Growing oral proficiency: Five ways to help students move from intermediate to advanced level

If you teach advanced courses, you experience this phenomenon: students who can write fairly complex texts, but who still speak (if they don’t avoid speaking tasks altogether) only in the present or past tenses, with very simple sentences, and offering very few details. This may be the result of the excessive – in my opinion – focus on written skills in many language programs. Assessment of oral skills usually counts for only a small percentage of the average grade, sometimes as small as 10%, and, as students progress in the course sequence, unrehearsed oral skills may not be assessed at all (I’m thinking of the advanced courses at the college level where oral assessment is reduced to one or two highly rehearsed presentations, often accompanied by a written report).

Regardless of a language program’s emphasis on writing over speaking at the advanced level, there will always be those instructors who realize the development of oral skills through classroom instruction is as important as that of written language. If you are one of those, then this post is for you.

1. Ask students to elaborate

Any conversation task can be easily modified to practice the skill of elaborating and adding details. Whenever your students converse in small groups about a topic, ask them to be active listeners who ask elaboration questions from their classmates. For example, when introducing a lesson on social justice, students may be asked to co-create a definition of the concept. As each student shares their understanding of social justice, the other group members can ask elaboration questions, such as “what do you mean by X?” (X = an abstract term the student may have introduced in the conversation), “what does X look like?” “What in your experience makes you think that way?”.  Asking follow-up questions that prompt elaboration (that is, that can’t be answered with yes or no) is a skill that you may want to practice and model a bit before engaging in this type of activities.

2. Teach communicative strategies

According to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, Advanced High learners use “communicative strategies, such as paraphrasing, circumlocution, and illustration” to compensate for the gaps in their linguistic ability. These communicative strategies can be taught and there is a body of literature to draw from for ideas. Here is one that includes step-by-step descriptions of different classroom activities to facilitate the development of oral communication strategies.

3. Teach vocabulary

Despite gaps in their linguistic knowledge, Advanced High learners can use precise vocabulary. I have already posted on the crucial role of vocabulary in the perception that native speakers of the target language have of learners’ proficiency level and communicative adequacy. The richer the learner’s vocabulary is, the more proficient her speech will be rated by native speakers unfamiliar with learner language.

4. Increase reading tasks relying on authentic materials

Reading is an excellent way to increase our students’ exposure to and development of more precise vocabulary. Learners enrolled in advanced courses can communicate basic needs and talk about themselves successfully with limited vocabulary. The input they need to learn new, more precise vocabulary in context won’t come then from merely engaging in conversation tasks with their classmates. Reading authentic texts (authentic = written for a native audience) on current issues and then engaging in post-reading tasks that are not self-referential (that is, where students don’t have to talk about themselves and their feelings, but rather about a more abstract concept) is one way to foster advanced vocabulary development.

5. Encourage self-monitoring and self-reflection

At any level of language development, becoming aware of one’s own strengths and areas for improvement is a powerful learning strategy. When the goal is to promote advanced speaking proficiency, one way to encourage self-monitoring and self-reflection is by incorporating speaking portfolios in our curriculum. Besides helping learners become more aware and responsible for their own learning, portfolios also facilitate the assessment of unrehearsed oral skills at the advanced level where course content demands leave little space for one-on-one teacher-student interactions.

These five tips can be applied in a variety of ways through speaking practice activities. To get started, we will give you 29 speaking activities in a FREE downloadable eBook. Just click the link below to get started!
Speaking Activities PDF