Another oral-skills-enhancing instructional sequence for beginner to intermediate learners en route to spontaneous talk

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net 

1.Introduction

A point that I have often made in my posts is that for foreign language teaching CPD to be effective it has to go beyond simply describing a recommended learning activity, app or website. It also has to provide instructors with a solid rationale for its adoption and how it can be deployed effectively within a teaching sequence. Unfortunately, in my experience, this rarely happens – especially on teacher training courses.  This is the third in a series of posts which Steve Smith and I have written in order to address this perceived deficit in the area of oral proficiency development.

This post proposes a low-effort/high-impact teaching sequence centred on the use of a very versatile learning activity, ‘Find someone who’ (with cards) which, whilst having the development of oral proficiency as its main focus, does also provide practice in listening, reading and writing skills.

Whilst ‘Find some who’ is a fairly straightforward activity to conduct, how to prepare the students effectively for it and to exploit its full learning potential is much less evident. In what follows I suggest ways in which this can be done without too much effort on the part of the teacher.

  1. The task

Each student is given a different card with a number of details in the L1 or in the L2. In my version of this activity the cards usually have five to eight bullet points which look something like this:

  • Name: Jean
  • Date of birthday: 3rd May
  • Siblings: one younger sister
  • Favourite hobby: reading novels and painting
  • Pet hates: cricket and Facebook
  • Favourite singer: Taylor swift

The students are also given a grid with a number of questions in the L1 or L2 (see image above). I personally prefer to put the questions into the L1 so as to avoid spoon-feeding the students. The questions read something like this:

“Find someone who…

  1. …hates Facebook”
  2. …has two siblings”
  3. …is born in September”, etc.

The students are required to find a person for each of the above prompts (e.g. ‘Jean’ for question 1, above) by asking questions to the other students (in the target language). The student who finds them all first, wins. I usually prepare two or three different sets of questions in order to play more rounds.

I uploaded many (free) samples of ‘Find someone who’ on www.tes.com (e.g. https://www.tes.com/teaching-resources/search/?q=conti%20find%20someone%20who)

3.Planning / Preparation

1. Decide on the grammar, vocabulary and other linguistic features you intend to focus on;

2.Prepare a set of cards with four of five bullet points;

3. Prepare one or more sets of questions making sure that each question refers only to one card so as to have more movement around the classroom;

4. Prepare a few very short texts in the target language for reading and listening comprehension purposes which you will use in the run-up to the activity implementation. The texts should contain the same sort of details the students will find on the cards. Example:

‘My name is Sean. I am 13 years old and my birthday is on June 20. I have two sisters. My favourite hobby is reading and playing the violin. I hate social networks such as Facebook. My favourite singer is Sia.’

5. (Optional) prepare vocabulary games, worksheets, quizzes recycling the language to be deployed during the to-be-staged activity to give as homework before the lesson

4. The sequence

  1. Drill in vocabulary (15 minutes) – as suggested above, one can ‘flip’  most of this. However, it is beneficial to do some recycling at the beginning of the lesson anyway in order to activate the target vocabulary in Long Term Memory.
  1. Reading and listening comprehension (based on cards) – 2a. Put the short texts containing the target linguistic features up on the screen. Ask reading comprehension questions on the texts of the sort you expect the students to ask each other later on as part of the ‘Find someone who’. Equipped with MWBs the students answer the questions (all in the target language, of course). 2b.Now read out the texts you will have prepared for listening comprehension purposes. Students still answer comprehension questions on MWBs. Since the purpose of this listening activity is not only to recycle the target linguistic features and assess comprehension but also, and more importantly, to model pronunciation, be mindful of the speed at which you utter each text and repeat as often as the students’ request you to.
  1. Questions and answers – Now it is time to further practise the questions that you expect them to produce during the ‘Find someone who’. The easiest option – the one requiring the least preparation – is to ask the students to carry out a survey using the target questions (partner A asks and partner B notes down answers). This should be conducted entirely in the target language. Teachers will go around facilitating and monitoring.
  2. Find someone who – Now carry out one or more rounds of ‘Find someone who’. Make sure that nobody ‘cheats’ by copying what they see on their peers’ grid – the most common offence.
  3. Fluent writing – Now students work in groups. Students take turns in reading out – in the L1 – the details on whichever card they hold and the rest of the group has a set amount of time to put them into French in the form of a paragraph, writing on MWBs – note: this must not necessarily be a word-for-word translation. The purpose of this activity is to prep the students for the next task.
  4. Fluent speaking – Now students go away in pairs with iPads or other recording devices. Each student is given three cards they have not worked with before. The task is to describe the details on the three cards in the target language talking in the third person whilst being recorded impromptu – without studying the cards prior to the recording (e.g. His name is Jean, he is 13 years old, he hates Facebook, etc.).

