Not all speaking activities work, for different reasons. Borrowing Tolstoy’s truism, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” good speaking activities are all alike; every “unhappy” speaking activity is unhappy in its own way.
Lately a teacher talked to me about her first-day of class. She was a very very good teacher, creative and resourceful. She was puzzled and disconcerted with three Chinese-heritage students in her class who sat together in class, talked when not required to talk and kept silent when required to do interaction work.
For this particular lesson we discussed: first day of class after the winter break. a warm-up activity where students sat in groups to (while speaking Chinese) find out: three things all members of the group did over the break, and three different things they each did and not shared by other members in the class.
Sounds pretty good, an information gap activity. But for advanced-levels when students have surpassed the threshold of iterating simple facts, the task is not as challenging and motivating. And when the topic is about winter break, things we do during breaks are quite similar and no suspence which may prompt no incentive to talk.
When we plan the task, we anticipate what students may say in response to the topic. For this particular topic, likely students say “I ate. I ate too; I slept. I slept a lot; me too; I watched movies–here the topic may become interesting, but students, if not prompted by teacher, rarely go beyond “me too”. “I skiiled.” I did it in colorado. I did it in Wisconsin.” Then, moments of silence. Looking at teacher. Hoping for the activity to end.
My reflection: if the task involves narrative and story-telling, the instrinc motivation for telling a story is that it is worth-telling (see Ochs and Capps’s book titled Living Narrative).
So, perhaps, if we change the topic of discussion to:
- Talk about things you did but had never wanted to do. 不想做却做了的.
- Talk about things you didn’t do but had really wanted to do. 想做又没做的.
The answer is unpredictable and draws on a story-worthy juxtaposition. The task is still pretty simple and suitable for short warm-up activity.
When we design unfocused speaking task (meaning that we are not using the speaking task for students to use a particuar language form, such as the past tense, the “de” structure” etc. Reference: Rod Ellis ), the topic has to elicit something worth-telling, affective, with personal involvement.
For example, I list below some typical speaking tasks in the language classroom and suggest modification for the task to be more fun for advanced learners:
practicing saying numbers and digits
traditional drills: using cards with numbers and have students say them out loud. Or the teacher says the numbers and studnets write them down.
modification—> studnets pretending to be at a ball/banquet and are having fun. Then the loudspeaker (a student plays the role of the MC) begins to say a string of numbers (they are licence plate numbers of unsuitably parked cars which will be towed if not moved.) Every student is given a card in advance which bears one of these imaginary licence plates. Students naturally pay attention to listening for their number and repeat to check if they heard it correctly. The unclaimed cars will be towed. Haha.
talk about poet Li Bai
traditional activity: Li Bai a typical cultural topic in the Chinese heritage class and advanced foreign language class. But I guess students don’t quite see the point of reading the poem “the moon light at my bedside, is like frost on the ground”–the poem is beguilingly simple, even plain.
modification: — > select a poem by Li Bai that has a bit more “flare” for the students’ age and temperament, such as the poem where he danced with the moon or tried to scoop the moon out of the river. Instead of explaining the poem, we could show the poem in Chinese, juxtaposed with an English version as translated by the google translation tool (the translation is guaranteed to be hilarious). Students can discuss why the translation is not correct, and how best to translate the original poem. This exercise will incoporate cultural topic, will let students see that google translation has its limitation, while using the target language to communicate (the idea of “languaging”).
Describing a room
traditional task: at around 2nd-year of a basic language program, students will learn to talk about housing, interior of a house, furniture, domitory living Typical speaking tasks are role-plays and picture-description.
modification: 1) identifying differences between two otherwise very identical images of a room–newspapers and children’s books tend to feature such puzzle activity. Save some of them and they make good picture-prompt for practicing room-description.
2) detail-recall. students are shown pictures of a room for seconds. Then they compete to see who recalls the most details of the room, with accuracy (and using fully formulated sentences). The pictures may also include some unnoticable details (such as a cat under the kitchen table). Children’s books are full of household items and good as prompts, such as the following timeless classics.