Say what? 3 tips to help novice speakers SPEAK

We all want to see our language learners leave our world language programs able to participate in spontaneous conversations on a range of topics. Preparation for this lofty goal starts in the very first years of language instruction. But, we also recognize that language students at the novice level are primarily comfortable with memorize chunks and phrases (see page 5 of ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines for speaking at the novice level). How can we facilitate spontaneous conversations with and among  students who cannot yet independently manipulate the language? The single most important thing we can do is use the target language in every class every day. Students can’t be expected to use a language they don’t hear used! But here are three additional strategies I use specifically to support my novice learners to speak spontaneously.
1. Randomize participation
I knew my very first year teaching that I didn’t want to have only my bravest, most confident students to participate on a daily basis. I wanted to know how well students were manipulating new words and structures after they had practiced with a partner or small groups, and yes, my novice classes almost always complete oral activities in pairs and small groups before I ask students to provide responses to the whole class. In my first several years of teaching. I used to use index cards to randomly select which students would speak. I had a card for each student and I would shuffle them (frequently!) to randomize their participation. For question-answer activities, I would use the index cards to randomly select one student to ask the question and randomly select another student to provide the answer. This is a small, but important, step in preparing our most novice learners for spontaneous conversations because although they may be responding to a fairly structured partner activity with only limited variations, having randomly selected students produce the questions and responses for the class after they have completed the activity with their partners gives them practice being ready to speak at any time.
Random selection provides other benefits as well. I almost never allow students to volunteer because research shows that volunteering offers very little to students in terms of engagement and equally little to teachers in terms of useable formative assessment data. But randomizing participation enhances student engagement and provides more valid and reliable data from more students regarding their proficiency with the topic at hand. Some teachers do this with Popsicle sticks, but I liked index cards better than Popsicle sticks because the cards allowed me space to mark how many times each student spoke and even make other small notes regarding their work. But, not surprisingly, technology now provides us with digital options that work from smartphones and tablets. I personally have traded my index cards for the iPhone app “Class Cards” to randomize my students’ participation. It was free when I installed it years ago. Unfortunately, it is no longer free. I like the fact that I can see who is next up in the random selection because that makes it faster to announce who will ask the question and who will provide the response. Sadly I can’t find any free randomization apps anymore. Another app is “Pick Me“. It costs less than Class Cards, but is still not free. A free web-based alternative may be “Random Student Generator“. Since I have been happy with Class Cards, I have never tried Pick Me or the web-based Random Student Generator, but for what it’s worth, I can say that I have found randomization of participation to be so instrumental to support the work we are doing as a class that I would actually buy one of the apps if I didn’t have one already (and because I use my iPad tools extensively during class, I would personally opt for an app rather than a Web-based tool, but that’s just me).
2. Add spontaneity and build on existing activities with “just one more”
Often, we choose to use some existing materials in order to provide our students with practice in the new language. In my case, I find that I can often make use of or adapt some of the practice activities provided in publisher materials. I firmly believe that textbooks do not teach and therefore, I provide all the instruction myself by designing lessons that are communicative and proficiency oriented in order to teach the variety of vocabulary and structures students will need to communicate at a stage-appropriate level. However, I can include many of the proposed practice activities in my students’ learning and practice sequence, along with numerous supplemental activities that I create. Often, the activities prepared by publishers include a several designed to be completed in pairs. It is common to find these activities already organized in a question-answer format,  simulating real life conversations, albeit very short ones. But they often stop short of providing any element of spontaneity. This can be remedied as soon as students have learned and practiced the basic question words (who, what, when, where) and at least a couple of easy ways to answer those questions. Armed with these powerful language stems, we can support novice language learners to step up the game a bit (even with very structured, text-book based question/answer activities) by asking “just one more” question. This simple strategy actually supports both partners in the question-answer format to increase their language skills by requiring the questioner to listen actively and determine an appropriate follow-up question while the respondent must listen for a question that was not part of the original activity and then formulate a simple response to it.
3. Semi-spontaneous interviews
I use this structure frequently as both practice and as one of the ways I assess my novice learners’ interpersonal communication. It is easy to incorporate on a day-to-day basis so students can have several opportunities for practice (not just assessment) throughout the year. I actually really like it when students don’t feel like their assessments are different from the communicative work we do daily in class.
The key to this strategy is to allow all students to prepare some of their questions in advance but not tell them whom they will interview. Nor can they show their questions to the person they are interviewing. Preparing questions in advance for an interview is actually more authentic than not doing so because it is rare for professional journalists and others who conduct interviews (such as researchers) to not have prepared their base questions in advance.
Once students have created questions, I have them practice. There are many ways students can practice (beyond the obvious of interviewing the students that sit next to them or with whom they are normally partners. Here are some variations that provide more randomized practice:
  • “Inner-outer circle” format. This is one of my favorites. This is done by having the class stand in two concentric circles: the students in the “inner circle” face outward from their circle and then the other half of the class forms the outer circle by standing face-to-face with a student in the inner circle. If there is an odd number of students, I stand in one of the circles to even it out. Otherwise, I stand in the middle of the two circles because it is easier to quickly listen to the various conversations from the middle than it is from the outside. Once the students are in place, I choose one group  (inner or outer) to be the ones asking the questions they have prepared to the student facing them in the other circle. That student listens, and responds. Typically, with novice classes, students can ask and answer five questions in about a minute (unless they are struggling), due to the highly “memorized chunk” nature of their language use and also their inability to provide extensive detail that would lengthen answers. So, after about a minute, I ask the outer circle to rotate to their left.  The process repeats again, but their is a new pair of students. After several rotations, I have the students switch places with their partner so that students who were on the outside are now on the inside. This also results in a change of speaking role (from interviewer to interviewee or vice versa). We then continue for several more rounds. This is a great activity to do outside if the weather permits.
  • Caterpillar: This is a variation my friend (and outstanding teacher) Christine Lanphere uses for tighter spaces. Have students stand in two parallel lines. When done, each line rotates TWO speakers to their left. Note that this will have each line appear to be moving in OPPOSITE directions. This will cause those at the end of the line to switch lines. Having them rotate two speakers (instead of just one) ensures they don’t end up with the same partner they just had before switching to the other line. In smaller classes, I have one line designated as the “question line” and the other as the “answer line” and students switch roles when they rotate to the other line. In larger classes, I have students switch roles after five rotations or so, just like with “Inner-Outer Circles.”
  • Mingling: Another variation is to designate half class as interviewers and half as interviewees. Ask interviewees remain seated, set a timer and have interviewers circulate freely in the room, attempting to interview five different students in approximately five minutes. Then switch roles and repeat.