5. Conclusions

The instructional sequence just outlined is easy to prepare and manage; it allows for practice across all four skills and continuous recycling of the target linguistic features.’Find someone who’ can be implemented without creating cards with fictitious identities and details; however, this allows for less control over the language you want to drill in. I have been using the above sequence several times in my practice and the students usually enjoy and learn a lot from it.

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Using picture tasks to develop spontaneous talk – A low effort / high impact teaching sequence

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Please note: This post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net with whom I am co-authoring the ‘MFL teacher’s toolkit’ (to be published in the new year).

  1. Introduction

One of the approaches I undertake in order to promote L2 oral fluency and spontaneity involves the use of picture tasks. This post lays out a low-effort/high-impact teaching sequence based on the following pillars of my instructional approach:

  • Prep students before you start the teaching sequence through as much (flipped?) vocabulary building as possible.
  • Allow for lots of recycling of the target material throughout the sequence.
  • Provide lots of comprehensible written and aural input tbefore involving the students in written or oral production.
  • Start production with highly structured activities which become increasingly less structured. Withdraw support at the end of the sequence.
  • Aim at automatization of speech production as the end-goal (e.g. fast retrieval from long term memory). Prioritize fluency over accuracy in the process; hence tolerate errors unless they impede intelligibility.

The use of picture tasks is advantageous for the following reasons:

  • They require little preparation.
  • Elicit greater creativity with the language.
  • In life we often describe what we see- hence it is a real-life task.
  • The same picture can be used across various tenses.

Please note that the following sequence usually takes more than one lesson and that I supplement it with quizzes and games aimed at reinforcing the vocabulary as well as any grammar needed to execute the tasks in hand (e.g. verb conjugations).

  1. Preparation

2.1 Select the images – Select pictures ensuring that they are not all going to elicit exactly the same kind of vocabulary from your typical student. Some degree of repetition is desirable, though, for the sake of recycling. Ideally the images that you selected would allow the students to answer a range of questions (e.g. When? How? What? Who?). For the sequence that I envisage in this post you will need two sets of pictures which are similar but not entirely identical; so, if Set 1 incudes picture 1a depicting a Ferrari in a city street, Set 2, will contain picture 2a portraying another means of transport in a similar setting with some variation (e.g. different weather, different looking people, different time of the day). The rationale for this will be evident below.

 

2.2 Decide on the language focus – In planning the activities try to figure out the sort of verbs/nouns the pictures you chose are likely to elicit. If you intend to focus on one or more specific tenses, do provide practice in time markers (e.g. for the present: usually, every day, always, never).

 

  1. Activities

 

3.1. Brainstorming  – Give students the pictures (Set 1 only) and ask them to brainstorm as many verbs per picture as they can in groups of two or three. Ideally, before this activity, some vocabulary building activities drilling in as many verbs as possible should be carried out for 10-15 minutes or, even better, ‘flipped’ in the run-up to the actual lesson. I have uploaded worksheets with such activities on www.tes.com and I have created a self-marking module in the grammar section of www.language-gym.com (see: Verbs monster work-outs).

