By Amy Russo
Everyone (teachers, students, schools) wants students to speak. Not only to speak, but to communicate and express themselves in meaningful ways freely and with confidence. Despite this, free speaking in a classroom setting is not systematically included in most curriculums. It is often thought notoriously difficult to organize and evaluate, plus not achievable by all levels of students. A common concern is that adding a free speaking exercise will backfire: one-word answers, blank stares, unhappy faces, frustration, and shutting down. Thus free speaking seems to be a high (unattainable) ideal achieved only by “best students,” which renders it useless for the vast majority of classrooms. This is a situation the author has had many times, but over time has learned the problem was not due to a lack of grammar/vocabulary, not due to a bad attitude/disinterest and not too far above student level. It boiled down to this: students literally do not know what to do and teachers do not know how to evaluate or smoothly incorporate it. This leads to infrequent practice with topics not at student levels, and when students cannot smoothly do the activity it is treated as further evidence that free speaking is not doable. It then seems to teachers and students alike backfire is a given, which further entrenches the feeling that free speaking is a nice thing, but just not practical.
Free speaking (if scaled correctly) is not only accessible for all classrooms, but also deeply academically and individually beneficial. This paper will outline a method that has been successfully used at two high schools to make free speaking accessible to everyone. Free speaking skills can be acquired through a leveled series of non-threatening high return small victories, where everyone can see the visible progress. The first half of this paper will introduce goals for free speaking exercises, along with strategies to achieve these goals. By clearly delineating goals and strategies, bite-sizes chunks will be created. Those chunks make evaluating free speaking manageable for teachers and performing free speaking becomes a defined task for students with the opportunity for self-evaluation and improvement.
The second half of this paper will introduce a fast, flexible, and fun free speaking exercise; AAA. This exercise fits the strategies and goals of part one, and is therefore also easy to use as an evaluation tool. A little bit of background, AAA (sometimes called QA+1R) is a junior high school conversation activity to promote impromptu speaking, reactions, and active listening in 2 minute rounds. This is a scalable activity that can be used from junior high school (JHS) 1st grade and up. After every few practices, you “level up” the activity to help students naturally develop conversation skills. (See Figure A) Students speak in complete sentences and aim to speak as smoothly and much as possible; students can use prompt cards. AAA is the high school version and stands for ANSWER, ADD and ASK, which starts roughly at the lesson 8 pattern. This paper will describe the version of AAA used by our schools, but we recommend other teachers to adjust AAA to their student current level.
Free Speaking Goals
Communication = Sharing your ideas: if your partner understands then you are successful.
Fluency = Sharing your ideas smoothly and keep a conversation going with your partner.
Accuracy = Using easy, comfortable words and grammar your partner knows.
This order of importance is critical. A common student problem is an excessive focus on accuracy, which leads to one-word answers, long pauses, etc. When students have trouble doing a speaking task, it adds to their internal belief that speaking cannot be done. To combat this, students were instructed, “In free speaking, accuracy is something we like; it’s great, but it is our third goal and is only ‘times 1 or一倍’ important. Communication and Fluency are the top two goals and worth ‘times 3 or 三倍’ important. ” Students must periodically review these goals. All students at my both my mid-level and high-level academic high school could utilize these goals.
Strategies for the Free Speaking Goals
Communication: 1) reactions 2) gestures 3) facial expressions 4) voice tone 5) detailed sentences.
Strategy 1: Reactions are the signposts of language that show your partner that you hear and understand. Students have consistently sought these functions: happy, interested, surprised, sad, support, and agree/disagree (see Figure B). Mostly these functions are accomplished with short phrases using familiar words. This makes it perhaps the fastest way to improve speaking performance. To increase energy level and memorability, teaching gestures are closely tied with reactions. For example, teachers can pair “That’s great” with thumbs up or “I see” with touching your eye then pointing out. Teachers serve as models by reacting through class over the year, which shows good teamwork and correct timing for reactions. Having students practice the gestures/reactions combinations with a partner works well.
Strategy 2: Teachers show students that communication is far more than just words. Over 90% of communication is non-verbal, made up of body language and voice tone. Students use their whole bodies: eye contact, facial expression, voice tone, and gestures. For example, teachers demonstrate by doing a thumbs-up and say, “That’s great” twice, the first time in a bright, happy tone and the second in bored monotone. Students are asked to mimic and compare the different feelings.
Strategy 3: Good communicators volunteer information. Students should use complete sentences and aim to have at least two ideas. A simple sentence contains one idea, e.g. I like ice cream. A detailed sentence contains two ideas, e.g. I like baseball and I am in the baseball club (See Figure C). Detailed sentences require the speaker to produce more language and expand the field of conversation.
Fluency: 1) Ask follow-up questions 2) Talk around unknown words or change topic
Strategy 4: The ability to make questions is vitally important to conversation, but while students know how they rarely exercise the skill. This can make students slow at producing questions, so making question formation more automatic is key. A conversation partner has the responsibility to listen actively and seek information through asking follow-up questions. Teachers illustrate follow up questions by using a nested set of 4 questions (See Figure D), that the ALT asks the JTE. After each answer, the ALT quickly draws a picture on the board of what is known so far. Then the ALT says, “I understand some now, but not enough.” The ALT asks the next question and updates the drawing (See Figure E). After all questions have been asked, teachers will have illustrated through the drawing how everyone can finally understand clearly the what, who, where, and why of the JTE’s story. Students work in pairs and ask the prompt question followed by three original follow-up questions and ‘draw a picture in their heads.’
