Would you like to help your learners speak more coherently? Svetlana Kandybovich, the latest winner of the British Council’s Teaching English blog award for a post on speaking skills, suggests some useful classroom activities.
Learning to speak a language might seem fairly straightforward in principle: first you learn the words, then you form sentences using the correct grammar, finally you string the sentences together. Voilà! – you’re fluent.
However, the formula 'grammar + vocabulary' is not enough to become a competent speaker of English (or any other language). This often becomes evident when we ask learners to speak in some depth on a subject, either alone (such as in a presentation) or in a discussion.
Even when learners can make themselves understood, and use correct grammar and vocabulary, you often get the nagging feeling that something is missing from their conversation.
The importance of coherence
We get the sense that a text (spoken or written) is generally coherent when it makes sense through the organisation of its content. An important feature of cohesion is the use of linking and 'signposting' expressions, for example: 'because', 'whereas', 'also', 'therefore', 'first', 'second', 'however', 'in conclusion', and many more. They help us organise our ideas logically.
Just as with any skill, the ability to organise what you say into a whole can be taught. However, simply introducing a list of linking expressions (or 'linkers') to learners will not produce the desired effect. It is speaking (and writing) skill which requires lots of practice.
Here are some ideas to help learners use linking expressions and get their speech 'in shape'.
Introducing linking and signposting expressions
No matter how useful linkers are, learners are unlikely to remember them if they have not had a chance to put them into a relevant context. Tekhnologic has designed an interesting way to introduce the target language to language learners. He uses PowerPoint to highlight specific words (or phrases) while dimming the rest of the text. This can help bring learners' attention to the use and function of particular words and phrases rather than get overwhelmed by the text as a whole.
Introducing the context
Making a roadmap
It's useful to get learners to group signpost expressions according to function, but an alternative is to get them to draw a roadmap and put signposts on it. In this way, they will visualise the whole concept of signposting and its purpose for successful communication. Afterwards, get students – individually or alone – to create a short story or presentation using their roadmaps.
A fun way to practise using linkers is based on the infamous parody of unintelligible scientific presentations Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken, delivered more than a decade ago by a Google engineer. Ask your students to make the Chicken Chicken speech more coherent using connectors and linkers.
For example: 'To begin with, chicken chicken chicken. First, chicken chicken, second, chicken, third, chicken chicken chicken. Finally, chicken chicken.'
‘Mind the gap’
One of the exercises to introduce means of cohesion is a traditional gap-fill exercise. Have your learners fill in the gaps with appropriate connectors and linkers. However, to make the exercise effective, try to find a text that will interest your students and form the basis of a discussion. You could also get students to write a similar text about themselves.
A very useful exercise is to use a text with lots of linking and signposting expressions (a presentation is ideal) and change the order in which they appear. Underline the phrases, and get learners to work in pairs of groups to arrange them in a logical order. Download this handout and try using it with your learners.
Go from mistakes
Before asking learners to produce their own speech or presentation, study some examples of incoherent speeches or conversations and get them to make them more coherent. You can find a lot of interesting materials online depending on the age, interests, and language level of your students. For example, your teenage learners will surely love the challenge of changing the answer of Miss Teen USA at the beauty contest.
Structures in the back pocket
Get students to study examples of good conversations and speeches. Encouraging them to notice useful structures and linkers, and to use these structures when constructing their own speeches, is an extremely beneficial exercise for students. Ready-made structures ‘in the back pocket’ will help a lot with coherence and will also make a learner’s speech more fluent. Olya Sergeeva has described the approach to working with such structures in her blog post. Nowadays there are a lot of talk shows and podcasts that come with transcripts, and it is quite easy to find and analyse them.
Four square method
A good way to improve students’ speaking is to help learners organise what they say into a coherent speech using the 'four square method'. This is a graphic that helps organise concepts, vocabulary and grammar in a way that is easier and much simpler for learners to grasp. Although it is mainly used for teaching basic writing skills (usually to primary-level school kids), it could be successfully applied to teaching speaking with an emphasis on coherence. I have described how to use it in my post on better speaking.
The camera never lies
One of the most efficient approaches to teaching speaking skills is to make a video of your students’ conversations and get them to evaluate their performance. Getting them to identify conversational problems and roadblocks, as well as effective practices for avoiding and resolving them, can be very beneficial for learners.
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