 

3.2. Modelling via written and aural input – show on screen sentences (one at the time) in the target language (based on the Set 1 pictures) and ask the students to write on mini-boards (under time constraints) which picture(s) they think they could refer to. I usually do this as a listening activity, too, so as to model pronunciation, as a follow-up.

 

3.3. Scaffolded written production– Ask students to create one or more sentences for each picture working alone or in pairs. At this stage you can give the students a list of vocabulary as support. I often do this activity on Padlet or Edmodo for students to be able to share their output with others. This activity is carried out without any time constraints, which allows for more careful self-monitoring during production.

 

3.4. Scaffolded oral production – Ask students to work in pairs. Partner A chooses a picture and ask three questions (one at the time, obviously) in whatever tenses you have been working on. I put a wide range of questions on the board/screen. I get the students to do as many rounds of this with as many students as possible. 100% accuracy is not an issue. Teacher must go around, facilitate, monitor and provide feedback. This activity, too, is carried out in the absence of time constraints and communicative pressure.

 

3.5. Eliciting fast written response (teacher led) – So far the students have been working with only one set of pictures (e.g. Set 1). Now the teacher stands in front of classroom and shows three (or more) pictures on the board from Set 2 which, being similar to the Set 1 pictures, are likely to elicit language that has already been practised in the previous phases. The students must now write on MWBs as much as they can about each picture under time constraints. The aim of this activity is to recycle the language learnt so far but to also focus on developing fluency (i.e. fast retrieval from long-term memory under time constraint). The teacher can cue the students to the use of specific connectives and one or more tenses. For example, I divide the screen in three sections, ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ and place a picture in each section; the task is for the students to write something like: yesterday I went to beach, now I am shopping, later on this evening I am going to go clubbing with my friends.

 

3.6. Eliciting fast written response (student led) – students re-enact what the teacher did with the whole class (in activity 3.5) in small groups of 4-5. Students take turns in showing a picture from set 1 or 2 and asking a question about it whilst their peers answer in writing on MWBs (in the target language). This can be turned into a competition.

 

3.7. Unstructured picture-based conversation without support– Now students, equipped with iPad or other recording device, do oral pair-work again. This time with no support whatsoever and under time constraints. Partner A/B selects five or more pictures (a mix of set 1 and set2) for partner B/A and asks questions about them – totally impromptu. Recording is sent to the teacher without any editing. If time allows it, several rounds of this can be carried out; I usually do at least two per student.

4. Conclusion

The above teaching sequence is very easy to prepare and allows for tons of recycling. It is mostly learner-centred and lots of language is produced in the process. One of the advantages of the pictures tasks envisaged here is that it forces students to widen their repertoire of verbs, a wordclass that foreign language teachers often neglect.

Why foreign language teachers have to rethink their approach to grammar instruction

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In one of my latest posts I made some recommendations as to how grammar instruction should be implemented. One particular point made in that post seems to have resonated the most with my readers:

Never say ‘my students have learnt structure ‘X’ effectively’ unless you have evidence that they can perform it accurately under Real Operating Conditions.

What this statement alludes to is a common misconception amongst many L2 teachers that a given grammar rule has indeed been acquired by their learners if these can articulate it and/or apply it accurately in the context of gap-fill exercises, multiple choice quizzes, translations or written pieces. This assumption leads to a misguided approach to grammar teaching, i.e. one that:

  • Teaches grammar through means which merely impart intellectual knowledge, i.e. how the target grammar rule works (e.g. verb formation, contexts in which structure ‘X’ should be used and not used);
  • Involves the students in the application of the grammar rule in contexts in which working memory’s attentional systems have more time to monitor performance than real-time communication would normally allow them ;
  • Does not aim at high levels of routinization (i.e. automization) of the target structure application, i.e. the transformation of declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge. In other words, focuses on the conscious application of the target grammar rule, not on its automatic (and accurate) implementation;

Such an approach can have harmful consequences for learning, especially in the absence of systematic and well-planned recycling of the grammar structures taught (another common flaws of much grammar teaching). The reason being that in the absence of routinization the learners are likely to make errors in contexts where they experience cognitive overload, such as oral unstructured communicative practice, essay writing under time constraints, or any other circumstances in which their working memory’s attentional capabilities are drastically reduced (e.g. when under stress).

