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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 2; March 03

Major Article

Speak Easy

How to ease Students into oral Production
secondary and adult

by Jane Arnold University of Seville, Spain

Imagine being in Chicago in the 1920's, during the Prohibition era. You might find yourself on a dark street, at the back door of a building, a Speak-easy. Inside there would be drinking and gambling. But not everyone can get inside. To get the door to open you have to “speak easy”, to say a password. However, one might suspect a further meaning for the term and imagine that inside the Speak-easy, once a person has had some of the then forbidden drinks, it might be easier to speak.

Speaking in the language classroom

Our foreign language classrooms are a long way from this scene but we are also concerned with speaking. But what exactly is this activity that we often take so much for granted yet find so difficult when learning to do it in a foreign language? Speaking is using background and linguistic knowledge to create an oral message that will be meaningful for the intended audience (Chastain 1988). It is taking thoughts and putting them into words and saying them, with much of this process being done unconsciously. There are, of course, special characteristics that distinguish oral production, speech, from written production. Speaking is not writing that we say aloud. It is greatly conditioned by the time factor: it involves language produced spontaneously with false starts, repetitions, self-corrections and, under normal circumstances, it disappears, leaving no record but traces in memory. Another important distinction is that it is directed at a specific audience in a face-to-face situation where we can make use of the here-and-now and we can get immediate feedback from the listener(s).

The speaking skill is so central to our thinking about language learning that when we refer to speaking a language we often mean knowing a language. For example, we might hear some one say “Ask Olga to help you with your translation of Tolstoy – she speaks Russian”, where what is really mean is knowing the language and the skill of speaking is not involved at all. You can, of course, know a language but not actually be able to speak it, just as you could know the rules for playing football but not be able to put that knowledge to practical use by playing the game yourself.

Bygate (1987:5) points out that speaking involves two different types of skills – basic, lower level motor-perceptive skills, such as how to produce phonemes or use irregular verb forms, and the decisions and strategies used in communication such as what to say, how to say it (considering the conditioning factors of the context as is dealt with in pragmatics) and what to do if problems arise to negotiate meaning.

In the classroom a wide variety of activities pass for speaking. On the one hand we have an exchange such as this:

    Teacher: Roberto, what did you do yesterday?
    Student: I goed to Málaga with my cousin to meet Antonio Banderas.
    Teacher: No, you went to Málaga. María, what did you do yesterday?

This is an example of what I would call “Test Speak”. Here the teacher is only concerned with practicing grammar and has missed an extraordinary opportunity to develop communication on a topic which emerged and which would be of great interest to the class. Kundu describes the situation in many classrooms: “Most of the time we talk in class, hardly ever giving our students a chance to talk, except when we occasionally ask them questions. Even on such occasions, because we insist on answers in full sentences and penalize them for their mistakes, they are always on the defensive” (Kundu in Lynch 1996:109).

Another possibility is “Talk TO” speaking. In this case, we have the teacher talking to the class – giving a lecture, explaining grammar points. This may be useful as it provides students with information and with language input, but to develop the skill of speaking in the second language, we need not just “talking TO” but also “talking WITH”. It is this, establishing opportunities for true interaction, “Real Speak”, that should be the focus for developing speaking in the foreign language classroom. Frank and Rinvolucri (1991:6) stress the importance of bringing in this type of speaking, which is not always a part of the coursebook:

If we consider the students in our classes to be more interesting than the rather cardboard characters found in the traditional coursebook, it follows that a real need exists for activities where the students are invited to speak to each other and express their ideas... Practicing structures in this very personal series of contexts is much more emotionally real than practising them in the make-believe world of a textbook..

Foreign language learning, identity and anxiety

One way that foreign language learning differs from other subject matters such as history or mathematics is that it is connected much more strongly to the learner's identity. Williams (1994:77) affirms that “there is no question that learning a foreign language is different to learning other subjects. This is mainly because of the social nature of such a venture. Language, after all, belongs to a person's whole social being; it is part of one's identity” and, regarding speaking, this is crucial because language “is used to convey this identity to other people”. Our self-image becomes more vulnerable when our expression is reduced to infantilized levels. This situation inevitably leads to anxiety.

