program designed for future teachers who become civil servants in the French education system. The “official method” hadn’t functioned particularly well at the high school where I had worked for six years, and it was definitely not appealing to my undergraduates. I was supposed to choose an interesting text and then work on the grammar, ideas and vocabulary in the texts by asking judicious questions. I chose ESP texts, current events texts, cultural texts, but nothing seemed to work.

The disease to please

Fortunately, I realized I was afflicted by the disease to please. I wanted the students to like me. So I kept searching for the miracle text or the miracle activity they would enjoy. I didn’t give much homework—in fact I didn’t require much of them. What I needed was to come to grips with what the students really wanted—to understand what would make them speak. So I talked with students out of class and started working in a team with the colleagues I had recruited for our engineering school. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I had to increase SST (Student Speaking Time)—especially Individual SST. Now with hindsight I can say focusing on ISST was the best professional decision I ever took.

Calculating Individual Student Speaking Time

Different ways of conducting class give varying amounts of SST. Imagine a class of twenty. You spend ten minutes giving necessary explanations and ten minutes are often “lost” because of silences, document distribution or students taking out documents, so you have forty minutes left for oral production. If you use a question-answer technique and have the students raise their hands and speak one after another, you will be sharing the remaining time with your students. Undoubtedly, you will repeat certain questions, make comments or explain incorrect answers. Most probably, you will use up twenty-five minutes. So your students will be producing language for only fifteen minutes. Consequently, the average Individual "Student Speaking Time" in a class of fifteen will be one minute per student per hour. And with thirty students, a mere thirty seconds! Six years of traditional instruction—60 hours per year—will give students only three hours of ISST. Hardly enough to make them fluent!

You may object saying that while one student is speaking, the others are formulating the answers in their heads. This may be true, but real assimilation takes place only if the student is actually articulating the answer and not just thinking about it. And some students could be daydreaming instead of focusing on the question. Moreover, you alone will wind up asking all the questions—not a very authentic language situation.

The 75% rule

In our team the goal was to ensure each student would speak or be involved in intensive listening at least 75% of class time (45 minutes per hour). Obviously, the question-answer routine would not help. Other techniques were needed. First, the students would spend one hour—out of the two per week—in the audio lab. The program was very intensive, requiring the students to repeat, transform or translate into English for the first half of the hour. While they spoke, they also completed written exercises in their course booklets to keep a trace of their oral work. In the second half they did listening comprehension with written cloze exercises created from texts or songs. They did the written work in their booklets (three per year) and checked their work against keys available in the lab. The lab program often ended with a song—with students singing contentedly into their microphones. With our challenging exercises all students spoke or practiced intensive listening 90-95% of the time in lab.

Tutorials in lab

Another great technique used in the lab was the tutorial. Students gave oral presentations to the teacher in a one-to-one session for twenty minutes. Each student spoke for fifteen minutes and replied to questions from the teacher for five minutes. Teachers would correct mistakes orally in real-time—and write down corrections for students to study after their tutorials. We had two or three tutorials during each lab hour. Besides solo performances, students conducted interviews in pairs and had discussions or debates. This tutorial system combined with an intensive lab program enabled us to focus on the work of just one or two students at a time and was very rewarding.

The classroom hour

After restructuring the lab hour we aimed at 60 to 70% Individual Student Speaking Time in the classroom. We all know we learn best by explaining things to other people, so the idea was to have the students “teach each other”, which they would do when correcting assignments or translating into English.

Students worked in pairs and were lent one key for each exercise to correct. One student would read answers or translate. The other would check, advise or explain—orally—helped by keys that were easy-to-follow, but he would never “show” the key to his partner. That was the rule. We teachers didn’t have to intervene. Everyone was speaking or listening intensively all the time. Homework correcting took three times less, and teachers could answer individual questions. All classes shared the same keys. They were stored in binders (in plastic sleeves) and only lent out to students. We teachers reduced photocopying time and saved paper through teamwork.

Classroom activities

After correcting during the first ten minutes, students recited short texts or poems to each other—their partners would have their workbooks open and could thus “help”. There was never any reciting in front of the whole class, so students enjoyed it. The texts were generally the listening comprehension exercises they had worked on the previous week in lab or poems illustrating a grammar point like the difference between “make” and “do”. They would also do oral translations with the partner consulting the key. After the translating they would ad-lib on a related subject suggested by the teacher.

Then came group work in threes on a “guided” activity. Students consulted pages in their booklets with useful expressions. During their discussions they would tick off the expressions they had used. Finally, we had an oral presentation by two students. At the end two other students, who had been assigned to prepare an “oral synthesis”, would sum up the talk and compliment the speakers on the quality of both their presentation and their workshop. The “thank you” speeches explained what the students had learned and what they most appreciated. Classmates were always invited to applaud the speakers. The other students also took extensive notes—aware they would have to sum up one of these talks at the end-of-term oral exam. As you can see, it all tied together—talks, workshops, thank you speeches and an oral exam. Everyone had a specific role in the communication within the class and/or a reason to listen attentively.

The teacher as a catalyst

The teacher in such a dynamic class is present as a catalyst, coach, and cheerleader—and not as the main actor of the show. The teacher is an observer making discrete comments to each student when need be. This may be a difficult role for teachers used to being “the leader”. I believe teachers benefit immensely from relinquishing their “power” over students and letting the latter teach each other. The ambiance of a class where the teacher is the “guide” and not the “master” is entirely different with students speaking and listening very intensively 60 to 70% of the time. If you combine this percentage with that obtained in the lab, you get an average of more than 75% oral participation. This is equivalent to 90 minutes per student. With ninety minutes of speech production per week—and two to three hours of homework—you can really learn to speak a foreign language. Now with the Internet students can read and listen to English on their own. In class the teacher can focus on speaking—the most difficult skill to master. Teachers just have to stop talking and listen as much as possible!

To read about Marianne’s digital resource book on a DVD with 1,500 files (text, PPT, audio, video) click here.

The DVD is sold here in the store and the paper version is on Amazon. This book will help you develop a personal program you will be very proud of. Read the book review for more information.

You can also download…

FREE "QualityTime-ESL Podcasts" to review English grammar (about 10 minutes long), ideal for international exams and university students or anyone wanting to speak correct English and ready to invest the time to do oral exercises.

The first QualityTime-ESL podcasts (with drills) are easy and are intended for STUDENTS WHO STILL FEEL BLOCKED when communicating in English. Actually, since they are interactive with the students producing language they are not as easy as they appear. And ery soon they become far more challenging.

FREE "Your English Podcasts" where you repeat and complete simple sentences with a view to learning vocabulary. There are different levels from A2 to C2. Scripts and workshop are available at the store and are included on the DVD of Marianne’s digital resource book with 1,500 files (text, PPT, audio, video). For more information click here.

Free ESL Listening Comprehension Samples mp3

Free ESL Study Plan for Day 1

Free ESL Booklet Ideas for Day 1

Free ESL 1st Year Teaching Materials

Free ESL 2nd Year Teaching Materials

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