The recurrence of such errors may lead to their automatization and to the consolidation in Long term Memory of erroneous forms relative to a given grammar structure which may end up competing for retrieval with the correct structure. For example, a student who has learnt the Perfect tense formation rule “Auxiliary ETRE + PAST PARTICIPLE’ (for verbs like ‘ALLER’ or ‘SORTIR’) but has not had the time and practice to routinize it, may get it wrong several times – as it often happens – and say ‘J’ai allé’, for instance’ when performing under R.O.C (real operating conditions). If that mistake keeps happening over and over again and it is not treated effectively it may become automatized; when that happens, the student will end up storing in their brain two cognitive structures referring to ‘Aller’ in the Perfect Tense: ‘J’ai allé’ and ‘Je suis allé’(the correct form). When under communicative pressure or stress, the two forms will compete for retrieval and the more automatized structure will win. Notice that the automatized structure – not necessarily the correct one –  WILL win the retrieval race even though the student does consciously know the rule and will be able to self-correct the mistake once he is cued to its occurrence. This has huge consequences for teaching and learning.

Before delving further into the implications of the above point for L2 grammar instruction, let me quickly reiterate some key points made in previous posts about grammar acquisition and automatization

Automatization or Routinization –

Automatization (or routinization) means that the performance of an L2 grammar rule is applied without having to ‘think’, so to speak. In other words, the performance of the grammar rule bypasses consciousness and Working Memory. This is easy to understand, but how does one measure routinization, i.e. the extent to which a grammar rule is automatized?

To my knowledge, no studies so far have measured automatization in quantifiable terms. And for teaching purposes it is not necessary in my opinion to know how many milliseconds a native speaker takes to deploy a grammar structure. The kind of automatization that a teacher would want to detect in their students’ oral output will be dependent on many factors, such as the years of instruction, individual variables, the type of structure whose deployment one is assessing, the linguistic context in which the structures is being used (familiar or unfamiliar), etc. Hence, it is up to the teacher to decide, based on the specific context they operate in, how close to native speaker speed they would like their students’ performance to be and which criteria best serve their pedagogic purpose. I use the very simple scale below to assess the accurate automatization of a given structure. It allows me to assess speed and accuracy of deployment simultaneously. The categories are quite broad but allow me to get useful enough data.

Very fast     Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Fast            Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Fairly fast   Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Slow            Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Very slow    Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

The tasks one uses to assess automatization and the task linguistic environment will have a bearing on the accuracy and speed of rule application. Hence, one has to stick to the same task/linguistic context for the whole year if one wants to map progression consistently. I tend to use oral translation tasks in which the language used is familiar so as to focus the student’s cognitive resources solely on the target structure.

The three routes to grammar acquisition (routinization)

According to my espoused theory of L2 acquisition, Skill Theory, grammar rule routinization in a typical classroom setting occurs along three routes:

(1) Procedural to Procedural : this route does not involve explicit grammar rule learning. To go back to the “je suis allee’ example, the learner will learn the perfect tense of ‘Aller’ without having to consciously understand the mechanics of its formation. They will just learn ‘je suis allé’ as a chunk, like you do with a lexical item. They will also learn the other perfect tense forms of ‘Aller’ in the same way. This approach allows for quick routinization but lack generative power because the students do not have a rule to generalize to other verbs / contexts.