Many researchers have pointed out that the skill producing most anxiety is speaking (MacIntyre and Gardner 1991). Thus it would seem that in a second or foreign language context speaking is definitely NOT easy. This anxiety comes in part from a lack of confidence in our general linguistic knowledge but if only this factor were involved, all skills would be affected equally. What distinguishes speaking is the public nature of the skill, the embarrassment suffered from exposing our language imperfections in front of others. The possibility of negative affective feedback from the teacher can increase the anxiety significantly.

Pronunciation and speaking

Oral production, as we have seen, is open to peer scrutiny, but so would be written production which is, for example, put up around the classroom after a writing activity. In both case, imperfection is evident to those who are exposed to our linguistic production, be they listeners or readers. I would venture to say, though, that even if written production were exhibited with the errors corrected in intimidating bright red ink, it would still be less anxiety-provoking than speaking. It seems that, even more than our difficulties with grammar or semantics, it is often our concern with pronunciation that makes it difficult for us to speak..

The relationship of pronunciation and speaking is obvious; we cannot speak a language without pronouncing it. However, in work with speaking in the classroom, pronunciation is not always given sufficient prominence, leading to numerous difficulties for speaking. Referring to pronunciation problems of language learners, Morley (1994:67) points out that “it is well documented that speakers with poor intelligibility have long-range difficulties in developing into confident and effective oral communicators; some never do”. Indeed, our pronunciation can produce communication static both cognitively – creating an obstacle to our listeners' comprehension – and affectively – leaving us with inhibiting feelings about interaction. Of all the aspects related to the speaking skill, pronunciation appears to have the closest link to our self-concept, whether we have positive or negative feelings about hearing ourselves sound “foreign”. According to Beebe (1978:3), “the very act of pronouncing, not just the words we transmit, is an essential part of what we communicate about ourselves as people”.

The importance of the identity/pronunciation relationship can be seen not only in the anxiety that is produced when students are not able to pronounce well. It is also true that many students, especially adolescents, with excellent, even nearly native pronunciation skills, confess to making an effort to pronounce poorly in order not to seem “strange” to their classmates. At least as regards pronunciation, the critical age of puberty in language learning could have to do at least as much with psycho-social factors as with neurological limitations. On this matter Stevick (1996) refers to Krashen, who provided evidence that acquiring a good accent in a foreign language has less to do with neurological factors and more with social aspects relating to the individual at the time of puberty. Hill (1970) pointed out how our pronunciation relates to several aspects of our identity in some cultures. In these cases it follows that identity factors will make it much harder for adults to acquire good pronunciation.

Interestingly, Guiora found that one predictor of good pronunciation had nothing to do directly with things more usually associated with phonetic ability, such as a good ear for sounds. In his research (Guiora et al 1972a and 1972b) he concluded that one factor that correlated to accurate pronunciation was empathy. When learners are able to “put themselves into someone else's shoes” – which involves appreciating the identity of another person – it seems that this facilitates a temporary narrowing of the ego boundaries (Ehrman 1999), the limits we establish between what is “us” and “not us”, making it easier to hear ourselves – and have others hear us – sounding “foreign”.

Disposition towards speaking

Whether with basic pronunciation aspects or with higher level components of speaking, practice in pre-communicative and communicative activities (Littlewood 1992) in the classroom is important for any degree of fluency to develop. However, practice depends on willingness to speak. Students have three main alternatives regarding speaking: to withdraw and refuse to speak, to speak because the teacher requires it and to speak because they really want to. Chomsky (1988:181) emphasizes that “the truth of the matter is that about 99 percent of teaching is making the students feel interested in the material”; in this case, we could say, teaching for fluency in speaking relies largely on making students “feel interested” in speaking. One of our main functions, then, in working with speaking is to encourage more students to choose the third option, to speak because they want to. However, as we have seen, speaking a foreign language can be hard. So how can we make it easier?

