Setting up and managing a speaking activity can be a tricky business – even more so with a big class. The problem doesn’t seem to be with reproduction or monologue style activities, this kind of speaking practise is relatively easy to set up and manage even with a big class. Unfortunately, however, speaking practise is sometimes limited to these kinds of activities (practise/change the information and practise the dialogue with your partner… ) The problem arises when we want our students to interact with each other to develop fluency. Pair work in the form of ask and answer the following questions, might be apparent in some classrooms, but anything more is often considered impossible with large classes or not even considered. I know because I’ve been that teacher…
Over the years, however, I’ve become braver, allowed my students more freedom and embraced the chaos! True, activities which require students to interact more spontaneously with each other can be more difficult to set up, manage and assess in big classes but it’s not impossible. What I’ve learned (the hard way!) is that success (or lack of it) lies in:
The setting up of the activity
Instructions and expectations must be clear. Displaying the different steps of the activity and/or doing a demonstration with some students first is a good idea. Once students are familiar with an activity, you can use it again and again to achieve different learning outcomes and you won’t need to repeat the instructions or demo stage. Students are surprisingly good at organising themselves when they know what is expected of them. Students also need to be well prepared (have the language and skills necessary to perform the activity and interact with each other). It’s sometimes a good idea to display language students can refer to, to interact effectively with each other (responding, agreeing, disagreeing, asking for clarification etc). This is particularly useful for lower level students.
Having a clear purpose
These activities work best if students have a reason to listen. Gap fill activities are the obvious activity here, however, if we want our students to be more spontaneous and creative, they can ask/answer questions or share information in order to find out something else e.g 5 things you didn’t know about your classmates, the five most surprising things you heard, 5 things you have in common with your classmates etc. So, the activity may be to ask about shopping habits but students will also be asking the information to find out things they have in common with their classmates e.g Juan and I hardly ever go shopping.
Including a feedback stage
If students know, that at the end of the activity, they are going to do something with the information they find out i.e share it with their classmates/teacher, they are more inclined to be on task during the activity. Whole class feedback sessions allow students to get to know each other better and can provide the teacher with invaluable information for establishing a good rapport with students. Sharing interesting/surprising/shocking/funny etc. information that students have found out contributes to creating a positive classroom atmosphere, which in turn makes students more likely to be collaborative.
People will have different ideas about what constitutes a big class depending on experiences and teaching contexts. When I first started teaching EFL in Spain, I had on average about 10 students per class so when I went back into mainstream education, average class sizes of 25-30 seemed big. I’m sure there are teachers with 40-50 in a class in other parts of the world who consider my classes relatively small! I teach in a secondary school in Spain where classes are mixed ability and up to 30 in a class. The following are activities that I regularly use with my students and which (almost) always have positive results. We all have bad days, students and teachers alike! Some of the activities are “classics” (often with a twist) which will already be familiar to you. They are activities I learned on my CELTA course way back when, which, for years I (wrongly) dismissed when I swapped smaller classes in language schools for bigger classes of unruly adolescents. Mingling activity with 30 loud, unpredictable teenagers? You must be joking! Well actually, no…
My students are well-versed in the act of “mingling” For anyone (possible?) who is not familiar with the art of mingling in an EFL class, students typically walk around the classroom asking/answering questions or sharing information with their classmates. Again, a reason to listen, will help students stay on task.
In the feedback stage students share their findings. This can be oral or written depending on the lesson objectives. I often get students to write their findings down before oral feedback e.g write 5 things you learnt about your classmates… This is good for focusing on form, giving students time to reflect on the information and generally calming things down.
This activity can be in the form of a quiz (with questions prepared by the students themselves) and each correct answer gets a point. Instead of a prize for the highest scoring student, there are merits for all students who score over a certain number. As they can only ask one question per student this encourages them to speak to as many people as possible. As well as asking and answering the questions, pre-teaching some expressions to encourage interaction will make the activity more natural e.g well done, that’s right, sorry that’s not right, congratulations you got a point…)
A recent “quiz mingle” we did was adapted from an exercise in the textbook about TV programmes. The aim was to find “Who has the best TV knowledge?” First they prepared quiz questions about their favourite TV programmes to ask their classmates in the mingling activity.
If you don’t like the idea of 20+ students wandering around the classroom, you could divide the class into 3 or 4 groups and have them mingle within their group in a corner of the classroom or take them outside… Dividing the class into 3/4 large groups is also good for splitting up friends who tend to stick together.