(2) Declarative to Procedural: this route is the most commonly used by L2 teachers. The target rule is taught explicitly before being practised. For instance, the teacher will teach how to form the Perfect tense of ‘Aller’ and of all the other verbs requiring ‘Etre’ as an auxiliary, ensuring that the students understand the underlying pattern. Automatization takes longer to occur along this route as the learner will have to automatize every single step in the application of the rule.

(3) Mix of (1) and (2): in this approach, which is my favourite, one uses the procedural-to-procedural way first, then, once the learners have had sufficient exposure to the target rule, the rule is brought into their conscious awareness and is explicitly taught – connecting the dots a posteriori so to speak. Using the ‘Je suis allee’ example: the teacher would first provide lots of exposure to the verbs requiring ‘Etre’ in the Perfect Tense teaching them as ‘chunks’ in context; then, after they feel that they have been routinized, the teacher will provide them/ask them to infer the rule(s). This approach combines the strengths of both approaches but requires more effort in planning and resourcing than the other two – and also more creativity, as one has to design activities which bring about opportunities to practise all the target verb forms before the onset of the declarative stage.

Implications for teaching and learnin

1.Aim at grammar rule routinization. Whatever the approach one elects to undertake, the crucial issue remains the same: the learners must automatize the target structure before one can safely assume that it has been internalized by the students. So, first and foremost, one must provide grammar practice conducive to automatization (i.e. fast and accurate rule application); secondly assessments of the kind outlined above gives us a fairly good idea as to where our students are in terms of accurate automatization and cognitive control.

As far as the learning activities which foster automatization are concerned, the same recommendations I have made for fluency development in previous posts apply here. The learners need lots of practice in applying grammar rules under time constraints in linguistic contexts which become increasingly more challenging. So after an initial stage which includes the usual gap-fills, ending manipulations (e.g. by using my verb trainer at www.language-gym.com) and written translations in the absence of any time constraint and communicative pressure, two stages should ensue: firstly, a stage in which the rule application occurs in writing under time constraints (e.g through L1 to L2 translations on MWBs ); secondly, a phase in which the grammar rule is applied in speaking in response to a stimulus (e.g. oral translation, picture task, conversation, etc.).

The key issue is that teachers aim consciously at automatization and plan for it by ensuring there is extensive practice in routinization and recycling of the target structures.

2. Do not jump steps and plan for horizontal progression. If grammar structure ‘Y’ requires the routinization of structure ‘X’ as a prerequisite for its successful uptake, then structure ‘X’ will have to be drilled in over and over again until it has been acquired. Hence, for ‘Je suis allee’ to be taught successfully (using route 2) the learners will have to have routinized the formation of the verb ‘Etre’ as well as past-participle formation. This is not often done; teachers do usually ensure that the students know the formation of the present of ‘Avoir’ and ‘Etre’ and of the Past Participle before embarking in the learning of the Perfect tense but do not ensure that they have been automized. In many cases the teacher explains Past-Participle-formation rules in the same lesson in which they teach and practise Perfect tense formation. This poses an unnecessarily heavy cognitive load on the learner. Thus it is crucial that teachers plan for horizontal progression by ensuring that extensive practice in target structure application is provided to learners until automatization has reached the desirable level (e.g. Fast application / quite accurate).

3. Assess grammar rule routinization – not understanding/knowedge of . Assessment of the kind envisaged above ought to be carried out to ascertain that the target grammar rules have indeed been automatized, especially when they refer to key structures. To ‘know’ / ‘understand’ how a grammar rule works does not equate with having acquired it; so do not use assessment tasks that merely test knowledge and understanding of the target rule

4. Teacher response to error on specific grammar structures should be based on their level of automatization. Teachers often get frustrated at seeing errors recurring over and over again despite many grammar explanations and corrections. However, neither the explanations nor the corrections are conducive to automatization. Teacher response to errors relative to a given structure should aim at provide extensive practice in that structure’s deployment leading to its accurate automatization. Only at that stage will the errors in the application of that structure cease to occur or at least drastically diminish. Hence, simply correcting errors with the Perfect Tense of ‘aller’ when they write ‘J’ai alle’ in an essay at the very early stages of routinization of the ‘Etre verbs’ rule may constitute a helpful reminder, but is hardly likely to eradicate the error.

