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Verbal practice – How to get students speaking in MFL lessons

Illustration of person seated in classroom carrying out a verbal speaking activity during an MFL lesson

Verbal practice is a crucial component of MFL teaching – but if your students are struggling to become capable and confident speakers, here are some strategies you can try…

Jennifer Wozniak-Rush
by Jennifer Wozniak-Rush
Adjectival agreement French resources
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Adjectival agreement French – KS3 resource

No one can dispute that a language is meant to be spoken. There’s no greater joy in my teaching than hearing pupils speak in the target language spontaneously – but how can we develop their confidence to do so?

For me, the work starts from day one in Y7, through creating a safe, supportive environment where pupils know they will never be judged when speaking in the target language.

Let them get a word in

Who speaks in the target language most during your lessons – you or your students? Speaking skills can only be enhanced if students are given adequate opportunities to speak.

From their very first lesson, it’s crucial that pupils learn how to produce new sounds as accurately as possible. Developing speaking thus goes hand-in-hand with listening. Try beginning each lesson with a brief, low-pressure speaking activity. As pupils become accustomed to this ritual, they’ll soon start to feel more comfortable with the expectation of regularly speaking in another language, even if it’s just in service of a short, low-risk activity.

From my experience, it’s important to create as many opportunities as possible for pupils to speak in each MFL lesson. It’s therefore worth teaching pupils classroom language and vocabulary at the beginning of Y7, so that they can tell you when they’ve forgotten their book or need to go to the toilet.

Start by using phrases such as ‘Can I have…’, as well as high frequency core language that you can use with the class when doing the register and throughout the lesson. Plan opportunities for pupils to not only speak to you, but also to their peers by using pair work activities and/or some Kagan co-operative learning strategies such as ‘Quiz-Quiz-Trade’, ‘Talking Chips’ and Think Pair Share, so that pupils can practise speaking the language you’re teaching them. The interaction language they’ll be picking up in the process will help to develop their spontaneity over time.

Exploit everyday moments

As teachers, we can easily monitor what pupils are saying, how the language is being used and how pupils are developing their spoken language skills collaboratively, providing appropriate support when needed and correcting misconceptions as they arise. By providing as many opportunities as possible for pupils to speak at KS3, things will become considerably easier at KS4, since your pupils will already possess a degree of speaking confidence.

Teach pupils chunks of vocabulary they can reuse in different contexts. Think about situations that crop up naturally and regularly in the course of a classroom lesson, which can be exploited in the target language for linguistic purposes. Pupils arriving late; pupil absence; other teachers entering the room whilst the lesson is in progress; classroom discussions following group work – exploit such moments, and guide pupils to reuse vocabulary and structures from other contexts by showing how they can be extended and adapted. Over time, this will help them say what they want to say.

It’s important that pupils are encouraged to ask for language they want to know, but make sure you reuse them lesson after lesson to help them stick. I would strongly advise reading James Stubbs’ blog on his use of target language.

Keep them engaged

Looking at the topics covered at KS3 is also key. Are you teaching topics that interest your pupils and will make them want to speak? As much as possible, present them with material they’ll actually want to talk about.

We know that the principles of effective speaking practice begin with modelling through listening, before developing speed and accuracy of production through extensive practice, and then moving from structured practice to spontaneity. For pupils to speak spontaneously, we need a lot of structured practice first – through using target language as explained previously, but also via regular speaking activities suited to the different topics we teach.

The stages outlined in Greg Horton’s Group Talk Progression chart provide an example of how such speaking might develop, with the aim of having pupils be able to use the language over time:

Stage 1
Introductions and responses to simple opinions

Stage 2
Participation in short discussions

Stage 3
Exchanges of reasons and preferences; talking across time frames.

Stage 4
Developing lines of thought; sharing points of view; balancing an argument.

Start talking

To illustrate what this looks like in practice, consider the following classroom activity. The teacher prepares two printouts, both showing images of a mobile phone, and gives them to pupils sitting at opposite ends of the classroom. The teacher then plays some music, while the mobile phone images are passed round the class. When the music stops,
the two pupils holding the printouts speak to each other in the target language.

In Y7, this exchange can start with ‘Bonjour, comment ça va?’ Over time, you could add a list of core questions you want the class to answer, based on the vocabulary, grammar and key structures they’ve learnt, and increase the length of time they’re speaking for. It’s all about practice!

To encourage less confident speakers, you could use ‘recordable speech bubbles’, whereby pupils write their answers onto paper shaped like a speech bubble and record it afterwards.

For homework, pupils could be tasked with using Snapchat to record themselves answering questions, or online services such as Flipgrid, Padlet or Vocaroo to record their answers. You can then give them personalised feedback on their pronunciation, vocabulary and use of grammar.

You could even ask them to create videos that describe themselves, their town or their school and send these
to partner schools abroad, thus giving the exercise a specific purpose.

Encouraging pupils to speak in another language is key to MFL teaching, but let’s not forget that we also need to help pupils build their confidence – ideally by creating environments where they feel safe, where they won’t be judged, and will be rewarded for making the effort to speak.

Try this

Further ideas for classroom speaking activities might include…

• Describing a photo using genuine family snaps or famous paintings

• The utilisation of role play, ‘speed dating’ partner work or puppetry

• Mock interviews in which pupils pretend to interview celebrities – for example, actors, footballers and other high profile figures from French-speaking countries

• Place four photos on the board and have the pupils decide which is the odd one out. They must then explain the reasons behind their decision in the target language.

• Pupils work in pairs with a stimulus and time limit to come up with as many statements and utterances as they can, using one or more pictures or verbal prompts

• The ‘Catch the spy’ game devised by French and Spanish teacher Vincent Everett (@Veverettmfl) – pupils have to interview others in the class by asking them a range of questions to try and identify an impostor; download the instructions here.

• Invite your headteacher to come into a lesson and witness a performance

Jennifer Wozniak-Rush (@MissWozniak) is an assistant headteacher for teaching and learning, and an SLE in MFL

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