This is an activity I learnt on a course I did about collaborative learning and teambuilding strategies although I’ve also seen it mentioned on teaching blogs albeit with different names.
It involves students either sitting or standing in 2 lines facing each other. They talk for the designated time about a specific topic or ask/answer their questions before moving on to the next person when time is up. Only one line moves and the person at the end of the line moves to the beginning of the line.
When they arrive back to their first partner (they’ve spoken to everyone in the line) they feedback any information they remember, either written or oral (see above.)
An alternative to the line layout is 2 concentric circles facing each other where only the outer or inner circle moves.
This activity kind of evolved from traditional pairwork. I wanted my students to speak to more than one classmate but the problem I encountered was that they were all finishing at different times so some students were left waiting…
Students sit in pairs and are given a letter A or B. They ask/answer their questions or share their information until I say “change” At this point the A students stand up and find a new B student to sit next to. Repeat as many times as necessary/you like. If students sit in the same places every class, next time get the B’s to move. A sign to change could be when one set of students finish. It isn’t necessary for all students to finish every time as they continue the conversation with their new partner.
I don’t remember where I first heard about this small group discussion strategy. Students are divided into small groups or conver-stations (4/5 students per group works well) The teacher sets the task and a time limit E.g answer the 5 questions in 5 minutes, you have 3 minutes to discuss the topic, share your answers/ideas (pre-prepared) … 1/2 students then move to a different group and share their answers/ideas from the original group. Again you can repeat this step as many times as you see necessary/beneficial, ending with whole class feedback. I have used this activity for working with readers. It’s a great way to check understanding and share opinions about the book.
This is another kind of mingling activity. Some of you may know it as Find someone who… If there is anyone who doesn’t know it, (again, not sure if this is possible) students have some information to collect from their classmates depending on the lesson objectives. I did a version of this activity on the first day of class in September to revise the past simple and find out what my students did during the summer holidays.
Students asked their classmates questions to find out the following information:
- Who ate pizza
- Who studied
- Who went to the cinema
- Who travelled to a different city
- Who read a book
- Who did a sport
If a student answers yes, they can add that student’s name to the table. Depending on the level of your students you can ask them to find out some extra information. For example, if they went to the cinema, an extra question could be What film did you see? When students have completed the table with all the necessary information, they shout “Bingo”. In whole class feedback the students who have information missing can complete their table. Again, as well as asking/answering questions, students can be encouraged to use language to respond to their classmates in as natural a way as possible, Really? Wow! You’re so lucky, I never eat pizza…
Debating is great as a spontaneous speaking activity. Although students prepare their arguments beforehand, they have to introduce them at an appropriate point in the debate. In order to do this they have to follow the debate and use the necessary language (pre-taught) to interject, agree, disagree etc… This can be done on a simple level. I recently organised a balloon debate with an A2 class on what 5 things you need to survive on a desert island. This was an extension activity to practise vocabulary and grammar from the textbook. The preparation for the debate was similar to the cooperative learning strategy 1-2-4. First individual students compiled their list of 5 objects and their reasons. With a partner they then negotiated to compile one list between the two of them. Then they worked with another pair to negotiate and compile one list for the 4 of them. At this point they’re ready for the final debate. Two groups of 4 students (depending on class numbers) then argue the case for their list. I used this activity for assessment purposes. The rest of the class can either listen to the debate and decide which group is the most convincing/note down good expressions used etc… or if you have shy students who you think will underperform in front of a big audience, you can give the rest of the class a task to do while the others are debating in their group.
All of these activities are great for formative assessment. You can give general feedback to the whole class and/or individual feedback. To give individual feedback, I choose 4/5 students to focus on for each activity. They don’t need to know who are the “chosen ones” as you appear to be monitoring everyone…
The benefit of all these activities, is that student talk time is maximised. It will be noisy without a doubt, but reassure yourself with the knowledge that if the activity is set up and managed correctly, all that noise should be your students on task, in English. It may seem like chaos sometimes (especially to the teacher next door) but it’s organised chaos which, in my book, is good chaos.
For our students to develop communicative competence, they need to be allowed to be spontaneous and creative. They need to do more than memorise chunks of language in order to accurately reproduce it. They need to play with the language they are learning. Teachers have a responsibility to facilitate this, they need to be brave, let their students loose and embrace the chaos!