Conclusion

Accurate automatization of the target grammar rule being the ultimate goal of any explicit grammar instruction, foreign language teachers may have to rethink the way they teach grammar and assess its internalization as well as their response to learner grammar errors. Foreign language learners must receive extensive practice in target grammar rule application under time constraints and R.O.C. (real operating conditions).

Teachers can only claim that their learners have acquired a specific grammar structures when they can deploy it fast and accurately across a fairly wide range of familiar and unfamiliar contexts. Hence, the assessment of grammar uptake must be carried out not through typical traditional means (e.g. gap-fills, grammar rule explanations or written translations) but through tasks which elicit from them a fast response in cognitively demanding contexts.

Curriculum designers must take into consideration the fact that grammar rule acquisition requires extensive practice. Hence, sufficient time must be allocated to grammar teaching – if it is one of the course’s priorities – and frequent opportunities for recycling must be carefully planned for.

Finally, let us not forget that accurate automatization of grammar rules contributes to fluency enhancement. This is a further reason for fostering its attainment as much as possible in our daily practice.

On the road to autonomous speaking competence – How to use writing mats to effectively support oral communication and proficiency development through a minimal preparation learning sequence

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  1. Introduction

Writing mats, like the FFL (French as a Foreign Language) one in the above picture can be extremely useful as a means to support oral communication. In fact, I usually refer to them as ‘talking mats’, as I rarely use them to scaffold writing. In this post I intend to show how writing mats like mine can be effectively used to boost oral proficiency in the context of a student-centred learning sequence which implements the teaching approach I have laid out in many of my previous posts and is firmly rooted in Skill-building Theory.

  1. The sequence

Step 1 – Select or create a writing mat. I personally like to create my own mats, but you can find many excellent writing mats for all languasges, including (English, Spanish, German, etc.) on www.tes.com. Mats should be clear, well-structured and possibly contain the L1 translation. Often, writing mats are overambitious as one wants to pack in as much language as possible; my advice is to stick to the items that have the highest surrender value and wait for phase 5 (below) for new phrases to be added.

Step 2 – Pre-teaching of the writing mats vocabulary and getting the students acquainted with the mats. This phase can be ‘flipped’ and has the purpose to prepare the students for the effective use of the writing mats in lesson on two levels: (a) students learn the words/phrases included in the mats; (b) they learn their way around the mats. I usually make up worksheets which ‘teach’ the target language items (e.g. odd one outs; matching; translations; gapped phrases) and require them to construct sentences using the words/phrases listed in the mats. I also input the content of my mats into the www.language-gym.com (work-outs) vocabulary modules recycling the target items to death. Teachers can do the same on quizlet or memrise.

This phase is very important, yet it is often neglected by practitioners; the students need to be able to know their way around the mats so as to be able to use them effectively and efficiently under R.O.C. (real operating conditions = speaking under real-life like conditions).

Step 3 – Modelling / Listening. This phase is crucial in that it (a) models pronunciation; (b) how sentences can be constructed; (c) practices student listening skills; (d) reinforces vocabulary. The teacher will make up sentences using the mats uttering them at accessible speed and repeating the sentences as much as the students require (remember: you are modelling, not testing). The students, equipped with MWBs (mini white boards) will write the sentences in the L2 or  L1 (ideally in the L1 to show comprehension).

Step 4 – Using mats to create sentences. Now the students work in groups of four or five taking turns in  creating sentences and uttering them, just as the teacher did in STEP 3. The students will have to write down the L1-translation on the mini-boards whilst having access to the mats – this can be turned into a competition. After a few rounds the sheet can be removed and only the sentence-makers will have access to the mats.

