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Are we really teaching speaking?

A thought-provoking question for teachers

For most of my teaching life, speaking lessons worked somehow like this: I would teach a grammar or vocabulary lesson, and at the end of this, students would have perhaps ten to fifteen minutes of “interaction”, and this was considered “speaking”. You might imagine how surprised I was when I discovered that there was just too much more regarding speaking lessons than just “answering the questions” exercises. In light of this discovery, I decided to write this article so as to share what in my opinion indeed constitutes speaking, and also provide a framework that can help you with speaking lessons. Shall we dive in?

First of all, it is paramount to understand why we teach speaking. Even though there are many possible answers, and each student might have their own personal or professional reasons, I believe it is possible to narrow it down to two main reasons:

  1. Speaking is the main communicative medium of the class, and it is important for the syllabus (Goh & Burns, 2012).
  2. Speaking is usually one of the main students’ goals, and they expect us to cater for it. Rarely do we see students that want to focus more on grammar instead of speaking.

Having this in mind, teaching speaking should be one of the most important aspects of our lessons; therefore, teachers should try their best when teaching speaking; nevertheless, maybe because of lack of time in class, and a pressure to follow the syllabus we disregard key features of teaching speaking.

First of all, it is essential to understand that spoken and written language are different. Spoken language has a predominance of informal language, use of ellipsis, use of personal pronouns, and use of performance effects such as pauses, and hesitations. Written language, on the other hand, has little to no occurrence of the characteristics mentioned before; however, what us teachers usually do is try to “transfer” written language characteristics to spoken language. How do we do that? We teach a grammar or lexis lessons, and expect that by the end of it students will be able to have a conversation with each other.

This mistake that language teachers make is understandable. After all, when we teach a grammar lesson for instance, we expect our students to be able to use the grammar topic. Our expectations notwithstanding, Goh & Burns say that speaking is a highly complex and dynamic skill, and teachers usually regard only the linguistic features of speaking: grammar and lexis, when we should also focus on the paralinguistic features such as body language, tone of voice, strategies such as turn-taking, and performance effects as well.

A challenge is posed to us then. How can we make sure that we take both linguistic and paralinguistic features into consideration when teaching speaking? Fortunately, there is a framework we can use. This framework is an adaptation of “The Teaching Speaking Cycle” created by Goh & Burns”. As this is an adaptation, feel free to modify it as you want, and also remember that this is just a model. You do no need to follow exactly what is here, but it can help you.

Teaching Speaking Framework:

  • Lead-in: It involves contextualizing the topic of the lesson. It can be a short discussion, a game, pictures, questions, etc.
  • Input: At this stage, the teacher provides language , content (ideas), clarification, or anything that will be useful during the speaking task
  • Preparation: Teacher gives time for students to prepare for the speaking task.
  • Feedback: To provide feedback on language, performance or content.
  • Speaking task: To use the strategies learned in order to achieve the goal of the class.
  • Feedback: To provide feedback on language, performance or content.
  • Reformulation: To provide feedback on language, performance, content, use of strategies, etc.

An Example:

Here you will find a model of a lesson I taught, where my main aim was to have students understand and produce spoken narratives, and as a subsidiary aim, I wanted them to use pauses and hesitations such as “hm” and “oh” when speaking.
As a lead-in, I showed my students three pictures and told those pictures were related to something that happened to me.Then, I had them speculate what might have happened.
After, at the input stage, students listened to an audio previously recorded by me, explaining what happened; then, I elicited what a narrative was, explored its form, and explored and practiced the concept of pauses and hesitations.
Then, at the preparation stage, students received a paper where they wrote key elements of their narratives in order not to get lost, and feedback was provided towards language and if students had included all the elements of a narrative.
Afterward, students went on to tackle the speaking task, in which they were required to tell their narratives to another peer. This would fulfill my main aim, but I also wanted them to use pauses and hesitations; therefore, when giving instructions for the speaking task, I made sure they understood they had to use them.
When the speaking task was over, we had another feedback moment before students moved on to the reformulation stage. At this stage, the aim is to have students do the speaking task again, after the feedback, to see how they incorporated the suggestions given. If you have time, you can repeat this as much as you like.

To conclude, I hope that by reading this article, I was able to challenge some of the views you might have towards speaking, and how to teach it. I also hope, that you understood how important the paralinguistic characteristics of speaking also are, and that you take them into account as well. Of course, you do not need to teach pauses and hesitations frequently. You can teach anything that you would normally teach, for instance, agreeing and disagreeing expressions; however, using this framework can help you to have an entire speaking lesson instead of a moment at the end of the class where your students would talk. Thus, the next time you have a speaking lesson, try to ask yourself this question: what else, besides language, can I teach my students?


C. M. Goh, C. and Burns, A. (2012). Teaching Speaking: A Holistic Approach. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lackman, K. (2010). Teaching Speaking Sub-skills. 1st ed.

Thornby, S. (2005). How to teach speaking. Harlow: Longman.

Thornbury, S. and Slade, D. (2007). Conversation: from description to pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press

The Author

Igor é professor de inglês há 5 anos. Possui uma licenciatura em letras, um CELTA e recentemente foi aprovado nos módulos 1 e 2 do Delta (Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).
Atualmente, Igor atua como consultor pedagógico em uma escola de idiomas e professor de uma rede bilíngue no ABC Paulista.

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