Have you witnessed a time when ALL your students were actively participating in the target language in a whole class discussion? Unless you teach highly motivated graduate students in small classes, I’m afraid the experience of a successful whole class discussion is not very frequent. And by successful I mean that the discussion could be sustained for a significant portion of the class period, that silent pauses were rare, and that ALL students got to use the target language.
Most usually, what whole class discussions turn into is an extended version of the IRF pattern (Interrogation-Response-Feedback), in which students expect the teacher to pose a question, wait for the most motivated student(s) to respond, and then turn their faces back to the teacher to hear her follow-up, or whether she’s going to call on someone else to repeat the pattern. The net result is a considerable chunk of class time used (or wasted) on the teacher holding one-on-one mini interactions with 3 or 4 students, while the others silently watch (or silently wait looking down for fear that the teacher may make eye contact and call on them to contribute).
So, if you need a WHOLE class speaking activity, that is, an activity in which the whole class speaks in the target language for a sustained amount of time, stay away from whole class discussions. You can have everybody speak in the target language for a significant amount of the class period by following these simple Dos and Don’ts:
Don’t hijack class time to simply talk to 3 or 4 students while the others watch. Those 3 or 4 students may have spoken in the target language for a total of 3 or 4 minutes each, for a combined activity that may have taken up 15 to 20 minutes of precious class time. The rest of the students, however, remained silent that whole time.
Do set up small discussion groups (3 students max) and let them take control of the discussion while you circulate around the classroom.
Don’t tolerate silence for the duration of the activity. Make it an expectation (or a competition) that the whole class speaking activity is going to last 15 or 20 minutes, and that at least one person in each group needs to be talking at any given time. No group can fall completely silent or revert to the safe zone of using the L1.
Do hold everybody accountable for contributing in the target language. You can ask them to record their interactions and give credit for participation. Extempore lets you do this easily. You can also have everybody in the group keep a score of each other’s intervention that you then can use to assign participation grades.
Don’t choose topics that some of your students may not have anything to say about. Check our post about topics students love to talk about.
Do embrace the chaos and loudness that happens when 7 or 8 students in the classroom (at least one in each of the small groups) are talking at the same time.
Do have a follow-up question for all students to complete. This can be an oral summary of the discussion that all students record using Extempore or a 1-minute paper that all students complete after discussing. This can also serve as an accountability measure to make sure they are engaged in the activity.
These Dos and Don'ts can be directly applied in all and any speaking practice activity. Give it a try. We have 29 speaking practice activities in an eBook for you to download for FREE. Just click the link below to get started!