Encouraging longer speaking turns

This week we have another guest post from ELT author, teacher trainer and long- term Hands Up Project volunteer, Paul Dummet. Over to you Paul….

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 02.49.40

I think for many of us ELT teachers it’s the mutual benefit of language teaching (as students learn, we also learn about them and the wider world) that makes it such a fascinating job. These discoveries happen through the materials that we research and use, for example with folktales, but also when we are able to draw students out and get them to speak more freely about themselves and their worlds. It’s clear that our own ability to make personal connections and to build personal relationships is the key to this. But, as I guess other teachers will have found, that’s not always as easy to do when teaching ‘remotely’, since you can’t so easily make eye contact or use other non-verbal ways to signal encouragement and empathy.

There may be other ‘restricting’ factors too:

  • the students may not be used to that kind of freer conversation in class
  • they may be naturally self-conscious or reticent (particularly in front of a native speaker)
  • the local teacher may keep nominating the same (stronger) students to come forward or may even answer themselves to avoid any embarrassing silences

Whatever the reasons, the result is that student responses are often short, sometimes one word answers, and if longer they are often mediated and aided by the teacher (not that this is necessarily a bad thing now and then, especially if it helps to build learner confidence). So I’ve found myself trying to help students to produce fuller sentences using controlled frameworks in the hope that this will in turn begin to generate a ‘culture’ of longer speaking turns. The ideas are nothing new, but they’ve proved useful with these classes, so I’d like to just share a couple of these activities with you here:

1)   At sentence level. One of the stories I tell the students is about Daniel Kish, ‘The real Bat Man’. He’s a guy who, though blind at birth, taught himself to ‘see’ by using echolocation techniques like a bat. He clicks his tongue two or three times a second and then listens for an echo. He can tell from the loudness of the echo how near an object is and he has become so good at this that he can even ride a bicycle. For the lead-in to the story we discuss characters with superpowers – Batman, Spiderman etc. – and for the follow-up I ask students what superpower they would like to have and why. When I left it at this, they tended to come back with one word answers like ‘fly’ and ‘invisible’, so I took to asking them to put their ideas into the following sentence frame. “I wish I could ….. because then …..”. (Incidentally, I teach a girls’ class and I was really moved by how many said “I wish I could help people … “)

2) At question and answer level. This can either be teacher-to-student or student-to-student questioning and can be applied to a number of different experiences. The idea is to use a table as a framework and for students to fill this in or at least think about what they will put in each box. I use this particular table after the story Nasreddin and the Dinner Party when we’ve talked about what different kinds of parties there are (birthday, wedding, house warming etc). I also elicit the questions (TYPE: What type of party was it?  GUESTS: Who was at the party? FOOD:  What did you eat? CLOTHES: What did you wear?  ACTIVITIES: What activities did you do?  LIKE: Why did you like it?) and then model the Q and A with my own answers and the local teacher’s answers.  (I also use this activity for students to talk about best present they ever received.)

 The best party I went to
Type of party
Reason for liking


3) Simple writing tasks for reading aloud. The idea here is that students write a short (personal) message that they are then able to read back to the class. I use this activity after a story called ‘The Golden Box’ where a 5-year old girl uses the best wrapping paper and ribbon in the cupboard to make a present for her father. Her father is cross with her and even more annoyed when he opens the box to find it is empty. In fact the girl has blown kisses in there for him. When he discovers this he feels awful because it’s the best present he has ever had. We then look at different types of greeting card (birthday, wedding, anniversary, get well soon, good luck etc.) and students write a message to a real friend or relative. Then they come forward and read these in front of the class. This is particularly good for the shy ones who are usually more reticent about coming forward and gives me a welcome chance to get to know them better.

greetings cardshappy birthday

4) Extended speaking turns with time to prepare. Of course, giving students more time to research and prepare what they are going to say is much more likely to yield longer answers. The story ‘Sand and Stone’ (which appears in David Heathfield’s Storytelling book) is great for this with its moral stressing the importance of forgiveness. At the end of the lesson we look at a couple of quotations on forgiveness (e.g. Nelson Mandela: “I cannot forget but I can forgive”) and then I ask students to go away and research or find a favourite quotation. At the next lesson they present their quotation, explaining it and saying why it is important to them.  (The first time they did this they fed back to their local teacher and she in turn fed back to me).

That’s it for now. As I said these aren’t new ideas, but I hope that perhaps they’ll open a discussion about what other teachers do to ‘draw students out’ and to move on from one word answers.


One thought on “Encouraging longer speaking turns

  1. Thanks for this very interesting post Paul. I think that the question of how we can encourage students to speak for longer turns is a very relevant one – not just for people who work online like us, but also in face to face settings. I like all your ideas for ways to address this. One thing that I’ve done when working with teenagers through Hands Up is to give the learners a homework task of planning to give a mini talk about a particular topic. These have usually been topics that are in their coursebook, English for Palestine, such as food, my home, travelling etc. With support form their teacher, the learners prepare to talk for about a minute about the chosen topic, and then in the session they take it in turns to come up to the webcam and give their talk to me. Of course I ask them questions either during the talk or immediately afterwards which can push them to take things up a level. There’s an example of this happening here (with a really bad internet connection!) https://handsupproject.org/2016/04/23/tense-conversations/

    Liked by 1 person

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