Mastery of English as a second or foreign language (ESL or EFL) comes down to how well a student speaks. He may write well, for example, get high marks on tests, or even have an accent nearly identical to a native speaker; but if he can’t express ideas, opinions, or instructions clearly in a conversation, few would call him proficient. Language is for communication after all, and that primarily means speaking.
As teachers, we continually assess the strengths and weaknesses of our classes. We then take this information and develop effective lessons, always working towards greater communicative ability which maintains a balance between fluency (getting the words out) and accuracy (using grammar and vocabulary correctly). What follows are four steps which serve as a model in planning lessons that give students ample practice time with the language. These steps also work towards free use of the language. Before the four steps, conversational ability should be defined, though.
Conversation involves the following: using the language, listening to the language, processing the information, and then responding to it. The purpose of the conversation affects the process, as does the place and the people involved. Compare English spoken to open a business meeting with English used to order at a restaurant. This language then differs from what may be needed during the business meeting, or to complain about the quality of the food.
From these examples, we can infer that a good speaker uses grammar and vocabulary effectively and accurately. We should also consider the context of the grammar and vocabulary, and how it can add nuance. For example, when, why, and to whom would a speaker describe business meetings in the following manner?:
Example A: “Even though our weekly meeting with those R&D people can be boring, I know how important it is. Let’s face it: it’s a necessary evil.”
Example B: “Ugh! Our weekly meeting with those R&D people drives me up the wall!”
Someone who speaks well would similarly understand when to use different grammar points. Native speakers “just know” the language, even if we can’t always give the whys and what fors of grammar or vocabulary. Lessons which involve speaking activities should always strive to build and reinforce these skills. In time, decisions in language usage like the above become more regular, or even subconscious.
Preparation: Allow the students to prepare for the tasks ahead with an effective warm-up. This gives everyone in the class ample opportunity to get their English wheels turning. Adequate time translates into fewer mistakes while you’re presenting and drilling the target language, so comprehension and use of the new language increases.
Present: Next present the topic for discussion, target grammar, or any vocabulary selected for the lesson. The warm up can serve as a springboard into the topic. For example, write on the board any synonyms of today’s key words used by the students, and then introduce the target vocab. Or if you focus on grammar, write several sentences from the warm up that will highlight the target structure. In both cases, information from the warm up gets recycled, thus providing a more efficient use of class time. The grammar or vocabulary becomes more memorable, too, because of the link to the initial conversations.
Practice: After the presentation, ESL / EFL students need to practice the new material. It’s unfair to expect them to make use of the new language without adequate practice. Drills work to achieve automatically, even at higher ability levels. Tightly controlled drills with new grammar points or vocabulary lay the foundation and provide examples. Activities should then move into freer and freer use of the language, which will allow each student to integrate the lesson material with pre-existing language.
Free Use: You should always work towards real use of the language. Whereas the first part of the lesson focuses on accurate production of the language, it’s done to then allow better practice of fluency (getting the words out). Activities at the end of the lesson allow students to select vocabulary and grammar structures, and to tie the day’s material with previously studied language. These activities also let upper-level learners apply strategies, use gestures and body language, and adjust their language for the intended audience or listener.