Back to school speaking lesson ideas

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I’m so excited to be going back to school! Like most of you I haven’t seen my students face-to-face for over 5 months. Thankfully, virtual learning worked out well for my classes, but I’m looking forward to teaching in a physical classroom again. I anticipate a lot of problems and awkwardness at first though. Malaysia has strict SOPs for schools and it’ll be hard on both the teachers and the students. The kids and the teachers will have to wear face masks and there won’t be a chance to mingle with friends in the break times…

Summer holidays might not have been the same this year, but I’m sure there is a lot that’s happened over the past 5 months that students want to share. Teaching EAL means my students speak very little English though, so I need to plan speaking lessons carefully. I have to come up with tasks that are easy to scaffold and which replicate the type of tasks the students have to partake in when they are in their mainstream lessons. Here are some ideas that I’m going to try with them.

Holiday snapshots

Sunrise in Kuantan

There is so much you can do with pictures! I love using my own photos in my lessons because I feel it adds a personal touch. I also think the students like finding out more about me outside of school. I don’t often show them photos of my family, although that’s just me trying to keep that part of my life private. I prefer photos that don’t have much happening in them so that they can use their imagination. Fiona Mauchline has a great webinar on using images in an inclusive way on IATEFL.

  1. I show them a photo I took when I was on holiday and ask them to come up with questions. They can ask me anything that comes to their mind about the picture or the holiday. I give them a few minutes to think of some questions individually before I ask them to work in groups. (Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure how group work will work with social distancing, but I’m hoping to find a way!) In their pairs or groups, they have 3 minutes to pick the best 5 questions to ask me. We go around and each group/pair asks one question at a time. The other groups/pairs have to pay attention because they aren’t allowed to ask me the same or similar questions.
  2. Now it’s time for the students to replicate this. I ask them to bring in a picture they took during the summer holidays (digitally or as a hard copy) for the next lesson. It doesn’t matter if it was taken in their backyard as long as they have a memory related to it. They take turns showing their pictures to their groups and the others have to ask questions.
  3. Extension and differentiation: Onthesamepage ELT posted a great photo of making Bloom’s taxonomy YL friendly. Use these prompts to push your students to improve the kinds of questions they ask. Let them come up with their own questions individually, but in their groups, they could be looking at similar prompts and editing their questions themselves. For example Robot: Where did you take this picture? Detective: Why did you take this picture? Judge: How does this picture make you feel? Inventor: If you went back again, what would you do there?
  4. Virtual learning alternative: This task would work just as well online. You could ask them to work in breakout rooms or if that’s not a possibility, they can show their pictures and have everybody in the class ask questions about the same picture.

Language input:

  1. Question formation: question words and the question word order are important for this task.
  2. Past tenses: you could stick to the past simple for simplicity (like I would with my EAL students) but it’s a great extension to include other past tenses too.
  3. Backchannelling: since the students are talking about real experiences, this task lends itself to teaching some backchannelling gambits such as Really? Wow! or That’s great!

Asking questions is an important skill to learn and this task provides great practice of it. Find out more about how to teach your students to ask great questions here.

The best and the worst

Being stuck at home and learning online has been one hell of an experience for students, teachers and parents alike. I’m sure my students have a lot to say about what it was like not to be allowed outside for such a long time. Pre-Covid-19 they had probably been dreaming about a time when schools all closed but the reality of the quarantine must’ve been very different. However, it wasn’t all bad, right? There must’ve been some good side-effects. I intend to find out!

