Due to the current situation that started all over the world in March 2020, the teachers have all been forced to move the teaching activity online. At first, it was a huge challenge as they were unprepared and had to find a way to continue their teaching activity and to communicate with their students. Therefore, some used WhatsApp, Facebook groups or certain school platforms while others did a lot of research, attended webinars, online courses to learn how to use certain platforms or apps by watching YouTube tutorials etc. Practically, it was a crucial moment, a turning point in everyone’s teaching career when they had to re-evaluate their teaching skills and to do what they had never been prepared for, i.e. to become technology experts and trainers that make their students feel comfortable with online tools.
When you are a language teacher, some aspects might seem easy to teach online (e.g. grammar, vocabulary) whereas others are almost impossible (e.g. speaking) when you know you cannot teach them as in a face-to-face lesson. So, ‘Why teaching speaking online?’ Well, because the speaking skills are difficult to be developed online. When you have to work with your students on a speaking task, you should ask yourself questions, such as: ‘How do I teach speaking online?’, ‘What if the students are noisy?’, ‘How do I develop speaking skills?’, ‘Should I follow the same stages as in a face-to-face lesson?’, ‘What platform should I use?’, ‘How do I motivate the students to participate?’, ‘How and when do I give feedback?” etc.
When you are forced to move the whole teaching activity online, you do not know the answer to most of these questions at first. As far as I am concerned, I learned from others’ experience by attending various webinars and completing the online course: ‘Teaching English Online’ delivered by Cambridge Assessment English. Therefore, in this article, I am trying to answer these questions relying on what I have found out.
We can teach speaking both synchronously and asynchronously. To teach speaking synchronously, we can use Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or WebRoom. The thing that makes Zoom the most used platform is the fact that it has Breakout rooms which can be used for pair/ group work to develop the students’ speaking skills. We can visit them there, monitor their performance or help them. WebRoom can also be used as it has breakout rooms just like Zoom, but you can use it with a limited number of students. In order to use this function in Microsoft Teams, you need to use the latest version and the whole process of creating breakout rooms is similar to Zoom. Regarding Google Meet, it depends on what version you are using. With the paid version, you can enable breakout rooms by clicking on the „activities” icon during a call. If you are using G Suite for Education, there is a third-party Chrome extension for creating breakout rooms.
What do we do if we cannot use breakout rooms? Well, we can ask a pair/group to perform the speaking class while the rest have to type in the chat box specific phrases they have to identify in their colleagues’ speech. In this way we involve all the students in the task.
If you want to teach it asynchronously, you can use digital tools, such as: Voki, Flipgrid, Voice Spice or Vocaroo that allow you to provide examples of recorded versions of conversations similar to what they will have to do and to give feedback. When you choose to use a certain tool, give the students clear instructions on how to use them either by demonstrating in a lesson, or giving written instructions in the chat box. You can also recommend tutorials available on YouTube, but, from my experience, I can say that not all of them watch them, so it is better to give a short demonstration during the lesson. If they use Voice Spice and Vocaroo, they can record themselves online and share the generated link on another platform (e.g. Google classroom or Padlet). Voki allows them to create an avatar and add voice to it. Flipgrid is a video discussion platform where teachers create a private space for a class, set a speaking task and learners reply with a video. I have used Vocaroo in combination with Google Classroom both for speaking tasks and developing reading literacy skills. I noticed that my students liked it and some students who are shy in the face-to-face classroom, gained some confidence and had a positive attitude when they were given speaking tasks. You can also use it to help the students who have problems with reading to practice it outside the lesson, by recording yourself reading a text and uploading the generated link on the platform you are using to share materials with them.
The lesson stages are the same as in a face-to-face (F2F) lesson. We have to have clear objectives, i.e. a purpose to do the activity. The instructions must be clear, the language must be graded correctly and you have to check if the students have understood. It is essential to give them a short demonstration so as to know what they are supposed to do. Otherwise, they will spend time trying to find answers to their questions instead of working on the task. You can use the chat box to type instructions to help the students who have misunderstandings. After you introduce the topic, you can teach some useful language they are supposed to use by screen sharing the Whiteboard of the platform you are using, a Word document or a power point presentation. You divide them in pairs or groups and you send them in breakout rooms where they prepare the task (you can find a tutorial on YouTube about Zoom and Breakout rooms). You should visit the breakout rooms to see if they are working.
After they complete the task, you have to give them feedback which has a very important component, i.e. error correction. In a face-to-face lesson you can give them either immediate feedback when you focus on accuracy, or delayed feedback, when you focus on fluency. In an online lesson, giving immediate feedback is rather difficult because of the time lag. We either interrupt them or speak over them. Therefore, we can give it after a student has finished their turn or we can agree with them before they speak that we hold a big card to stop them in order to correct them. To give delayed feedback, we can use the Whiteboard or a Word document to correct errors. We can ask all the students to type the answer in the chat box. Thus, they all participate compared to a face-to-face lesson where two or three students usually answer the teacher’s questions. Peer feedback is essential and beneficial to both the ‘speaker’ (the student who gets advice on how to improve their answer) and the ‘reviewer’ (the student who learns how others have responded to the task). We can do this asynchronously by asking students to upload the link with the recording on a Padlet, which allows them to get feedback and to learn how others have responded to the same task.
In order to develop their speaking skills, we should involve them in tasks aimed at developing the fluency (e.g. by repeating the task with other partners) and complexity (e.g. by brainstorming ideas) of what they say (Clandfield, 2020). They can complete the tasks as a whole class activity, in open pairs (guided by the teacher) or in pairs/ groups in breakout rooms.
Where are the students more embarrassed or reluctant to participate: in a face-to-face lesson or in an online one? According to Jones (2018), the psychological factors are “pretty much the same.” It is obvious that for some of them the online environment is safer because they are at home and they feel more relaxed. If they are still reluctant, they can use the chat box to answer the task or record themselves and share the link on the platform used. We should create a friendly atmosphere and make students feel confident.
All in all, even though teaching speaking online seems, at first, to be a huge challenge, it turns to have more advantages than disadvantages. Irrespective of how the pandemic situation develops, it is worth considering in more detail how we can best help our learners to maintain and develop their speaking skills. Therefore, it is worth bearing in mind the following aspects:
- by using breakout rooms, the students interact and repeat the task with more colleagues compared to a F2F lesson;
- the stages of the online lesson are the same as in a F2F lesson;
- the lessons are not noisy;
- the shy students become more confident and more active;
- all the students can be involved in offering feedback;
- to do the speaking tasks, the students can use recording tools;
- even in a post-pandemic teaching scenario, the students can record themselves while doing the speaking tasks and upload them on the digital platform we are using;
Clandfield, L., 2020, Developing speaking skills remotely, retrieved from www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2020/10/20/developing-speaking-skills-remotely/
Curry, N., 2018, On speaking: giving feedback in the language classroom, retrieved from www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2018/02/23/feedback-on-speaking-whitepaper/
Jones, C., 2018, An introduction to teaching speaking online. Part 1, retrieved from www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2018/01/11/introduction-teaching-speaking-online-part-1/
Kiwana, L., 2017, 5 tips from 5 experts for teaching speaking, retrieved from www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2017/11/21/5-tips-for-teaching-speaking/
xxx, 2018, Giving feedback on speaking, retrieved from www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Cambridge-Press_Whitepaper_Feedback_Speaking_2018.pdf