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


  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


‘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


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