February 21 2023
As a non-native Spanish speaker, I know the most rewarding part of my language learning journey was finally getting to a point where I could have a natural conversation with a native speaker. But to achieve that, I had to endure many uncomfortable conversations where I misunderstood someone or made mistakes.
As language teachers, we know this is just part of the learning process. But for our students, target language conversation can be a stressful experience that pushes them outside of their comfort zone. Below, I’ve listed four tried and tested ways to encourage students to take a risk in speaking activities.
What is spontaneous speech?
According to Gianfranco Conti, spontaneous speech is “when an L2 learner produces speech to initiate a conversation or respond to an external stimulus they do so ‘thinking on their feet’, so to speak, without any pre-planning and without relying on any sort of support (e.g. vocabulary lists, talking mats, dictionaries, etc.)”.
However, I find it can be helpful to bend the rules of that strict definition to encourage participation of what can be an intimidating learning style. We can still achieve spontaneous speech without written support, but occasionally providing room for pre-planning responses can build confidence in students.
1. Create a “target language lifestyle”
One study claims that creating a “target language lifestyle” in the classroom is the factor most conducive to promoting spontaneous speech. In such classrooms, teachers consistently promote the use of target language in all areas of communication: when giving instructions, providing feedback, or even when asking non-lesson related questions.
Conti argues that spontaneous conversation “can only be achieved through masses of practice in retrieving language from long term memory… Consequently, involving the students in oral interaction as much as possible is imperative; this calls for frequent interaction.”
By committing to target language use at all times, teachers can reinforce that this is both a classroom expectation and a real-life skill useful outside of an academic setting. Students practiced in the “target language lifestyle” will find it easier to have spontaneous conversations in the real world thanks to their experience in the classroom.
2. Scaffolded practice
Although spontaneity is the goal, simply presenting students with a question and expecting them to provide a thorough response is often not realistic. As an IB teacher, conversation questions are often complex, and require a certain amount of research and preparation in order to be fully answered.
To allow for this, I implement a scaffolded “think-pair-share” learning structure. First, I give students time alone to think and look through their notes (although I don’t let them write anything down as the goal is still spontaneous speech). This step allows them to become familiar with the content element of the question and to consider their own point of view before having to respond. Students then try out an answer with a partner. This practice element of the activity allows them to feel more confident when it comes to stage three, the whole class conversation.
3. Make the conversation relevant to them!
Spontaneous conversations have always worked best in my classroom when they have felt like a genuine conversation. Depending on what I ask them, my students might actually want to tell me their thoughts on something, and can’t wait to try out the structures that they’ve learned in order to get their point across!
To create this kind of atmosphere, it’s great to give students choices about which topic to talk about, and to make the topics fun and relevant to their lives. A great, low-prep example of this is to give students two choices in a lesson on comparatives and superlatives (for example “perros o gatos” or “Netflix o Hulu”) and let them debate. You know your students best, so choose topics you know they are interested in.
Another way to make spontaneous conversation relevant is to respond genuinely to what they’ve told you. This may sound simple, but when my students tell me about what they did on the weekend, I react with easy follow-up questions or comments about what they did, which makes more students want to tell me about their own activities! If we want our students to act as though they are having a real-life conversation, it’s important for us teachers to also make it feel like one.
4. Positive reinforcement
Finally, and most importantly, students should have a positive experience when they push themselves out of their comfort zones and risk speaking in the target language in front of their peers. Although our instinct as teachers can often be to correct any mistakes we hear, I usually don’t do that during spontaneous conversation time. Rather, as I listen, I write a list of all the good things that the student used in their response and provide positive feedback. I find that this not only makes students more likely to volunteer to answer again, but other students will feel encouraged to share their answers as well.