When Teaching to Speak a New Language Seems Harsh to Bear


To work with groups of mixed language skills is not an easy job and teaching them oral expression may seem daunting. Even though reality shows that there will always be difficulties when communicating with other people, whether or not they are native speakers of the target language, in a learning environment the expectations are different.

The ideal setting would be to have students with a similar level of English, but over and over again that circumstance is not in our hands to decide as teachers. So, what can we do in the cases it is not like that?  First, we need to remember what implies learning a language. It´s a process and that means that there will be stages, ups and downs before achieving the objectives of the lesson, the day, the week, the month, the term, or the course. Nothing happens overnight, right?

Then, whenever we teachers prepare a lesson, we should think of our students as being in one of these stages. Neither all of them will be at the highest level, nor the whole bunch will be at the lowest or intermediate level; however, they will all be aiming for the same goal let’s say by the end of the two-month period.

So, we are going to try to identify the stages that we need to go through in order to achieve any gain. Let´s say that I want my students to be able to share some information about their past activities in a party, or any other kind of gathering. You usually share a lot of information in this kind of occasions about what you are doing, what you would like to do in the following days, months, years and also about what you did in a specific time in the past.

Try to answer these questions:

  1. What should students know if they need to talk about their past, their last activities, or anything that invites them to talk about what they did some time before?
  2. What´s the easiest to learn?
  3. What´s the most difficult to learn?
  4. What´s in the middle?

Would you say that the order is somehow like this?

Let´s not focus on the order or the level of difficulty; this is just an example. It may vary according to our students and what we consider most important to be able to convey meaning.

The next rung is to try to identify on which step are some of your students, and where are others. Let´s say you performed an exercise to brainstorm the vocabulary related to the topic and only 40% of the class knew what to say. That means 60% of them need to work with different exercises to cover that level. The remaining part should do other kinds of activities, probably related to the aspects mentioned in the other boxes.

The purpose of this is not to split the students in a classroom, but to give them the chance to improve up to a certain level so that they feel they can succeed beginning with the easiest activities. While some are working with the “easiest”, others are working with more challenging aspects of the spoken language, for instance. You can organize the class in different “stations” and place students according to your diagnose. Have them rotate after some time during the same class period. It will be much better if they stay longer in the “station” where they belong, and a shorter time in the others, just to “taste” them and face the challenge.

Once they have made progress in the different aspects needed to talk about the past, for example, other activities can be organized that gradually require more knowledge and command of the language.

They can start with less controlled exercises such as “Find someone who…” with easy, medium, and hard level questions. You can post or share sentence starters or prompts with different levels so as to be there in case students need a visual reminder of what they can say. Both low and strong students will benefit from that.

Do not forget to have them practice many times, at least three times with the new material in different ways. Remember that it is a process. If they were not able to learn much in the first exercise, they will have a chance to pick up a lot in the second, or maybe in the third exercise.

Scaffolding is a very effective strategy, but sometimes we only apply it with the whole class at the same time which may cause the best students get bored and the lowest ones having panic.  Speaking requires many things but the most important, for me, is to feel safe, and to feel that one is making progress. If by the end of the class, students feel they know a little bit more than when they started the lesson, you will always have pupils who will give the class a chance.

What other ways of helping our students come to your mind? Share them with us!

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 11 seconds


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