I was working with one of my exam classes last week and we were focused on Part 4 of the speaking when one of my students said that she always worried that she wouldn’t have anything to say on the topic. This was somethng they all agreed did worry them. Apart from the general advice that in part 4 of the speaking two useful strategies are to either zoom out and discuss the general, or to zoom in and discuss the specific, I used the following activity to try and promote a more spur of the moment approach, or perhaps to develop the skill of thinking on your feet (both expressions I taught them that day 🙂 ).

I asked them to write down the alphabet in a column on a piece of paper, and then to write one word for each letter of the alphabet – I told them to choose nouns or verbs.

Once they all had their list, I asked them to choose six of the words to talk about. Next to the six words they chose, they had to write the number of seconds they were going to talk for: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60.

I then allocated them to small groups (three or four), though this could also work in pairs, I think it’s better in groups, and I introduced the twist! They were not to talk about their own topics, but they would “give” the topic and the time limit to each other – thus introducing the unexpected element of not knowing what they would have to talk about. I made sure they had a stopwatch (or reminded them that Google can provide an online stopwatch if need be) sent them off into their breakout rooms (though this would also work well for in-person classes) and then hopped between the breakout rooms to monitor.

It was interesting to see how they reacted to the task. Most of the students had difficulty constraining themselves to the shorter time limits – “Animals for 10 seconds”, but in general coped well with the task and they seemed to enjoy both the challenge and the process. Being concise is perhaps as much of a challenge as filling the time.

I think when I do it again, I might switch it up and for my Advanced (CAE) group I would specify coming up with abstract nouns rather than concrete nouns as while it is easy enough to talk on “animals”, I would like to hear them try doing the same thing with “Beauty” or “Truth” – especially as practice for Part 4 of the speaking, which does ask candidates to talk on topics in a more abstract sense.

I did this as a spur of the moment task, reacting to the learner needs, but I think it would be a good warmer for exam classes and I think that once they were used to the activity, the choices of words they make for their lists might evolve and they might enjoy challenging each other with more difficult topic areas – it’s one of those that now they know what to expect, the activity will develop with the students and their comfort with the task.

If you try it, or have a similar type of task, or suggestions for dealing with “fear of speaking”, then do let me know in the comments!

Image credit: Photo by Jessicah Hast on Unsplash