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Vol 34 No 3, July - September 1996 Page 30 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT


Three Ways That Work!
Oral Fluency Practice in the EFL Classroom
by Brian Bresnihan and Barbara Stoops


One of the most difficult challenges in teaching a foreign language abroad is finding ways to help students improve their oral fluency. This is especially true in countries where students generally share a common mother tongue and have little or no exposure to English outside the classroom. In our experience, pair and group work communication tasks, as they are structured in ESL classrooms, are often ineffective in an EFL setting. When students are asked to perform these activities, they often just read aloud mechanically from their textbooks or chat in their native language. Although they may truly want to practice and express their ideas in English, it is hard for them to actually do it, and it is hard for teachers to convince them to try.

This paper discusses three procedures that we have found effective to encourage Japanese students to speak in English, even in large classes. We describe their implementation at length because we have found that seemingly minor details often make all the difference in whether an activity succeeds or fails. Each procedure (Talking Zone, Speaking Line, and Conversation Game) (see Footnote 1 ) has oral fluency as its goal. Each is designed to help teachers assist their students in bridging the gap between their written materials and speaking fluently in a foreign language.




The talking zone


Most language students want to have chances to practice speaking. Other than having your students all speak aloud to themselves at the same time, the way to give them the most opportunities to speak in the classroom is to have them talk in pairs. However, if you give them time to practice speaking with the materials you have covered in class that day, many of them will simply read them aloud to their partners. They will not actually be practicing speaking and they will certainly not be having what could be called a conversation. They will just be saying words aloud, which is not the same thing as practicing speaking. Students need to be physically separated from their materials for them to practice speaking. By creating a Talking Zone (see Footnote 2 ) and a non-Talking Zone in the classroom, you can allow them to get the kind of speaking practice they want and need, and yet give them access to the materials they may require to feel secure and to speak successfully.




The set up


Draw a sketch on the board of how you want the classroom arranged and tell your students to move the tables and chairs into that formation. (See Figure 1 .) If your classroom, like some of ours, has furniture that cannot be moved, use the two bottom arrangements as a guide. Notice that whatever the arrangement, the Talking Zone has no chairs in it. Therefore, your students will be standing while they are talking, not sitting.


After your classroom is set up the way you want it, tell your students to sit or stand at the tables which are labeled "P" around the outside of the room. Have them open their textbooks to the page they will be working on or pass out the materials they will be working with. These materials must stay where they are. They cannot be carried to any other place in the room. The same goes for a pencil if it is needed.


Give your students whatever time you think they need to look over these materials before they begin the speaking activity. Tell them they cannot look at anyone else's materials. When they are done, tell them to turn their materials over and leave them where they are and to move into the empty space that was created for their talking.


When all of your students are standing in the Talking Zone, tell them that there are three things they must remember while doing this speaking activity. 1) They can talk with whomever they want for as long as they want, but they can talk only inside the Talking Zone, to only one person at a time, and only in English. 2) They must leave their materials on the tables where they are now. They cannot bring their materials inside the Talking Zone, nor can they look at any of their classmates' materials. 3) They can leave and enter the Talking Zone as many times as they like. So, they do not need to complete the whole activity before looking at their materials again. They can review their materials as often as they wish.


Then answer any questions they have, and tell them to find a partner and to begin. You may need to run around a bit, especially in the beginning, to enforce the rules of the activity. If students forget something a classmate tells them or forget what they want to say, they have to go back to the appropriate Zone to get the information. The activity is finished whenever you want it to be. This can take a long time if you let it go.




Variations


If you feel your classroom would be too crowded or would become uncontrollable with all of your students walking around and talking in it at the same time, have your students get into pairs after looking over their materials and before going to the Talking Zone for the first time. Then tell one student in each pair to sit down with both students' papers around the outside of the room, where the "Ps" are. These students can be called the secretaries. Tell the other member of each pair to enter the Talking Zone. These students will be the speakers. Now explain the same rules as before except that number 3 needs to be changed a little. Instead of being able to look at their materials again, they can ask their secretaries to tell them whatever they need to know. So the secretaries look at the papers and tell their speakers what to do or say next (in English, of course). Halfway through the activity, tell the secretaries and speakers to switch roles.


