‘No idea!’ – this is probably the last thing you want to hear in a speaking lesson, yet it’s an expression we hear very often. ‘I’ve got an idea!’ – such a wonderful phrase, on the other hand, and one we love to hear, particularly when we are facing a problem and someone has come up with something. So, two really useful expressions for our students to learn and use, but only the second one is going to generate a meaningful, extended conversation.
Which got me thinking about ideas. How do you have ideas? Do we all have them, but some people don’t share them? What is undeniable is that if our learners don’t have them, it is going to be hard to develop their speaking skills and even harder to assess them. They will also produce little emergent language for us to teach from. So how can we get them to have ideas and, more importantly articulate them in English? The first step is to get onto their wavelength, find the things they want to talk about. In a recent presentation I made at IATEFL in Harrogate, I discussed teaching my classes online in New Zealand during the pandemic. Then, for one of the few times in my entire career, I had a whole class keen to ask questions, express anxieties, share opinions and generally chat about the situation because we all had the one topic in mind – how long was this crisis going to last and how bad was it going to get?
But we don’t need a pandemic to get our learners talking, we just need to find what gets them going, and sometimes you cannot plan it. Things crop up and you follow the direction of the class. If you want to encourage creativity, critical thinking and curiosity, then you need to sow the seeds. I like to encourage my students to notice things, ask questions, pass comments. I enjoyed doing this particularly in New Zealand, because I was seeing things with the eyes of an outsider just like them. Most ideas grow from other ideas and that is how a conversation flows. So what would begin as a chat at the start of the lesson, can be steered towards the cooking up of ideas. This works best in pairs and groups, as slowly you add to and change the groupings.
One nonverbal activity which works is to make three or four statements about a topic and assign a corner of the room or an online breakout room to each one. Students then congregate with others with a similar view. Once they have discussed why they hold this view they will be able to discuss it with others from other standpoints. As the whole class share their ideas, refining their opinions and conceding points, they will find themselves thinking critically – something they may not necessarily have been brought up to do. You will find other activities designed to encourage critical thinking throughout the magazine.
Other topics which struck me as important during the conference included global issues, student-centred learning and wellbeing. Many students these days are learning English literally to survive: whether they are former refugees living in an English-speaking country or workers employed on a project where English is the workplace language. All over the world there are parents desperately working to support their family, but aware that to get the job – or sometimes to get the qualification in order to have a chance of a job – they need to learn English. Their children are often speaking one language at home and English at school as they try to get the education their parents didn’t have. That is why funding for immigrants to learn English literacy and numeracy are so important, yet so many governments are cutting back on it.
We have talked about student-centred learning for decades and it still remains one of the keys to effective language teaching, yet our approach does not always reflect this. So much of our standard pedagogy is controlled by the teacher – make sure you always include some stages that aren’t. As I said earlier, one of the best ways of getting your learners to speak is to get onto their wavelength and let them have agency. Choice of topic, options for homework, a genuine opportunity to ask questions are all ways to encourage the class to take some responsibility for their own learning. This naturally leads to more satisfying teaching and might well contribute to your own wellbeing. It’s worth a try. So think critically about how you teach, reflect on it, but above all, enjoy it. I hope you enjoy this issue.