How To Get Students Speaking The Target Language

Photo by  Chris Murray

Photo by Chris Murray


Traditional education in a World Languages class makes it difficult for students to gain confidence and proficiency in speaking. Any one who has ever been in a traditional class, or taught one, knows this.

When I tell people that I worked as a Spanish teacher, I can’t tell you how many adults have told me that they studied Spanish for years and still can speak it. Yet, gaining proficiency is the top priority of my Spanish 1 students.

So, what can be done?

In this post I’ll address a few strategies that can be used in a World Languages class to get students talking.

Narrating A Set Of Images

A lot of textbooks come with images that come with each unit to prompt students to use the target vocabulary in spoken conversation. When I used the Holt textbook Exprésate, I got images that look like this.

Once a unit, students needed to develop dialogue to narrate the images for the corresponding unit. They then needed to call a Google Voice number and speak their dialogue as a recorded message.

If this was the first time that they were calling, they needed to state their name and period first. I would save their name in my contacts, so when they called back successive times, if they forgot to say their name, I would have it saved.

Google Voice also allowed me to text them back their grade. This saved me a lot of paper, and made the project easy to manage.

If you want to integrate more tech, you can have students use Vocaroo to record. The recording will give them a sharable link, which you can collect in a Google Form. To grade the assignment, you can use the Google Sheets add-ons Flubaroo or Autocrat. (If you need help setting those up, refer to their respective sites.)

Conversations In The Community

You may teach in an area where your students have access to people who are highly proficient in the target language. When I taught Spanish in Dallas, Texas, there were Spanish speakers everywhere. So, as homework, my students had to speak with these people using their target vocabulary.

To use the Holt Exprésate book as an example again, each unit had several questions that the students needed to learn. I made a table with the expressions of each unit, check out the link. The student would have to ask the question, then write down (paraphrase) the response of the person they spoke with.

To get proof that the conversation had happened, I asked that the proficient speaker sign or initial next to each phrase. The student could talk to several people, this was they didn’t have to ask too much of any one proficient speaker.

Practice In Class

Assessing speaking is important, and the previous two examples made that possible. But they don’t allow the teacher to witness the spoken language happening. This is why it’s important to do this next activity.

Many textbooks come with examples of conversation topics that students should be able to speak about. When I taught out of the Holt Exprésate book, I had access to conversation prompts that were meant to be practiced in pairs.

If you look at the above link, you’ll see two conversations that were meant to be amongst two people. So, I would put students into groups of four, and arrange their individual desks so that they were in pods of four, and the desks were facing inward.

The prep for the activity meant that I needed to make copies of the linked conversation prompts so that there was one copy for every group of four students. I then cut up each role so that when I handed out the roles, each student only saw what they were supposed to be talking about.

When I handed out the roles, I told my students to work with the person sitting next to them (this made it easier to hear each other). They first had to read their role, then plan out their conversation. Then when the were ready to speak to each other, the pair of students sitting across from them would evaluate their speaking skills. I would give students rubrics to use to evaluate the people in their group.

In designing the rubric, I made sure that the emphasis was on constructive criticism, and it was a check that a good effort was being made. I also had students evaluate their own work. This made sure that they were reflecting on their own performance, which is where real growth in learning takes place.

Once one pair of students spoke their dialogue, was evaluated, and evaluated themselves, then the two pairs needed to change speaking topics with the person sitting across from them.

Then the process repeated. The pairs would plan the new conversation with their partner. They would speak the conversation while the people sitting across from them listened and evaluated them. They evaluated their own performance. Then they listened to and evaluated the pair sitting across from them.

The role of the teacher is to walk around listening to the students practice the language, and help when necessary. It’s a great example of a student-centered classroom.

Talking About Photos Of The Community

When I worked as an Ed Tech Specialist, I would advocate that teachers incorporate cell phones to be used as tools in their lessons. The idea was that smart phones are here to stay. Instead of telling students to put their phones away when I class, I suggested that teachers use them as a teaching tool.

This activity is one example of what can be done.

For each unit in a World Languages curriculum, there are so many vocabulary words that need to be learned. For this activity, I would assign each student in the class one or two vocabulary words that they had to find something in their neighborhood that visually represented that word, and they had to take a picture of that. Then all students in the class had to insert their photos into a table on a Google doc that looks like what is linked.

I would take this Google doc, and share and individual copy with each student in the class. This is possible by forcing a copy with the Google doc. Alternatively, if you use Google Classroom, you can distribute this document so that each student gets their own copy.

In class, students would have to choose 5 photos to talk about and narrate what was happening. They would use Vocaroo to record their speaking, and the would share the link in the appropriate column on the table.

This activity can be taken a step further if you want to get others students commenting on the initial conversations. You can have students turn in the Doc in a Google Form, then give students access to the Sheet connected to the Form. In one column on the sheet, students can choose to listen to the speaking recording of the person below their row in the sheet, and comment on the quality of the speaking using the rubric provided above.

Summing It Up

So, you see, it is possible to get students speaking in and out of class, even at the most basic levels. I used these strategies for my level 1, 2, 3 students. By level 3 they were comfortable speaking, and this prepared them well for AP level 4.

What this looks like is all very subtle. Students aren’t stressing. They aren’t cramming. They are leveling up on their language skills bit by bit, and day by day. This is what it takes to get students taking risks and learning a language. You need to get them comfortable to try things out. This is how you learn a new language, by enjoying it.