If the speakers do not need to return to their secretaries very often, the secretaries may get bored or have nothing to do. Therefore they may begin talking with other secretaries, something they should not be doing. They should only talk to their speakers. So, you may want to have another task for them besides just helping their speakers. This additional activity should be one that they can accomplish alone and silently, for example through reading or writing. It could be related to the speaking activity, or it could be something entirely different.




Choices


A variety of materials can be used with the Talking Zone. For example, if you give your beginning level students a list of Yes/No questions to ask their classmates, they can ask each question to other students until they find someone who answers "Yes" to the question. Then they record that student's name and move on to the next question. (A worksheet for a variation of this activity appears in Appendix 1 . It requires all students to answer the questions they will be asking later in writing before entering the Talking Zone. This should ensure that everyone has read and understood all the questions.) Depending on the students' abilities, you may want to try using two sets of similar questions in one class with half of the students having each set.


In intermediate or advanced level classes, if each of your students has read one of a group of articles, there are a number of things they can do in the Talking Zone. For example, they can each summarize and discuss their articles with a partner who has read a different article. Then they return to their tables to answer some questions about their partners' articles that they have not seen before. (See Appendix 2 for a sample.) After writing answers to as many questions as they can, they may review their own articles for a few minutes. Then they return to the Talking Zone to collect the information they need to complete their answers, and tell their partners whatever they need to know to complete theirs. The process is then repeated with new partners who have read different articles.




The speaking line


As they become more comfortable and better at speaking in English, many language students want to practice "free conversation" in their classes. Of course, the difficulty with this is that if you just tell your students in a large class to talk in pairs about some topic, it is hard to tell what they are saying or even what language they are speaking. It is not very easy for them to maintain their discipline and speak only in English. They may also be tempted to spend much of their time reading from their textbooks or looking up words in their dictionaries. Organizing the seating arrangement of the pairs into a Speaking Line and requiring your students to put all of their materials away and to look at and speak directly to each other begins to clear up these difficulties. This lets your students experience the pleasure of speaking at length with each other in English.




The basics


First, have your students put all their materials away. Then, have them rearrange the furniture. If you are lucky enough to have movable chairs and tables in your room, ask your students to move the tables out of the way and line up the chairs in two rows facing each other. You can draw a sketch on the board if you like. (See Figure 2 .)


If your classrooms do not have movable furniture, use the sketches below as hints to what arrangements might be good for your classrooms. The most important point is to create clear aisles (shaded below) so you can easily move around the room. (See Figure 3 .) Then, 1 and A are partners, 2 and B, 3 and C, etc. With an odd number of students there will be one triple.


Explain to your students that they are not allowed to talk to anyone else except their partners. They can only speak with the person directly in front of them. And, of course, they must speak in English. Then give them the topic (or whatever you want them to talk about), and have them begin.


You may need to encourage your students to start and to remind them to remain in English the first few times you do this. However, it does not take long for most students to catch on and to enjoy it.


When you think it is time for them to stop, a few claps, a short whistle, a loud "OK, that's enough.", or a flickering of the lights will get their attention. Then it is time to change partners. The students at the beginning of one row stand up and move to the back of the row while the rest of the students in the row move forward. Then everyone has a new partner. (See Figure 4 .)


Then tell them to repeat what they were doing or whatever the next assignment is. This shifting of the partners can be done many times.




Extras


When Brian was initially introduced to the Speaking Line, Robert "Bob" Oprandy recommended that partners be given two minutes to converse on one topic per pairing and that each topic be repeated for a few pairings. Sometimes we have students talk for much longer periods of time before switching partners, even for over ten minutes. If you are not really interested in keeping track of the time, you will find that it is not very difficult to tell when the students need to change partners. We usually have them repeat a topic with two or three partners.