Speaking easier: an affective matter

A series of studies by Guiora and his colleagues (Guiora et al 1972a) provided one possible solution which might sound attractive but which has some obvious difficulties for broad implementation. They found that pronunciation improved by giving subjects an optimal amount of alcohol, which lowered inhibitions yet did not affect cognitive control. In a later study (Guiora et al 1980) valium was used but with inconclusive results; what was shown was that the person administering the test made a significant difference for the learners. As Brown (1994) suggests, from the days of these early studies, language teaching methdology has increasingly sought to mitigate the effects of learner inhibitions and defense mechanisms by creating classrooms where language learners feel comfortable enough to take the risks involved in speaking. Lynch (1996:113) recognizes the importance of the classroom climate for developing successful skills in communication: “Learners are not neutral pawns in the teacher's game, but individuals with positive and negative feelings about themselves and others. One of the skills of teaching is knowing how to create a positive atmosphere”.

Making speaking easier seems to have more to do with the affective side of the learning process than with the cognitive. Stevick (1996:154) sees no magic cure for speaking anxiety but he narrates a change in his own teaching as it evolved. In his early years, like many young teachers, he focused mainly on linguistic content. As he came to maturity as a teaching professional, he found that at the beginning of a course it is more important to focus on students' attitudes. Instead of asking himself “What have they learned?”, he would start out wondering “How are they learning?”. He was putting the affective horse before the cognitive cart. In a landmark comment Stevick (1980:4) has provided what for many has been a key understanding about the language learning process: “Success [in language teaching] depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analyses and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”, in other words, the affective factors.


Looking at some specific ways to make speaking easier, on the most basic level we might consider first of all the main channel for pronunciation, the voice. As Maley (2000:vii) has said, “we are our voices. Our individual voiceprints are every bit as distinctive as, and a great deal more public than our fingerprints... Others judge us by them. It is through our voices that we tell others who – and how – we are” (emphasis added). Teachers are not far behind singers, actors, news broadcasters in their need for awareness of voice. Maley (2000:vii) states that “by developing a confident, natural speaking voice, which can sustain prolonged use, we have the capacity to change our relationships with our students”, and this can affect the results in our classrooms since “through better understanding and control of our own voices, we can share the benefits of voicework with our students. This has the double benefit of making them both more confident and more motivated to learn”.

To begin to work with students on voice Rinvolucri (in Maley 2000) suggests having them do the following activity to develop awareness of their voice. Have students fill out the questionnaire and then compare their answers with others.

MY VOICE 1. How many different ways have I listened to my own voice? On a tape recording? On a video film? In my own head as I speak? On an answering machine? With a microphone? Any others? 2. Am I a fast or slow speaker of my own language? 3. When do I speak faster? And when slower? 4. Do I tend to to speak softly or loudly? 5. When I speak in English do I change the speed or the loudness? 6. What is different about my voice when I speak in English? 7. Is my voice different at different times of the day? 8. Has anyone every commented on how my voice sounds to them? 9. Who is my favorite voice? (actor, singer, friend...) What is it that makes their voice attractive to me? (adapted from Rinvolucri in Maley 2000)

Further awareness work could be done with video. Select a short section of a film with interesting voices and have students only listen to it and try to discover as much as possible about the speakers just from their voices. Are they young or old? How are they feeling? What kind of relationship do they have? Then they can watch the video to see if their mental pictures were appropriate. They can also decide if what Underhill (1999:134) refers to as speakers first voice (their words) and second voice (tone, volume, speed, body language, gestures...) are communicating the same message.

As voice carries pronunciation, it can be useful to deal with it directly in the language classroom and learners generally find voice exercises fun. They can choose a favorite word in English and in pairs try to say it to each other in different ways. The teacher can announce the changes: an emotion (happy, angry...) or other variation (loud, fast...). Working with video, they can watch a short conversation, transcribe it or use a prepared transcription and then imitate the way the actors speak, trying to match their voices as closely as possible. Focusing on trying to imitate the voice they have heard may make them be less worried about making mistakes with their pronunciation, leading to more natural sounding English.


