A new teacher who has been observing some of my classes lately as part of her ESL Teacher training asked me this question the other day: "How do I teach speaking?".
At first I thought it was a joke question, because to me the answer seemed so simple, but when I realized that it was a serious question, I had to stop and think about if for a second. At first glance, teaching speaking simply involves providing your students with as many chances to speak as is possible - sometimes in a controlled context, and sometimes in a free context.
The first thing to keep in mind is that when we are helping our language students learn to speak English, we are not actually teaching them to speak. Unless they are infants, they already know how to do that. What we are really helping them with falls into three categories
1. improving fluency (speaking smoothly)
2. improving pronunciation (saying words properly)
3. improving enunciation (Saying words/phrases clearly - I think this includes word and sentence intonation)
Some would say that vocabulary, grammar, and cultural usage also fall into how we teach speaking, but I'd say that while they are critical, they are not only in the domain of speaking. Speaking is about using our mouth and vocal cords to make sounds that people understand as language. It certainly involves other elements like grammar and vocabulary, but they aren't the core of it.
So, back to the main question of how to teach speaking. Let's look at each of the three elements I mentioned above
Fluency comes from practice - plain and simple. However it needs to be practice that involves extended use of the language and use of extended sentences. You can not build fluency by repeating single words or short phrases. Fluency at its heart relates to being able to speak for longer periods of time in a smooth way. Broadly speaking, here are a few things that can help build fluency:
1. speeches or presentations
2. group discussions
3. role plays
4. negotiations and debates
5. interviews and meetings
6. chatting in small groups
Pronunciation is the ability to say words properly with the correct sounds in the correct places. This is a skill that can take a VERY long to develop, but with consistent work and practice, it can be done. There are two keys to proper pronunciation 1) tons of native speaker input and 2) tons of speaking by the learner with native speakers. However, practice and lessons that target specific trouble areas can make a huge difference in a student's ability to deal with issues in pronunciation.
1. working on specific vowels
2. working on trouble consonants (e.g. th for French speakers)
3. working on understanding movement and location of mouth and tongue when making sounds
Enunciation is speaking clearly - perhaps better understood by its opposite which is mumbling or slurring words. Enunciation is a very important aspect of speaking in that poor enunciation can make someone almost impossible to understand. Again improvements in enunciation come from exposure to native speakers, and plenty of natural practice. Of course focused work targeting problem areas can help a great deal as well. Things that can be done to help with enunciation include:
1. focused work on trouble word combinations
2. working on reductions (want to –> wanna)
3. working on sentence level stress points
4. working on word level stress points (e.g. differences between noun/verb forms of same word record/record)
5. working on sentence level intonation patterns
As you may have noticed I haven't provided any specific lesson ideas on how to teach speaking. There are literally hundreds of different activities that you can use in myraid different situations. There isn't one right way, or even one right sequence. Just be sure to give your students plenty of time for talking freely, supplement this with targeted exercises and practice, and actively encourage your students to listen to and speak with as many native speakers as they possibly can on a regular basis.