A more structured activity which works well using the Speaking Line is the Fluency Workshop, or the 4/3/2 technique, developed by Keith Maurice (1983, 1994). In this activity the students have four minutes to speak about a topic to their partners. Then they listen to their partners talk for four minutes. Next they change partners and repeat the above for three minutes each. Finally, they repeat it again with new partners for two minutes each. Barbara was first introduced to an adapted form of the Fluency Workshop in which one student does all three speaking turns without doing any listening in between. When this activity was studied by Arevart and Nation (1991) [and prior to that by Nation (1989) in a smaller study], they found that students spoke faster and with fewer hesitations in their two-minute (last) turn than in their four-minute (first) turn. The Fluency Workshop in both of these forms has students making short speeches or telling stories to their partners rather than having students participate in a conversation, as Bob suggested.


If you would like to encourage the listeners to listen carefully when speakers and listeners have been assigned roles, have partners stand up one at a time after every few pairings and have the listeners give a short summary of what the last speakers told them. Speakers stand, too, to emphasize that both people are responsible for the summary, to make the listeners a little more comfortable while summarizing, and to be readily available if the listeners need help. Keep the number of pairings before summarizing variable to encourage your students to do their best with each partner. This could also be done after students have participated in conversations.


Your students will be better able to talk about something in English if they write about their ideas in English first. They might do a quick writing in class for 10 or 15 minutes before speaking, or they could write more extensively as a homework assignment. While writing, they can decide what to say, organize their thoughts, and look up any words they need in their dictionaries. Remember, though, that when they move into the Speaking Line, they cannot bring their writing with them.




The conversation game


Although working in pairs allows the maximum amount of speaking time per person in a class, there are times you might want your students to speak in groups. Also, many students say they prefer to speak in small groups rather than in pairs. The problem is that since students in an EFL class can speak to each other more easily in their own language, they will find it very difficult to remain in English. Even in a Talking Zone or a Speaking Line, some students may quickly translate to explain a word or phrase that a partner does not immediately understand. The Conversation Game is an excellent way to get around this difficulty.




The rules


In the Conversation Game the teacher should provide a large quantity of game markers. These could be poker chips, buttons, beads, individually wrapped candies, or sea shells collected on a beach after a big storm. Seat students around small tables in groups of 4 or 5 each and give a pile of about 40 or 50 markers to each group.


After the students have the topic to speak about, the game rules are simple. 1) Whenever students say something in English, they take one of the game markers. It doesn't matter whether they talk for a short time or a long time; in either case they get one marker. 2) But, whenever they say even one word in another language, they must return one marker to the pile. 3) In the end, the number of markers they have collected will be their total score


When the conversations slow down or when the allotted time is up, you can reshuffle the groups and perhaps switch to a new topic as well. Before students move to a new group, they should return all of their markers to the pile so each new group can begin. Therefore, they need to record their scores on a piece of paper, something they also might need to do earlier if they use up all of the markers before time runs out and they need to restart themselves.


Other considerations: Some students may be tempted to "cheat" a bit by saying "Oh" or "Yes" a lot in order to collect markers and boost their scores. If this happens, you can modify the rules to require that students say at least three consecutive words or a sentence to gain a marker. In our situation, true "cheating" is, in fact, quite rare as the students generally make a real effort to be sure everyone has a chance to speak and to gain points.


We have also found that once our students get used to the habit of monitoring their use of English and Japanese and the amount they are talking and not talking, they tend to stop picking up markers after their turns. This is certainly a good thing that they can continue to converse in English without using the markers to closely monitor themselves. However, it still seems to be helpful to have the markers there in piles just as a reminder.


Although assigning conversation topics yourself saves time, another choice is to have your students come up with the topics. Here is one way to have the students do this. Have pairs of students very quickly brainstorm topics and write one per pair on the board. No doubles are allowed. After each pair has written a choice on the board, read each aloud to the students so they have a chance to consider all of them. Then have all the students come up to the board again and mark the one they wish to speak about. The majority wins and is the first topic to be discussed.