Strategy 5: Students have a tendency to stall, if they cannot think of the perfect thing to say or how to translate their desired phrase. Students should work on talking around unknown words using “It’s like ___” or using gestures to explain. Students should also try for good teamwork and help their partner find words by providing assistance, “Do you mean __?” or “You mean, __?” Students can always change topic as well by saying, “By the way, [New question]?” It is important that students do not see changing topics as failing, but rather as another way to make a conversation smooth.
Accuracy; 1) KISS: Keep it short and simple.
Strategy 6: Students should use grammar and words that are comfortable for them. A general rule of thumb is if you would need to check the dictionary for a word it’s too hard. Students should understand it is not cheating to use simple, clear English.
Thoughts on Scaling
Adding any number of the strategies will benefit your students (without or without AAA). For example, I start off my mid-level academic school by only introducing reactions + gestures (Strategy 1) and having them practice making chains of follow-up questions (Strategy 4) at first. Students practice a few lessons before I start slowing adding the other strategies in (takes about 1 semester) and build towards AAA (the following semester). The key point is to make free speaking look really doable to students, so they relax and engage with teachers praising all effort and so students can gain confidence and over time improve as number strategies in use goes up.
PART TWO: Using AAA Goal-Oriented Self-Evaluation
Now that the goals and the strategies used to achieve them are clear, free speaking become a known quantity and measureable. This section will detail the AAA used at my schools. Figure F is the version of AAA I use at my high level academic high school with more detailed requirements of students. For my mid-level academic school, I adjust the requirements, making them more open. For example, I write only ANSWER, ADD, and ASK on the board without listing requirements for a detailed sentence or follow-up question. Scaling AAA (or QA+1R) to your current students is recommended; starting with simpler instructions often produces best results.
- Students play rock/paper/scissors. The winner is A, and the partner is B. Students aim to have good Communication and Fluency. (worth x3 )
- A introduces a topic (either given or original) by saying, “By the way [Question?]” At first, it is best to choose easy factual questions, “what did you do on Sunday?” or simple preference, “what kind of food do you like?”
- B ANSWERs using a detailed sentence and then ADDs a related second sentence (simple or detailed) and A reacts.
B ASKs a follow-up question.
- A then ANSWERs, ADDs and ASKs in the same way, while B reacts. Students continue for 2 minutes. If necessary, students change topics by saying, “By the way [New Question].”
- Afterwards, stop and have students do a self-evaluation together. (See Figure G) They evaluate their performance on the scale 1 to 7 for the 3 goals and count their questions (average is 4, high is 10). Students should then consider how to improve during the second practice; what should they do differently?
- Repeat with a new partner. It is convenient if done in groups of 4 people; students work with the person in front first and next to them second.
To add a game element, simply find the pair with the most questions. Start low and work high, asking the class “Who has one question?” then “Who has two questions?” and so on, praising students at each number. It is also a good idea to challenge students to get more questions or improve their Communication or Fluency numbers the second practice.
Using the sheet below in Figure H, the first introductory lesson may take about 30-40 minutes to complete. (You can contact the author for related worksheet) Students then can practice once a week doing two 2-mintue AAA conversations as warm-ups. After 6 weeks, students can take a practice test during their regular team-teaching (TT) class. Each teacher listens to 10 pairs in 45 minutes, giving about four minutes for each pair. While others are being tested, the remaining students do active group work to create sufficient background white noise. After the test, students receive comments on how to improve. The practice test helps both students and teachers get used to the grading system and become active participants. Students do 4 more weeks of AAA and then are given a real test during TT. This whole process can be done in one semester, but doing it continuously is recommended. Students can lose some gains if the skills are not exercised. The outcome in my classes was clear: students understood how to develop conversation on an abstract level, gained many positive experiences using English, learned to produce English more automatically, talk about themselves, and improve self/peer/teacher feedback over time.
Often students spend all their time building the tools of language (vocabulary, grammar etc.), but little time learning their proficient use; students are passive in their language development. However, this can be changed through systematic inclusion of leveled free speaking in curriculums. Free speaking (in combinations of strategies and/or AAA) can be made to fit all levels of classrooms and so give students a change to take an active role in their language learning. Our students excel at meeting expectations, if they can see how and why, teachers can utilize this by making free speaking a part of our expectations of what is possible. Bottom line, everyone can win: leveled free speaking not only fosters a sense of personal accomplishment and reinforces skills for all English classes but also provides both students and teachers a practical road map for advancement.
Amy Russo teaches structured writing and free speaking at Maebashi Girls High School and Maebashi Minami High School. She helped start and design a 2 year graded reading program for all first and second year students at Maebashi Girls. Her research interests include: L2 learning autonomy, long-term L2 retention and motivation, and fluency in speaking and writing in L2 classrooms. She can be contacted at email@example.com.