We’ve all been there: you’re in class, you’ve read a text or done a listening activity, you’ve done the controlled activities in the books, and now comes freer practice. In a lot of coursebooks, this will involve a discussion in pairs with an open question which should invite students to extend their answers, and ideally use the target language or some new language from the reading or listening text. Ideally. This works on the assumption that every student you teach is going to be forthcoming enough to give an answer longer than “It depends,” often accompanied by an ambivalent shrug. The assumption is also that while every student may not have first-hand experience of the topic in question, they will at least have an opinion that can be developed and challenged by their peers. This is not always the case. And there you find yourself, having planned on the freer practice stage of your lesson to take about 10-15 minutes, and it’s dried up in 2 minutes. Perhaps even less if you’re really unlucky.
This happened to me in a hybrid class, where 3 students are online (let’s call them Leire, Olatz and Maialen), and the other 3 (let’s call them Ana, Sofía and Carmen) are in the classroom. Here’s some context: we use Zoom, I share my screen with everyone, and again, ideally, the students all work at a similar pace. Their objective is to take the C1 exam next summer. It just so happens that Leire, Olatz and Maialen whizz through controlled activities with very little input from me, while Ana, Sofía and Carmen all need a bit more time and a lot more support from me. Despite their slower pace, the former 3 students are considerably more chatty and curious about each other. The coursebook we use (Gold Experience B2+), in my opinion, is smashing: the topics are engaging, beautifully presented, full of juicy, challenging language and always include a discussion stage to round off each page.
A recent task involved listening to a short extract about a scheme in Rejkjavik, whereby all the street lights are switched off, replaced with the Northern Lights. I had asked the students to create their own discussion questions to complement the ones already in the student book. One of the discussion questions was, “Do you think something similar should happen in your city?” Here is how the conversations went in the classroom and online, in a nutshell:
Olatz: We can’t see the Northern Lights in Donosti, so it would never work.
Leire: Yes, that’s true.
Awkward pause. It appears they have nothing left to add.
Ana: It would be so nice if we could see the Northern Lights here! Can you imagine?
Sofía: So beautiful-
Carmen: I guess we could switch off all the lights in the city, but maybe keep the lights on the big Jesus statue on Mount Urgull –
Ana: I don’t know, I’m not so religious,
Sofía: Me neither-
Ana: … so maybe not on Jesus…
Carmen: OK, how about Santa Clara island?
Sofía: Yes, that would be much nicer. And that way when you walk along the beach it looks so romantic –
Carmen: That’s true!
Ana: But I don’t know if the effect is the same here because this is a small city. Maybe this idea has more impact somewhere like Madrid or Barcelona-
Carmen: Yes, I think you’re right. Maybe in Madrid only the Royal Palace should be lit up, because I think it’s higher up-
Sofía: I think so, yes.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I didn’t want to interrupt my online ladies because they were getting a really good conversation going, but I also didn’t want my face-to-face students to sit there not doing anything. OK, I switched on the sound in the classroom for a bit so they could hear what the online group was saying, but I felt like they could (and should) be doing more. However, here comes the next dilemma: giving these fast finishers another gap-fill or another controlled activity removes the possibility for them to improve their fluency and really put the target language into practice. Here are some of my go-to activities when the conversation dries up.
Look at what else has happened on the page. Maybe a word formation activity? Get your students to write example sentences with 5 words from that exercise. Did you use a reading or listening text? Ask your students to pick out 5 new words from the text, and put them into example sentences. Then, ask your students to read out their sentences to a partner, but replace the key word with banana. Their partner has to guess the word. For example: I’ve chosen to word predictable from my word formation activity, and my sentence is I thought the ending was very banana and unoriginal. It’s a good way for learners to consolidate their understanding of new lexis and contextualise it. Once you’ve checked their banana sentences, get them to write banana discussion questions. This time, when their partner’s guessed the word, they should discuss the question together. You can use the activity below to help this along.
Just a Minute
Ask your students to use the same discussion questions as before, but set a time limit per question. Establish the time limits with the students and ask them to set timers on their phones, so you’re not tied to time-keeping when you could be monitoring other groups. For instance, set them 30 seconds for the first question, 1 minute for the next, 90 seconds for the next, and so on. Adjust this is necessary: for instance, if learners are struggling to fill an entire minute, bring the time limit back down to 30 seconds for the next one or two questions.
If you read my post about writing at CAE level, you’ll see that I mention role-plays there as well. They’re a fantastic way to generate conversation! Use the same questions as before, but ask your students to establish who might be discussing these questions in real life. If we use the Rejkjavik scenario, for instance, we might encounter the following people: eco-activists who are all in favour of switching off the city lights, climate change deniers who don’t see the point, the mayor who’s desperate for re-election and thinks this might tip the balance in their favour… the possibilities are endless! Initially, you may have to have these characters up your sleeve ready to assign to your students, but once they get the hang of this kind of approach, they can come up with the characters themselves.
The same colleague who told me about WordWall also gave an amazing presentation on motivating teens at higher levels. She made an excellent point that often, teenagers tend to focus on themselves and their own experience when they answer questions, which is understandable, but it doesn’t allow them to expand on their answers if they don’t have the life experience to back up what they’re saying. She suggested showing students a target as a visual prompt, with each ring symbolising a segment of the population. The diagram she showed looked something like this, but could be altered depending on the topic you’re discussing:
I’ve found that this is really helpful not only to extend conversation, but also to include some lovely structures to speculate, like I imagine that / It’s highly likely that and so on. Students could draw a target in their notebooks and brainstorm ideas first. Points could be awarded for ideas that feature in Student A’s target, but not Student B’s.
Although this isn’t a speaking activity per se, it is a good opportunity for students to use new language, negotiate ideas together and produce a text that can be used for revision or assessment purposes later. This could also be a nice culmination to the activities I’ve mentioned so far. In pairs, learners write a short newspaper article based on the topic of the lesson. So, in the case of the Rejkjavik/Northern Lights scenario, learners could use the banana sentences and ideas from their role play, and write a short article reporting these ideas. I usually take a photo of the students’ notebook with the text in it then type it up myself after the lesson. If you’re doing this on Zoom, share a Google Doc with the learners and they can work together that way. Whichever method you choose, keep the final product – it’s always useful to revisit later!
Which of these do you think would work with your students? Have you got any other suggestions? Drop me a line in the comments!
1 thought on “When all is said and NOT done”
Very familiar with the dreaded “it depends” answer and the shrug (either verbal or physical) which accompanies it. I’ve spent countless hours trying to bulletproof lessons against this type of student, to ensure there’s enough material to avoid running out.
Love the target idea: that diagram really makes it clear, and might prompt such students to realise one’s own experience – or lack of experience – isn’t everything!
I think that your technique of getting students to write discussion questions of their own is a good one for this list as well. I have one class in particular that frequently ‘drop the ball’ during discussions, but preparing a written instruction saying “write 2 interesting questions for the others to answer” does help to increase student talking time a little. Somehow, it’s important that it’s written down – then they’re less likely to try to wriggle out of doing it!