Teacher roles


While the students are busy in their Talking Zone, Speaking Line, or Conversation Game, the activities the teacher can engage in are numerous and varied. The simplest, but not necessarily the least useful, thing to do is to stroll around the different areas of the room, up and down the aisles, or around the groups and listen to what your students are saying. This also leaves you free to enforce the rules, if necessary, and to answer any questions. In addition, you can break into conversations to ask questions, add information, or help with explanations if you like.


The teacher can also collect information, such as unusual vocabulary items, errors or mistakes of any kind, well-formed sentences or replies, communication breakdowns, students' opinions, or diversions from the assigned task or topic. Problems could be dealt with at the moment they occur orally with the students involved, or a short note could be written on a slip of paper and handed to the students. If you think the whole class might benefit from something, you could take notes while you are listening and go over them with the class as a whole afterward.


Another alternative is to join the Talking Zone, the Speaking Line, or the Conversation Game groups and participate with your students. Of course, at times you may need to stop to do other things, such as monitor the activity, but you will also have the opportunity to speak with some of your students one-on-one or in small groups even if you need to cut it a little short.




Adaptations


The Talking Zone, the Speaking Line, and the Conversation Game can be used for a variety of communication tasks, but it is important to make a firm rule that the work must be entirely oral and in English. In each of these procedures, students can summarize and discuss articles they have read, essays they have written (without holding them so there will be no temptation to read from their papers), or audio or video tapes that they have listened to or seen. They can also carry out brainstorming tasks to prepare for a writing assignment or a classroom debate. Of course, these sorts of activities can be done in normal pair or group work structures as well, but in a Talking Zone, a Speaking Line, or a Conversation Game group, students must use their own words and give their own ideas (or their memory of material they have read or heard) rather than just repeat words or ideas from a book.




Conclusion


By separating students from their materials, the Talking Zone allows students to experience speaking English on their own. It shows them that they can speak and understand English without written materials. Yet it does not force them to do something which they might not be capable of doing or which might make them lose their confidence or become embarrassed. Also, although you have structured the activity, the students are in control of what they are doing and must take the initiative to complete the tasks you have set for them. The students can speak to whomever they wish whenever they wish, to students they know well or to those they may not often get a chance to speak with. They are working at their own pace and at their own level of ability. They can take time to relax, rest, rehearse privately, think about what they are doing, and decide what to do next whenever they feel the need by remaining at their papers outside of the Talking Zone. In addition, although we have given them the materials to work with, our students soon begin to add to them or to change them somewhat by creating their own oral language. Instead of saying "Which is your favorite season?", they often say "Do you like summer?" or "Do you know someone who likes winter?", and they say other things not included in their materials, such as "I'm next.", "I'm sorry, what's your name again?", "Hurry up." "Just a moment.", "Really?", "Me, too." In other words, the activity becomes something like a real conversation.


The Speaking Line allows students to begin to have real, totally unscripted conversations on their own. Each conversation is private, personal, and anonymous. This is also the case with the Talking Zone, but the Speaking Line is somewhat calmer, simpler to set up, and easier to monitor. It requires students to speak with a random assortment of classmates, and there is no hesitation or difficulty in choosing with whom to speak as might be the case with very shy students. Also, although we have organized the pairings, and some topic for discussion has been decided on, our students begin to add to this as they do with the Talking Zone. Partners say things like "Good morning. How are you?" and even shake hands. And when it's time to change partners, some will say "Good-bye. It was nice talking with you."


We have found with the Conversation Game that our students will monitor each other as well as themselves. They point out when others slip in a word of Japanese or a Japanese exclamation, and they make great efforts to speak only in English. A special feature of the Conversation Game that sets it apart from most fluency work in foreign language classes is that students are discouraged from using their mother tongue to clarify confusion or lack of comprehension. In Conversation Game groups, speakers must try to negotiate meaning entirely in English because they are penalized if they use their native language. This makes the activity more difficult for them than the Talking Zone or the Speaking Line, but it pushes them to develop more strategies needed to communicate successfully with native or non-native speakers of English.