This format can be used for quick conversation practice with many topics. And as students become more comfortable, you can even have them do completely spontaneous, impromptu conversations using this format. Furthermore, you can use the

Five exchange students were visiting from France. Students prepared some questions in advanced and asked more questions spontaneously.
Five exchange students were visiting from France. Students prepared some questions in advanced and asked more questions spontaneously.

“just one more” strategy mentioned above in combination with their personally prepared questions in order to add an element of spontaneity, increase the authenticity of the conversations and promote greater listening and speaking proficiency.

When it becomes time to move from practicing conversations to assessing their interpersonal speaking proficiency on a given set of learning targets (can-do statements) with or without the “just one more” questions (I prefer to include those in assessments, so it is important to have them practice listening for opportunities to add them and also practice responding to them), I find that the easiest way to manage randomizing students for interviews I am assessing is as follows:

  1. Print out a copy of the rubric you will use to evaluate each student’s interpersonal proficiency (you can find my draft rubric here…I’m always revising rubrics!).
  2. Make enough photocopies for the class and distribute it to students. Remember that it is beneficial to do this earlier in the learning-practice-assessment cycle rather than at the end: our “end-game” shouldn’t be a secret to students!
  3. When it is time to assess, have them write their names on the rubric and then hand it back in.
  4. Shuffle them up, and the order of the rubrics becomes the order for the interviews: I call up the student whose rubric is on the top of the pile. That person asks the questions. I also call up the student with the second rubric. This student will answer the questions. When they are done, student A sits back down (she will come back at the very end). Student B becomes the interviewer (asking the questions) and I call up the next student from the rubric pile to respond. We continue rotating roles and calling up new students from the rubric pile. The very last student called up to answer will be the one who asked questions first.

What strategies do you use to help your most novice speakers actually speak? Share your ideas in the comments!


2 thoughts on “Say what? 3 tips to help novice speakers SPEAK

  1. I use the card system also. This does help the students to be ready at all times and holds them accountable. It also holds me accountable by ensuring I get to all students and don’t miss the “quiet” ones. Our students do like the inside and outside circles also.


    1. I absolutely agree: randomizing participation equalizes the playing field for students. All of them have equal opportunity to “be the voices in the room”, rather than dominating the space with the talk of the teacher and one or two of the most extroverted students.


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