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How to teach speaking skills in the language classroom

Speaking Activity Heat Index for L2 teachers: a framework for taking all students to speak in the language classroom

No matter how many speaking activities you propose in the language classroom, if you aren’t clear on how to get your students involved in speaking exercises, your efforts will turn out pointless. In this piece of training you’re going to learn about how to teach speaking skills within a bulletproof framework that gradually takes your students from being passive observers to becoming enthusiastic participants in all your speaking activities.

You are going to get clear about:

  • Why are some students reluctant to speaking?
  • How to teach speaking skills by gradually taking the students to speak spontaneously?
  • How can drama approaches help?
  • Is the index everything?

Before we dive in, get ready for this piece of training and download the Speaking Activity Heat Index guide available here:


Why are some students reluctant to speaking?

The answer is in the affective filter. We talked about the affective filter in this blog post. In short, looking at our memory, the affective filter is the door that lets new chunks of information in and that allows new input to reach the long-term memory.

Now, the way that door works is ruled by an almond-shaped set of neurons called amygdala. The amygdala plays an important role in emotions and behaviour, specifically in the processing of fear, anxiety, the fight-or-flight behaviour, but also in the processing of pleasant emotions (happiness, enjoyment, etc). Also, the amygdala is involved with the formation and consolidation of both pleasant and unpleasant memories, which means memories that are linked to either pleasant or unpleasant emotions.

Whenever we get in touch with something that causes stress or an unpleasant emotion to us, our amygdala reacts by sending signals to release hormones that trigger fight-or-flight reaction, emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety or aggression.

On the contrary, whenever we experience pleasant emotions and feel relaxed the amygdala reacts by facilitating the processing and the consolidation of pleasant memories.

In a language lesson where we constantly ask the students to get involved in big or small challenges, the students’ affective filters play an important role. Should they for any reason feel uncomfortable, stressed or under pressure, believe me there’s no way you’ll manage to get them involved with the activities.

When the students experience some kind of stress, their emotional learning barrier is working at full capacity. The emotional learning barriers is one of the three learning barriers according to Suggestopedia.

So, the situation is sticky because on one hand we need to take the students out of their zone of comfort. On the other hand, when the students are out of their zone of comfort they might feel stressed.

What a dilemma! Good news: there is a way out. It’s in the framework I’m going to explain below.


How to teach speaking skills by gradually taking the students to speak spontaneously?

The solution to the dilemma is simple to figure out: we need to bring the students where we want to take them… without them even to realise they’re actually stepping out their zone of comfort! 😀

Have you ever heard about the parable of the boiled frog? It’s a about an experiment some scientists did in the past (a very cruel experiment, unfortunately). They placed a live frog in a pot of very hot water and, guess what, the frog swiftly jumped out of the pot. For the second round of the experiment, the scientists placed another frog in a pot of lukewarm water. The frog didn’t move. Afterwards, they began to gradually heat the water. Since the frog didn’t sense the change in the temperature, it remained in the pot and, eventually, it boiled. Poor frog – animals’ rights weren’t an issue at that time!

Hey, I’m not suggesting you to try to boil your students! 😀 What I meant by telling you the parable of the boiled frog is that some activities in the language classroom, especially the speaking activities, have the potential to create anxiety for the learners. As a consequence, the learners are more likely to reject them.

If we gradually introduce new, manageable challenges to the learners, though, we allow them to get used to the activities until we bring them to most challenging public speaking exercises, for instance: singing, dancing, or activities where physical contact with the others is involved.

Proposing those most challenging activities at the very beginning would be just too much for your students. No wonder they’d swiftly jump out of the lesson! Instead, you need to gradually turning the heat up at a pace that keeps your students engaged on one hand, and on the other hand it encourages them to take one more step away from their zone of comfort.

In the Speaking Activity Heat Index guide you can see the speaking activities organised inside a continuum (represented by a heat index) that goes from listening and observing (no speaking involved, cold temperature, no frogs jumping out anywhere!) to the most challenging speaking activities (lots of speaking and creativity involved, boiling hot temperature!). Get the guide here:


How can drama approaches help?

Drama approaches help the learners to step out of their zone of comfort, as long as:

  1. You bear in mind where your students are within the Heat Index
  2. You walk them through the Index at your students’ pace. That means you don’t have to rush to get to the next, more challenging task if the learners are not ready yet. That also means you don’t have to hesitate to challenge them when you realise they’re ready for taking the next step, or you’ll lose in engagement.


Is the Index everything you need to bear in mind when teaching speaking skills?

Not, the Index is not enough. My advice is to bear in mind the Index when you plan your lessons. In addition to that, along with the Index comes consistency. By that I mean doing speaking exercises every now and then won’t help your students to develop new learning habits. You need to be consistent in proposing activities for developing the speaking skills. You ought to plan speaking exercises on a regular basis, so that you give your students the time and the means for becoming familiar with public speaking in the target language.

And, remember: consistency over creativity! It’s more important that you keep on proposing speaking exercises on a regular basis, rather than getting the students involved in such exercises once in a blue moon because you want to propose only very original, creative activities.


Wrapping up

No matter the quantity and the variety of speaking exercises you know, if you push your students either too far from their zone of comfort or too early when they aren’t ready yet, the one thing you’ll get is an amygdala hijack.

When you need to plan your lessons and you wonder how to teach speaking skills, follow these few steps:

  1. Collect all the speaking exercises you know already or look out for fresh ideas
  2. Looking at the Index, decide on what exercises are suitable for your students and for the topics you need to cover in the lesson, then add them to your lesson plan.
  3. Finally, decide on which activities you might propose next to those ones you’ve already put in the lesson plan.

Bear in mind: consistency over creativity!


Get the Speaking Activity Heat Index here:


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18th May 2021
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