Brian Bresnihan has an M.A. and M.Ed. in TESOL from Teachers College, Columbia University. After teaching English in Hiroshima, New York, and Tokyo, he began teaching in his present position at Kobe University of Commerce.
Barbara Stoops has an M.A. in TEFL from San Francisco State University and an M.Phil. in English literature from Yale. Before becoming a Lecturer at Kobe University of Commerce, she taught in rural Japan, Kuala Lumpur, New York, and California.
 

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References


  • Arevart, S. and P. Nation. 1991. Fluency improvement in a second language. RELC Journal, 22, 1, pp. 84- 94.
  • Bailey, K. M., and L. Savage (eds.). 1994. New ways in teaching speaking. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
  • Bresnihan, B. 1992. How is at least as important as what. The Language Teacher, 16, 6, pp. 37-41.
  • ---. 1993. Old materials, new ways. The Language Teacher 17, 12, pp. 47-49.
  • ---. 1994. Talking zone. In New ways in teaching speaking. Eds. K. M. Bailey and L. Savage. Alexandria, VA: TESOL, pp. 3-5.
  • Bresnihan, B. and B. Stoops. 1994. Providing fluency practice in the foreign language classroom. The Language Teacher, 18, 11, pp. 27-30.
  • Gorsuch, G. 1991. Working around students' cultural traits. The Daily Yomiuri, January 31, pp. 7.
  • Maurice, K. 1983. The fluency workshop. TESOL Newsletter. 17, 4, pp. 29.
  • ---. 1994. The fluency workshop.In New ways in teaching speaking. Eds. K. M. Bailey and L. Savage. Alexandria, VA: TESOL, pp. 54-55.
  • Nation, P. 1989. Improving speaking fluency. System, 17, 3, pp. 377-384.


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Figure 1
Figure 1

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Figure 2
Figure 2

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Figure 3
Figure 3

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Figure 4
Figure 4

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Footnote 1

   1. We have described these procedures previously (Bresnihan, 1992, 1993, 1994; and Bresnihan and Stoops, 1994). Bailey and Savage (1994) include some variants in two articles by Mary S. Wong, pp. 24-29.


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Footnote 2

   2. This procedure was named by Greta Gorsuch after she observed Brian using it (Gorsuch, 1991).


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Appendix 1

Appendix 1

This is an example of a worksheet that could be used with the Talking Zone. The students first need to fill in the Your Answer column individually. Then they go into the Talking Zone to ask and answer the questions trying to find students who can fit into all of the categories in the chart. As students find classmates who fit the categories, they record their names and answers on the worksheet. (Remember that the main purpose of the activity is the speaking, not the recording of the answers. All of the boxes need not be filled in. Indeed, at times there will be no one who fits into some of the categories )

Question Your
Answer
2 people who answered
differently
than you
If differently, then 2 people who answered the same as you
What is your favorite season?   1.

2.
Which?
1.
2.

1.
2.
Which would you most like to go to
for a vacation: a beach, a mountain, or a river?
  1.

2.
Where?

1.

2.
Why?

1.

2.
1.

2.
Will you take a
trip this summer?
  1.

2.
If "Yes", then 1.
2.
To where?
1.
2.
With whom?
1.
2.
Will you study English during summer vacation? 1.

2.
If "Yes", say

"Oh, really?! How studious you are!!"

This summer,
when will you __________
__________?
    _________?
1.

2.
1.

2.


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Appendix 2

Appendix 2

This is an example of a question sheet that could be used with the Talking Zone when students have read one of a group of newspaper articles. After reading their articles, students summarize and discuss them with a partner. Then they are given these questions to answer about their partner's article. After answering as many questions as they can from memory, they may review their own articles, return to the Talking Zone, and speak some more with the same partner. (Remember that the main purpose of the activity is the speaking, not the recording of the answers. Not all of the questions need to fit exactly with each article.)

  1. What is the main idea or the most important point of your partner's article?
  2. When and where did the events in the article take place?
  3. What problems were discussed in the article?
  4. What solutions or proposals were given to solve the problems?
  5. Do you think the solutions or proposals are good ones? Do you think they are possible or that they will work?


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