Step 5 – Scaffolded Practice. In this phase the students interact with each other using the mats as a scaffold. A typical task at this stage includes giving them short role-plays containing prompts in the  students’ L1 or in the L2 which will elicit L2 language items found in the mats. Example:

Partner 1: ask partner 2 where they went on holiday;

Partner 2: say you went to the South of France

Partner 1: ask where they stayed

Partner 2: answer you stayed in a luxury hotel in Nice

Etc.

‘Find someone who’ (with cards) is one of my favourite structured practice activities, too, for this phase (see example at: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/ks3-french-hols-find-someone-who-with-cards-6452669 ).

Another activity involves a structured conversational exchange in which each student is given a card with a series of fictitious details (the cards used for ‘find someone who’ can be recycled here). A different card is given at each round. Here is an example in the context of the topic ‘Holidays’:

Name: Jules

Holiday place: La Rochelle

Duration: three weeks

Accomodation: Three stars hotel:

Activities: tennis, diving, swimming, windsurfing

Weather: hot and windy

Etc.

A list of possible questions to ask is displayed on the classroom screen. The students go around asking three of four questions in whichever order they like and note down their peers’ answers in the L1 or L2.

Step 6 – Transforming and Expanding. This phase aims at ‘stretching’ the students beyond the boundaries of the writing mats and prepares them for the unstructured practice that will follow. The students are now given time and resources to expand their answers using language that may not be found in the mats. The teacher plays an important facilitating role.

In this stage I usually engage students in online ninteractional writing using Edmodo. I ask the students to post questions of their choice and to reply to each other in the target language. Fluency is the focus, I do not really care about mistakes. Interactional writing gives the students the time to use online resources to expand and transform the stock phrases found in the mats.

Another activity I use at this stage is providing students with visual stimuli which force them to use new language. This is done in writing.

As a way to conclude this phase and pave the way for the subsequent unstructured phase I usually ask the students to answer questions on MWBs under time constraints. This forces the students to retrieve language under R.O.C.. Accuracy is still not a concern, unless it impedes communication.

Step 7 – Unstructured / Semi-structured practice. Now the students should be able to have a go at interacting orally in the context of information-gap activities. The easiest to prepare is obviously the conversational exchange on the topic in hand. Questions can be set or student-initiated. The mats and the notes made in the previous phase can still be used for a round or two, then they should be completely removed.

At the end of this phase I usually get the students to record themselves talking in pairs without any support using Voice Recorder Pro (free app); they then convert the recording into MP3 and send it to me.

Step 8Vocabulary consolidation. I usually have an extensive phase at the end of this sequence in which I recycle all the lexis covered. Snappy (low-stake) quizzes under time constraints (students’ answers on MWBs) can be used as a plenary to conclude the cycle. As homework: a vocabulary work-out on www.language-gym.com where I usually input the lexis included in my talking mats.

Caveats and conclusions

  1. Do not correct unless error impede communication;
  2. Monitor students constantly and reward creativity with the language even if the utterances are grammaticality wrong as long as  they convey the message;
  3. Make a physical note of the errors you hear more frequently reserving to deal with them at a later stage;
  4. The use of writing mats is much more effective when students have been systematically taught decoding skills (i.e. the ability to convert the graphic form of a word into its phonetic rendition).
  5. The above sequence may take more than one lesson. In fact, it is better if it does!

I have been using the teaching sequence just described for years. It is relatively easy to plan and resource and usually yields effective uptake of the target structures/lexis whilst paving the way for autonomous speaking competence (spontaneous talk). It is high pace and, apart from the modelling and feedback phases you will engage in when you feel fit, it is totally learner centered.

To find out about more my approach to fostering spontaneous speech in L2 learning, please refer to the book I co-wrote with Steve Smith, The Language Teacher Toolkit