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5 Elements You Need in Your ESL Speaking Classroom

Keith Folse wrote an excellent book on teaching speaking (information below). He goes over a few terms from the research that are necessary to consider when teaching speaking class. Whether you are new to teaching, looking for more professional development, or just need a refresher, here is an overview of some need-to-know terms and essential elements for speaking.

Students speaking class

1. Fluency vs Accuracy:

In the speaking class, the teacher’s aim should be to encourage fluency. Students should strive to produce language as much as possible. Folse uses an analogy about tennis. If Folse is coaching tennis and none of his students are even hitting the ball, then can he really spend time talking about the proper form of a backhand swing? No, he wouldn’t be addressing what the students need most. Therefore, teachers should create a classroom dynamic where students are “hitting the ball” and then learning the particular mechanics of other necessary skills.

Real Life Teaching Strategy:

Since I teach adults, I have the conversation about fluency and accuracy with my students. I ask them to consider which one they think is more important. I ask them to consider which one they are better at. Typically I ask students to draw a few lines on a paper. Then I write fluency on the left and accuracy on the right. Then I ask them to self-assess which one they are better at, which one they find more important, and which one they are seeking to improve. If their answer is both, then they put the mark in the middle.

Naturally those students that are concerned with accuracy are more hesitant to talk, and those that are more concerned with fluency are more likely to repeat mistakes. Students that find confidence in speaking are also more likely to circumlocute. Circumlocution is when someone uses an unnecessary number of words to express a simple idea. If you are not a very accurate speaker, you may need to clarify your point in different ways. You may vocally process your idea until you feel that it has been clearly communicated.

2. Interlanguage:

Folse cites Corder (1967, 1981) to state that errors are a sign of interlanguage development.

I repeat, "Errors are a sign of interlanguage development."

I think teachers conveniently forget how confusing it is to learn a new language. Or perhaps they have not tried, or perhaps they have learned a language that is quite similar to English. Errors can show the teacher so much. Are these basic errors? Or are they signs of students stretching their linguistic repotrie? This makes a difference. I think sometimes teachers punish students that take risks because they make more errors. Students that play it safe may not learn as much.

Folse explains that students may show “jagged growth” where a student learns a new grammatical structure, attempts to use it, uses it well, forgets it a little bit, and then makes errors with the structure until they have control. However, Folse says that our goal as speaking teachers is for students to stretch their interlanguage. He says that a well designed speaking activity will stretch interlanguage and challenge any fossilized language.

Real Life Teaching Strategy:

With beginner speakers, I usually want to offer an open ended activity with a lot of picture support. If students don't know the word, I want them to circumlocute. I want them to use their survival English skills to describe something they don't know. I do a lot of pair speaking in my classes, here is an example. In this speaking activity, students each have half of a map. The students need to complete the map using their existing linguistic repertoire. This shows the teacher what students don't know, but more importantly, it shows the students what they don't know. Students then have a better grasp of their limitations in the safe environment of the classroom.

3. Comprehensible Input:

Folse describes the concept of comprehensible input and cites that one of the biggest criticisms against Krashen’s views has been that it is difficult to operationalize into specific teacher actions (Gregg, 1984; Long, 1989). Therefore Folse gives five suggestions to help teachers try to be more comprehensible such as: enunciate more carefully, don’t use confusing or unknown grammatical structures, monitor your vocabulary, etc.

Real Life Strategy:

Sometimes it takes a few tries to understand what is "comprehensible" to a student. We may be handed a textbook that is supposedly meant for our students, yet they may not be able to understand one bit of it. This is where I tend to build on what students already know. (This won't work with students starting from hello and goodbye, but thanks to the internet, there are not that many students that know nothing.)

For example, if we are talking about food in class, I will have students tell me what foods they like. Then I will have them tell me American foods, restaurants, and best drinks. I will put all of this student-elicited information in categories on the board. I don't mind if students google or translate during this step. Then I put them in partners. They then have to rank their lists in a few different ways. Perhaps I will have them rank from cheap to expensive or most favorite to least favorite. They have to communicate with their partner to complete the activity. I know this language is comprehensible, because it was elicited from the students themselves.

4. Negotiation of Meaning:

A good speaking task or activity will inevitably create negotiation of meaning because students should be pushed in a way that makes their language breakdown. This is a healthy process for a language learner because they have to learn to repair their message.

Real Life Strategy:

Sometimes students need to be pushed for accuracy. Difficult spelling or pronunciation can create situations in the classroom where students are required to be accurate. I typically use a gap fill for this purpose. Both students have a chart of information. Student A has the answers to student B's chart and visa-versa. Students must then spell and clarify each word in the chart. This leads to inevitable pronunciation breakdowns and helps the teacher to see what needs to be corrected. See an example on page 4, here.

5. Pushed Output:

Swain (1985, 1995, 2005) conceptualized the idea of pushed output. Students should be able to “test their hypotheses about the language in communicative situations” (Folse, 2006, p. 42). For Folse, this means students should be put in situations where they have to struggle to communicate their message. This is another way that they can stretch their interlanguage, but the teacher must have a good idea of the class’ level.

Real Life Strategy:

Sometimes with high-beginner students, I will give each person a piece of the story. Students have to read each piece to one another and figure out the order of the story. Folse has more examples of this in his book "Discussion Starters." It causes the students to work together and stretch their working memory and language recall. Plus, the stories can have a twist ending or surprise that can make the students enjoy the process.


These are some of the most important concepts in language teaching, but understanding how to use them in your classroom will revolutionize your ability to get each student involved. This reduces teacher talk time and stretches the students to do the bulk of the work.

The information from this blog came from an excellent book that comes highly recommended!

Author: Keith S. Folse

Book: The Art of Teaching Speaking. University of Michigan 2006

Chapter 2: Research on the Teaching of Conversation

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