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Strategies to Get All Students Talking in MFL Lessons

Dr Amanda Barton suggests some simple, effective strategies to get even your shyest students speaking in the target language, right from the start...

  • Strategies to Get All Students Talking in MFL Lessons

“I enjoy speaking. I’m not so keen on the writing because I’m not very good at spelling it, but I can speak it better than I can write it…” (Year 10 boy)

If, like me, you have ever found your enthusiastic questioning met with a wall of silence, these are heartening words.

Not all image-conscious teenagers are reluctant to speak and, even if they are, we can’t afford to focus only on the other three skills.

Encouraging students to speak in a foreign language depends on creating opportunity, motivation and confidence.

Student talk vs teacher talk

Who speaks the most TL in your lessons: you or your students?

Speaking skills can only be enhanced if students are given adequate opportunities to speak since, “Watching expert acrobats does not lead to the audience performing somersaults, even if they might be able to recognise one” (Barnes in Teaching Modern Foreign Languages in the Secondary School, Pachler and Redondo, 2007).

Invite a colleague to observe you in the classroom or watch a video of yourself teaching to see if the balance is right.

Increase the number of opportunities for students to speak in pairs or groups.

Shifting the emphasis away from public question and answer sessions has been shown to improve the performance of all students, especially those who are reticent.

The power of two

Pair work exercises such as these are useful as a starter to get pupils attuned to the foreign language:

Word tennis
Students ‘bat’ words backwards and forwards to each other, miming a game of table tennis. Use to revise sequences of words, such as days of the week, months, numbers or the alphabet; with word fields such as colours, adjectives or hobbies; or to revise vocabulary covered in the previous lesson. If your students are more energetic, the game could become volleyball with students throwing words over an invisible net to each other.

How should I say it?
One student becomes the teacher and instructs their partner in the TL how to describe their weekend, or count from one to fifty, using simple adverbs such as slowly, quickly, quietly, loudly, or more adventurous ones like enthusiastically or lazily. The adverb is changed when the teacher makes a ‘stop’ sign.

Language auction
In pairs, students exchange as many words as they can on a topic. You ask which pair can recall the greatest number of words – ‘Who has five words? Who has six words? Ten words?’– before challenging the pair who claim to remember the most to repeat them to the rest of the group.

An information gap

A major disincentive to speaking is being asked to speak for its own sake. Providing a genuine information gap creates more opportunities for spontaneous speech, as in the following:

Spot the difference
Each student has a picture of a room with various items of furniture in it. Students spot the differences by asking each other questions, such as ‘Where is the guitar?’; ‘Is there a bookcase in the room?’ etc.

Happy families
Give each student a sheet of pictures of faces, or people, which are numbered or named. Student A describes a face or person to Student B, who guesses the correct number or name as quickly as possible.

Perfect pronunciation

Many students are afraid to speak because they think they will mispronounce words, so build up their confidence, starting with a focus on individual phonemes:

  • Display two phonemes on cards – such as ‘ez’ and ‘au’ in French – at either side of the room. Students point to the correct card when they hear you say that sound
  • Make it more difficult by reading out a list of words containing the sounds; again, pupils indicate the correct card
  • Present students with a list of unknown words, or surnames, containing the sounds, and ask them to work out how they are pronounced

It’s easy to forget how difficult it can be for students to master sounds which don’t exist in their first language, so let students play around with some tongue twisters at tongue-twister.net. The key to boosting speaking is making it fun.


Dr Amanda Barton is a writer, former MFL teacher and author of Getting the Buggers into Languages (Bloomsbury).

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