A second step in making speaking easier is has to do with listening. Speaking is, except in special cases, such as making speeches, an interactive process and, as such, it is imposssible to separate speaking from listening. Even though our main concern may be promoting speaking we might remember Epictetus' advice: “Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak”. Tannen (1989:12) notes that “conversation is not a matter of two (or more) people alternatively taking the role of speaker and listener but rather that both speaking and listening include elements and traces of the other”. To encourage speaking, be a good listener. As teachers it can be very helpful for us to practice active listening. Active listening encourages us to do the following: empathize with the speaker, listen with attention to what the speaker says (both the verbal and nonverbal language), show understanding nonverbally, respond nonjudgementally, echoing in different words what you hear or sense, stay with the speaker, keeping yourself out. We avoid agreeing or disagreeing, offering opinions or advice, interrupting the speaker's flow of thought.

To bring home to students the importance of listening for speaking, Hadfield (1992) suggests this activity. Have students do a role-play in pairs. Each gets a card with detailed instructions. Student A is to tell B about his/her problems with his/her flatmates. B doesn't listen, looking out the window, avoiding eye contact, etc. Then the pairs get a new set of cards. This time A tells about another problem but now B is an active listener, paying close attention, giving verbal and nonverbal feedback. Afterwards, students discuss how they felt in each situation. This activity makes evident what research (Blubaugh 1969; Höweler 1972, cited in Stevick 1976) has shown, that agressive or unfriendly listener behavior influences fluency in speaking in a negative manner.

Speaking takes time

A third consideration for facilitating speaking is to have patience. Many theorists (Krashen 1982) and teaching methods (Total Physical Response, Silent Way) have stressed the importance of letting speaking emerge when the learner is ready, just as when learning our first language we spoke only after we had had a good deal of exposure to the language and felt ready to speak. Underhill suggests leaving time for students to use the “inner workbench”, to process language internally before having to “go public”. Working with pronunciation, he proposes relying on students' ability to retain internal images of sounds. The teacher says a word or phrase, learners let it echo in their minds for a few seconds in the voice of the speaker, then in their own voice, then they say it silently, then finally aloud (Underhill 1994:114).

In this respect, a technique from Cooperative Learning called “think-pair-share” is helpful (Kagan 1992). Students are asked to do something individually (write down as many things as you know about Australia, think of two ways to bring about a more peaceful world), then they talk about the topic with a partner and only after having had time to think alone and to talk in pairs do they share some of their ideas with the whole group. With this opportunity for previous preparation, they know what they want to say, have practiced it and thus speaking is easier.

Creating an atmosphere for speaking

A fourth way to facilitate speaking is with its concern for creating an atmosphere of support and interdependence. In this respect, Cooperative Learning is an approach to general education which, when applied in language teaching, can greatly benefit the development of speaking. As learners work together and get to know each other better, speaking is less intimidating. Many of the types of activities of Cooperative Learning are effective preparation for real interaction, and they have built-in mechanisms to solve some common communication problems in a FL classrom. In Talking Chips, for example, each person in a small group discussion task has a set of chips (or slips of paper) and for the given task when someone wants to talk he or she must put a chip in the center. The same person cannot talk again until everyone has contributed a chip and a comment so this prevents students from remaining silent and avoids conversational monopoly. Casal (2001) gives each student a set of chips with specific types of responses they can make, using each only once:


Learners would have been shown several ways to make the different responses and in this activity they would have the opportunity to develop important convesation sub-skills.

Put meaning into speaking

It is now commonly recognized that emphasizing personal meaning provides great support for language learning. When learners merely repeat phrases in a mechanical way which is unconnected to their present reality (a role-play where Student A works in a pet shop and Student B comes in to buy a goldfish), there is no real engagement with the language and, therefore, little deep learning. This type of activity does not encourage students to speak as they are very quick to sense the falseness of the situation and its irrelevance for them. So another way to make speaking easier is to make it meaningful to students so they will want to talk. Humanistic language teaching (see Moskowitz 1978) has inspired a number of resource books (Rinvolucri 1984; Davis, Garside and Rinvolucri 1998; Puchta and Schratz 1993; Hadfield 1992, for example) which can help teachers find ways to supplement their course books with activities designed to start from the learners' experience and to let them express their own meanings.

