Oral Communication: Three Ways to Hear your Students

listeningman The young Vietnamese man sat in the back and quietly looked at his book.   When called on, he was silent for so long that other students became fidgety. When he did speak, it was a whisper.

What do you do with a student like Thao? What if you have a speaking/listening class with several Thaos sitting behind confident gregarious students who shout the answer to every question? How do you address different needs in a multilingual classroom? How do you even know what those needs are if you do not have opportunities to really hear what they say?

These challenges can be addressed if teachers get better access to student language.  Perhaps we need to deliberately structure opportunities to hear students use language in a purposeful way. Then we can make more informed decisions about the way forward.

The following activity types can be tailored to provide the teacher with focused opportunities to hear and respond to students in the oral communication class.

1. Circle Activities

 “Get up and stand in a circle.” When students hear these words, they anticipate whole class participation. They know that the teacher will not lecture, that each student will see the face of each speaker, and that no one will be checking his phone or talking to her neighbor. This focus is gold, and it can be used in various ways. Here are two possibilities

A circle activity on the first day of class is a great ice-breaker for creating a sense of community. All the teacher needs is a ball or a small stuffed animal that can be tossed around the room.  But it can also be adapted for error correction.

Start the activity by telling students that you will be working on the present simple and error correction.  Also tell them that you will stop them if they make a mistake and help them with it.  Then start the game.  Say, “My name is ___ and I like going to the beach.” Then toss it to a student across the room and direct that student to repeat the information and then add one sentence about himself, e.g., “Her name is ___, and she likes going to the beach; my name is Lam, an I like playing the guitar. Then this second student tosses the animal to a third student who must repeat only the information immediately before her. She does not need to repeat my information, only Lam’s, “His name is Lam, and he likes playing the guitar; my name is…”

When a student makes an error, the first step should be to alert the student to the error, and get the student to self-correct. Raise an eyebrow, hold up your hand, or say, “Try again.” Another good practice is to have the student repeat the corrected sentence before moving on so that the student ends with success.

The role of the teacher in an error correction circle is to hear controlled samples of students’ language and to give individuals immediate, corrective feedback. Other students can benefit from hearing the error correction when it is this specific, and they often want to help a student who makes an error.

2. Recitations

Simple poems, such as limericks and nursery rhymes are useful for helping students build facility with supersegmentals such as stress and intonation as well as more discrete sounds, such as verb tense endings, plurals, or troublesome consonants. For example, note the stress patterns, linking and repeated consonants of the following:

Peter Peter pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her,
So he put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.


As I was walking up the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish, he’d go away.


Short poems are readily available on the Internet, and they provide an entertaining sample of meaningful language that students can master. Also, students tend to enjoy the rhythms, which have the added benefit of sticking in the mind.

Start by explaining that the purpose is pronunciation, which can mitigate the perception that these are childish. For adult-level introduction, the teacher can read them (There are also plenty of videos online. ) After listening, students can practice repeating the poem after the teacher line-by-line. Next the teacher can divide the class in half and do choral drills by having the left side recite line one, and the right side recite line two in a call and response. Then they can switch sides. Third, pairs can practice in the same way, trading lines or reciting the whole poem for a partner.

To take it a step further, the teacher can offer a selection of short poems and then have students practice and recite a poem for the class, either informally, or formally for a grade.

The teacher’s role during the recitations is to monitor for information about stress, intonation and sounds. Because there is no need to think about other areas of production, it is easier for students to focus on pronunciation and for teachers to gather information that can inform decisions about how to handle stress, intonation and sounds in future lessons.

III. Prepared talks

Prepared talks are good for getting a larger window into student production, and they work especially well for the Thaos in class who do not respond well to spontaneous situations. When quiet students give a two-minute talk that the teacher understands, they break through a formidable communication barrier in a dramatic way.

Because a prepared talk requires some investment, it is often a good idea to make it a graded activity. A rubric can both communicate expectations and mitigate that “nebulous” tendency of spoken English. However, to make the task manageable for both speaker and evaluator it is helpful to find a focus (as with the other activities) and to keep descriptors to a minimum. The following rubric contains descriptors that focus on fluency. (Points can replace the cline.)

Exceeds expectations Meets expectations Needs more work
Speaks for minimum of two minutes, and does not read.
Speaks clearly and fluently, so there are few pauses.
Gives details about what happened, and what the speaker learned from the experience.


With an assignment (Tell about an adventure that you had.), and a rubric, students can organize and prepare their talk. They can practice in groups, in pairs, and at home. They can record themselves, make a video file, or create supplemental materials. Then, when they are ready, the teacher can set a task for the rest of the class to do in small groups or pairs (or let them continue practicing) while she meets with individuals to listen to their talk.

There are several advantages to this format: 1) because it is not a speech in front of the class, individuals tend to be less nervous, and the teacher is less distracted by the need to monitor the room; 2) when the student has something to say, the teacher does not have to draw the student out. She can concentrate on listening, learning, and giving feedback; and 3) the rest of the class can continue to practice, which they often find quite valuable.

Prepared talks can also be done as a panel, with groups working together to take different parts of the assignment. Two panels can take turns presenting for each other while the teacher listens. The dynamics in this three by three approach are such that the listening panel tends to pay attention and ask questions, while the speaking panel gets an attentive audience, which does not always happen in whole class presentations where individuals may continue to work on their speeches, or check their phones, particularly if they have trouble understanding the speaker.

Coursebooks can offer many lesson plan options, but there is no substitute for really hearing ones own students speak. The experience can be eye-opening, startling, and frequently gratifying.p00zd215







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