Photo by Glenn Carstens Peters
  1. Give students some time in pairs to compile two lists: one for the best things about the quarantine and one for the worst. Tell them to put all of their ideas on paper without judging them. You could even turn this into a race: who can come up with the most ideas in 5 minutes. At this stage I let my EAL students use their L1 if that helps them. They could even write the ideas in their L1 or just use it to ask each other for the English words.
  2. I structure this activity as a pyramid discussion. I combine two pairs into a group of 4 and ask them to show each other their respective lists. They then have to make 2 new lists with the 5 top ideas for bests and worsts. To scaffold this stage, I’ll let them use dual-lingual dictionaries because I expect these lists to be in English.
  3. Depending on class size, you might want to combine your groups of 4 into groups of 6 or 8. However, since my classes tend to be small, I go for open class discussion right away. The aim is to have a list of bests and worsts on the board or on a class poster. For this, we have to go through all the items one by one and reach a consensus on what should make it on the list.
  4. Virtual learning alternative: It’s pretty easy to adapt this activity for the virtual classroom. You could get the students to brainstorm their ideas in breakout rooms and to record them on GoogleDoc. Create the GoogleDocs beforehand and share the links with the students as you go along. As homework, they could then turn the final lists into posters using GoogleDoc or GoogleSlides.

Language input:

  1. Emergent lexis: There is a lot of emergent lexis to deal with in this activity. Students might not know the English words for some of their ideas. Since the context is so familiar, it provides a great opportunity to teach some good language. Ask the students to keep track of the new vocabulary by writing them in their notebooks or create a class Quizlet set. As I mention above, I also allow my students to use dictionaries as they need to become more independent with this for their mainstream lessons.
  2. Functional language: Students will have to express their opinions (e.g. I think… / In my opinion …) as well as agree (e.g. I think so too!) and disagree (e.g. I’m not sure about that…). You could also teach them how to ask for other’s opinions (e.g. What do you think?).

What I missed the most …

Back to school

September 1 used to always mark the start of the school year when I was growing up. No matter what day of the week it fell on, that’s when students first had to go back to school, even if just for the opening ceremony. I remember dreading it just as much as looking forward to it. This year is different, I suppose. While there might be students who would still rather stay at home, the majority of students in my school can’t wait to come back and see each other again. 5 and a half months is a long time! I wonder what they missed the most about school.

  1. I ask the students what they missed the most about school. Instead of telling me though, I ask them to write it down. You could give them a sentence starter to scaffold this stage if needed.
  2. I set this up as a survey. Now they have to list everybody’s names in their notebooks because they will have to go around and ask everybody the same question.
  3. They ask at least 2 questions from each other: What did you miss the most? and a follow-up question to the answer they get. I usually model this by getting one of them to ask me the first question and then I elicit possible follow-up questions from the class.
  4. They have to take notes of the answers they get for a later stage of this activity. I usually model note-taking as well. It might take longer for some students to write down whole sentences so teaching them to find the keywords is useful and saves time too.
  5. Depending on time and the size of the class I either give them a time limit for this or I ask them to talk to everybody.
  6. Students work in pairs and talk about the most typical things that people had missed about school. For this, they have to look at their notes and compare them.
  7. Follow-up task: As homework, you could ask the students to write a mini-report based on their notes. Give students some sentence starters or writing frames to do this. It’s very similar to what they have to do in some of their other lessons, for instance in maths when they are learning about surveys.
  8. Virtual learning alternative: Doing survey type tasks in a virtual classroom might be a bit tricky. Even if breakout rooms are an option, it might take too long to set them up and to rotate the students. However, you could turn this into more of a speaking-listening activity by asking the students to record themselves talking about the things they missed. You could use Vocaroo for voice recordings or FlipGrid for videos. Ask your students to prepare these at home, give access to everybody’s recordings, and ask them to listen to each other. They could take notes the same way they do it in the face to face lesson.

Language input

  1. Past tense: Students need to know how to use at least the past simple for this task. They need to ask questions and make statements about the past so make sure you cover these.
  2. Emergent language: There might be ideas your students have that they don’t know the words for in English. This gives you an opportunity to react to emergent language.
  3. Questions: To be able to ask follow-up questions, the students need to know how to form questions and how to use question words correctly.
  4. Functions to summarise: For the follow-up activity the students will need some functional language that helps them summarise their findings. For example, Most people missed … / Some people missed … / All the people missed …

I’d love to hear your thoughts about these ideas. If you try them, please let me know how they go. I’d also love to hear what other ideas you might have. Leave a comment here or connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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