To make learning more relevant, the dogme movement in language teaching advises using as the basis for the language classroom the reality of the participants and their concerns and interests. This is somewhat more demanding on the teacher in the beginning but it opens up much more productive possibilities for interaction than those generally provided by textbooks. Reflecting on teaching listening comprehension, one methodology student at the University of Seville wrote the following in his course journal:

Less use of tape-recorders must be encouraged and more improvising in the TL. One of our professors last year used to tell us a personal anecdote in order to make the class more relaxing, interesting. It was obvious that the class enjoyed it.

Similarly, offering learners the possibility of speaking from where they are as individuals can make a great difference in their willingness to speak and their fluency. As Rinvolucri (2001) says, language is a question of being and in general course books at most lead students to “have” the language, not “be” in it. If we search for ways to make personal what is done in the classroom, make it come alive, students will be able to “be” in the target language. This importance of personal relevance can also be seen in oral examination situations where students asked to speak on a topic which doesn't interest them generally do poorer than when speaking about something they feel involved with.


A check list of some of the things we can do to make speaking easy might include, among others, the following suggestions:

  • Let students begin to speak when they are ready. Then give them a chance to speak – less teacher talk that is obtrusive and unnecessary and more room for student talk. Similarly, let students have time to process what they want to say before having to speak in front of others.
  • Aim for an appropriate level of difficulty and risk with speaking activities.
  • Don't insist on perfect pronunciation, complete sentences, near native grammar. Leave most accuracy work for other moments.
  • After any pre-communicative exercises needed to prepare learners, be sure to focus on real communication tasks, not excuses for language practice.
  • Expect learners to be successful. Teachers expectations can have great influence, positively or negatively, on learners.
  • When students speak, listen to the person, not only to the language.

With measures such as these, we can help our students to find the password to get the door leading to communication to open up for them; we can help them to “speak easy”.


Practical steps towards facilitation: The way you speak

  1. Can you begin to notice more about the way you speak to your class? Start by noticing your words. Do you say more than you need? Do you repeat yourself? Can you be succinct? Try to notice this at the moment you do it, not just in retrospect.
  2. For a few days notice features of your speech other than your words. For example observe the tone of your voice, including intonation, timbre, softness, harshness. Notice the volume at which you speak, and also how fast you typically speak. What causes this? How do the tone, volume and speed compare with the way you speak in the staffroom? And with your family? And with your friends?
  3. And what do you tend to do with silences? Fill them? Avoid them? Enjoy them? Worry that the class will get out of control during them? I find it helpful to look on silences and pauses as part of the words, rather than as something separate. In general what other messages are carried by the way you speak?
  4. I find it useful to distinguish between my first voice (my choice of words) and my second voice (everything else including my volume, tone, speed, body language, gesture, transmission of feelings). Then I can ask myself helpfully provocative questions such as "Do my first voice and second voice say the same thing?" and "If not, what is the effect on my students?" "Which is the one I really mean, and which is the one they really listen to?" Can you try to monitor both your first and second voice? If you can, try to notice when they say the same thing, and when they give different messages.
  5. From time to time during the day, when giving explanations or instructions in your class, make some subtle changes just to confirm to yourself that you have choices in addition to your habits. You could experiment with any of these: Be a bit more succinct, then stop and listen. Notice if you get carried away with the delightful sound of your own voice! Leave a few short pauses during which you listen and observe. Deliberately lengthen your existing pauses by just a second or so. Be behind your voice so that you speak with the force and warmth of your full presence. Speak just a little more softly than usual. These are just examples, but better still, experiment with small changes of your own. (adapted from Adrian Underhill 1999 in J. Arnold (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)


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