People have been speaking languages for over 100,000 years, while the oldest written languages only appeared around 3,500 years ago. Languages are meant to be spoken – that’s pretty much the whole point of them.
As teachers, I think we sometimes forget about the importance of speaking when planning and delivering our lessons. I believe our current obsessions with data, evidence and proving that our students are constantly showing progress have had a negative impact on the amount of, and types of, speaking tasks we do with our classes. So what can we do to help develop our students speaking skills in KS3? The easy answer is ‘practise’, of course – but how can we do this more effectively?
Repetition and revision
We can start with our planning. If 25% of the assessments our students take are speaking assessments, it stands to reason that we should probably be spending as much time, if not more, actually speaking. Remember, though, that this must involve students speaking – not just the teacher.
The early stages are all about repetition and encouragement. Ideally, I wouldn’t let the students see the written words until they’d learned them first. This needs to be built into a routine, so that actually saying the words becomes as normal as writing the date. Vocabulary can be introduced with photos and pictures.
This repetition needs to then lead into planned revision. Our students will often compartmentalise words, not realising, for instance, that much of the vocabulary they’ve learned to talk about school can also be used to talk about sport, holidays or hobbies. It’s a good idea to make lists of essential words that students can revisit and use over and over in different situations.
Building confidence is a major part of developing students’ speaking skills. This can be done, initially, by praising any attempt at speaking from students, however poor their utterances are, and by not interrupting them while they’re speaking – something that’s turned many students off learning languages in the past.
Songs and phonics
One of my favourite confidence-building activities is to get the students to complete sentences – potentially something as simple as “Me gusta _______. ” The students can then fill in the blank with any word of their choice: ‘Me gusta el cine’, ‘Me gusta Manchester United’. You can then use this to initiate conversations by asking another student if they like what the previous student said: ‘¿Te gusta el cine?’
Another way to build confidence is by singing. There’s a whole internet full of simple songs in different languages out there, some authentic and some written especially for learners. Alain Le Lait’s YouTube channel is ideal for finding wonderful songs in French, which are perfect for building confidence, improving pronunciation and remembering vocabulary. Almost all of my Y11 students could recently sing the words to Jasper Kay’s ‘Quelle est la date de ton anniversaire?’ despite them not having sung it since they were in Y7.
Another way to develop students’ speaking is to teach phonics. Every language has unique sounds and noises that students won’t have encountered in their own. The ability to work out the pronunciation of new words is an amazing skill to have, and one that can be successfully taught from early on in the course. In French, for example, you can use numbers as part of a pronunciation exercise. Everyone knows that ‘three’ is ‘trois’, so give them a list of other ‘oi’ words – roi, choix, noix – and ask them to work out how to pronounce them. The earlier we introduce this, the more impact it will have.
Finally, designing activities that force students to speak out loud will also help. Consider setting tasks such as reading aloud with a partner, playing Battleships, and writing and reciting simple poetry with rhymes. It really is all about practice.