Whether we teach a conversation class or an integrated skills class, there is at least one common objective: to develop students’ speaking skills. If we refer to function or purpose, we can list a dozen or so types of skills, from making a request to clarifying a point. And if we refer to format, the list shortens to about a half dozen: speaking in front of a large group, participating in a group discussion, turn-taking with a partner, debating on teams, etc. But if we talk about the degree of forethought, there are only two basic types: free (spontaneous) speaking and prepared speaking. I strongly believe we should provide students the opportunity to practice both kinds. Some learners may feel confident doing one and not the other, but both have their place in professional and academic communication.
To achieve a balance between the two basic types of speaking, I try to vary the degree of structure throughout a lesson. Take for example a 50-minute conversation class. I’ve known some teachers to simply let group discussion flow from topic to topic and stimulate the students by throwing out provocative questions at key moments. This approach has its merits and I’ve used it myself on occasion, but I think there is more cohesiveness when a lesson has a theme. Also, even if a teacher is lucky enough to have a class full of eager speakers, the single format of group discussion and free conversation does not test the limits of the students’ speaking abilities.
Here’s a sample outline to demonstrate the kind of balance I would strive for between free speaking and prepared speaking in a 50-minute conversation class with upper level students:
LESSON TOPIC: Technology
- Whole class: Discuss the idea of technology. Define it. Name examples of it. [FREE]
- Pair work: List 3-5 pieces of technology you both use every day. Agree on the one that is most essential. Decide why. [FREE]
- Pairs report to whole class: One partner shares list and states the one item that is most essential. The other partner explains why that item is essential to them both. [PREPARED]
- Whole class: Watch an online review of a cell phone (mp3 player, digital camera, or other device). Choose one based on the accent, the vocabulary, and the rate of speech you want to expose your students to. Example: Nokia cell phone review on YouTube. Highlight relevant vocabulary: the option (to do what)/ easy to use/ bells and whistles/ nice feature/ This button allows you to (do what). Identify basic information given: name, cost, ease of use, and best features.*
- Solo work: Prepare notes for a 1-minute presentation to the class. Give a review on one piece of technology you have (ideally on hand). Use list of basic information as outline.*
- Whole class: Technology reviews. [PREPARED] / Q&A and comments. [FREE]