ETp 3 – coaching in speaking

Coaching learners in speaking skills.

What makes a fluent speaker? These days, emphasis is placed on the importance of a communicative classroom; yet, as Jeremy Harmer has pointed out, many learners achieve fluency despite studying in traditional classrooms where little speaking practice takes place. Ironically, the tendency to emphasise speaking in class may lead learners to neglect opportunities to practise speaking outside class. Teachers and learners may also assume that the classroom is the best place to practise speaking and that time outside class is better spent reading, listening and writing, skills which can be readily practised alone. But there are many ways learners can practise speaking outside class and, in so doing, build confidence and take an important step towards becoming independent learners.

Teachers have an important role of support and encouragement, suggesting activities and allowing class time for learners to report back on what they have done. Perhaps the first job is to open up discussion on the subject and prompt the sharing of ideas, by asking: ‘How do you practise speaking skills away from class?’

This article suggests some simple activities you can suggest to your learners involving language exchanges, the internet and the learner’s ‘inner voice’. Many thanks to Nik Peachey and Marc Helgesen for their inspiration.

Practising with others

Language exchange

The traditional face-to-face language exchange is very popular with learners. Get your learners started; devote a lesson to helping them find a language exchange partner:

1 Elicit from the class where people might look for someone to practise languages with: the school notice board, the classified ads in the local paper, a language learning website, or an ‘inter cambio’ night in a local bar.

2 Choose one or more of these sources and make copies for the class.

3 They scan the text, choose the best exchange partners and justify their choices.

4 Pairs role play making a phone call to set up the first meeting.

5 Finally, discuss the pros and cons, when (and whether) they would do it.

Skype forum

Carmen from Madrid regularly talks to a friend in Manchester on Skype. They met on a Skype forum devoted to language learning: She says that face-to-face language exchanges take up a lot of time, and the one she sometimes attends in a Madrid bar gets really noisy, so she prefers Skyping. She and her friend have a relaxed attitude to whether they speak English or Spanish, and they often talk for an hour or more. Time flies, she says, because they ‘connect’. Here is some advice from Carmen:

  • State a preferred age range. You want to click with this person, and age is an easy way to filter out people with different interests.
  • Time differences matter. A European and an American may struggle to find suitable times to get together.
  • Don’t give personal details, for obvious security reasons.
  • Experiment using video and audio, or just audio. You might find the video is quite distracting, or you may prefer to see the person to help you better understand them.

Practising alone


Why not ask the learners to send talking greetings cards in English? Find a site that lets you record video messages such as Skype.

1 Do a lesson about greetings cards and types of occasions, teaching simple messages such as Thank you for …, Don’t forget … and I hope you ...

2 Each learner writes their name and email address on a slip of paper. Include yourself and put the slips in a hat. Everyone takes one.

3 They send a message to this person.

Talking about an image

On you can record your voice over still images. These can be personal photos, maps, drawings – indeed any image. The resulting combined image and audio file can be kept as part of a learner’s portfolio, emailed to classmates and teachers, or shared on this public site. Many speaking activities traditionally carried out in class are turned into self-study activities with fotobabble. Here are a few that we came up with:

  • Choose a special photo. Talk about it, describing what you can see, why you chose it, the people, the location, and so on.
  • Upload today’s weather map. Present the national weather forecast as if you were on TV.
  • Screen capture a street map from Google maps. Give directions from one place to another. Send your fotobabble creation to another learner and challenge them to tell you where the directions lead them.
  • Take a photo of a meal you have just made. Talk about how you made it.
  • Use a photo of a celebrity. Pretend you are this person and endorse a product that they might advertise.

My ‘to do’ list

If you’ve ever spoken a second language in a shop, you’ve probably used your ‘inner voice’ to get ready for the transaction. Before you go up to the counter, you say to yourself, ‘I need to find x, so I’ve got to say, _____. And then the assistant will probably say, _____. Then I need to say, _____.’ This is called ‘task planning’, according to Marc Helgesen. Here’s a simple activity to get your learners using their inner voice to plan for tasks in English. You could do this in class the first time to practise, then set the same activity a week or two later as a self-study task.

1 Write a list of five things you have to do this week which involve communication. These could be phone calls, things you need from the shops or short conversations that you need to have with colleagues.

2 Now, imagine you are living in an English-speaking country. Close your eyes and imagine you are going to do the first thing on your list in English. What will you have to say? Say it to yourself. What do you think the other person will say? Respond. Keep imagining the dialogue until the end.

3 Next to your list, make a note of any vocabulary that you needed but don’t know.

4 Continue with the next item on the list.

5 Look up the unknown words in a dictionary and practise the dialogues again.

Registration plate mumble

This is an activity for greater fluency with letters and large numbers. It makes use of ‘dead time’ as learners are out and about in the street. They read the number plates of passing cars out loud. For example, MD 377 CA can be read aloud as ‘MD, three hundred and seventy-seven, CA’. Get them to read the number plates as fast as possible!


Peachey, N ‘Nik’s daily English activities’

Helgesen, M ‘Ten techniques for task planning’


10 Responses to ETp 3 – coaching in speaking

  1. MarkWalker says:

    Link no longer works. Looks like the site has been taken down and redirected
    Helgesen, M ‘Ten techniques for task planning’

  2. Laurie says:

    Hi Duncan and Daniel,
    Great site! I have always been an advocate of learner coaching as this is how I am learning Spanish(10 years and counting!). There is only so much spoon feeding a teacher can do before a student needs to get up and Just-do-it! I have a variety of types of students, of course, but the ones who advance the most quickly and have real confidence in their growth as English communicators are those who take responsibility for their own learning. I begin each course with my expectations as a teacher, that students must work outside of class and ask them to provide a list of possible ways.I quickly get an idea of the students interests and occasionaly can add to my superlist of ideas Then throughout the course I am constantly providing autonomy tasks. This blog is a great resource!
    I loved the idea about recording greeting cards. Unfortunately website has been redirected to a friendly youtube sharing site. Also useful for different exercises, but not the same 😦

    • Hey Laurie,

      Many thanks for your feedback – much appreciated! I love the way that you describe your learner coaching approach with classes – so direct and simple. It’s not rocket science, is it?


  3. Raquel Gomez says:

    I’ll send this website to my colleagues. Great ideas are always welcome, aren’t they? Thanks!

  4. Billie's Blog - tefltalk says:

    Your ideas are great! I’ll definitely try out the fotobabble one with my students.

  5. or a lot of money 🙂

  6. Monica Leon says:

    Great ideas – I´ll share them with other colleagues. It´s great that they don´t always need an English speaking environment to make them work.


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