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A fun activity to get your learners talking without worrying about making mistakes

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Hello busy teachers. This month I am sharing an activity that I have been using in speaking classes for the last couple of years. I love this activity because it encourages learners to concentrate on communication and helps them to feel less anxious about making mistakes. In fact, to complete this activity, they will probably have to make mistakes. I don’t recommend doing this all the time, but certainly from time to time it can serve as a reminder that to communicate, you don’t have to be perfect.

 

One of the main issues I have in my speaking classes is getting less confident students to talk and try to express themselves. As a language learner, the anxiety caused by speaking in a foreign language in front of peers is something I can appreciate. It can be a very unpleasant feeling when you talk in a foreign language and you are worried that your mistakes are being noticed or even analyzed.

 

I know this because a few years ago I took a Japanese language class. It was the first time I participated in the class and the others in the class had studied Japanese longer than me and were more proficient. In order to be able to participate, prior to the class I spoke to the teacher to find out which unit of the textbook she was covering in class. I went away and diligently studied the chapter. I practiced the speaking exercises, I learned the vocabulary, I practiced the reading section, and repeated the listening sections over and over again until I got everything. I felt confident that I would be able to participate and enjoy the lesson.

 

However, things didn’t turn out quite as planned. I arrived for class and took my seat. I had my textbook ready and open to unit 15 which I was now quite confident I could do. To my horror though, the teacher began the class by telling us we would be covering unit 16. For me, the lesson was a disaster. I couldn’t participate in any of the conversations, the reading was too challenging and I didn’t understand a lot of the vocabulary. It turned out the teacher had made a genuine mistake by teaching the wrong chapter, but that didn’t make me feel any better. It was the longest 90 minutes of my life and I spent most of the lesson wishing the ground would swallow me up.

 

In fact, I probably could have participated more in the conversations, but I was too worried about making mistakes. I had practiced the previous unit so much and my confidence using Japanese wasn’t great, so I could barely make an effort. All I was thinking was keep quiet and get through the 90 minutes without looking stupid. This experience really allowed me to empathize with less confident learners. I now try to make sure students in my classes don’t have that feeling and the following activity emphasizes that it is perfectly okay to make mistakes. As I mentioned above, it actually encourages them.

 

The activity is quite simple and involves little preparation. First, prepare some simple topics for your learners to talk about. These could be small talk about the previous evening, weekend, or just chatting in daily life. Pair your learners up and tell them they will have a conversation with their partner, but the only condition is they can only say three words at a time. After they have spoken three words, their partner is the only one who can talk. Here is an example dialogue. The topic is last night.

 

A: Good night?

B: When? Last night?

A: Yeah, not bad.

B: Go out?

A: No. Watched TV.

B: Anything good?

A: Yeah. A comedy.

B: With friends?

A: With Saki.

B: Nice!

A: You?

B: Part time job.

A: Again?

B: Almost every night.

A: Oh no!

 

I like this activity because it shows learners you don’t have to make full perfect sentences to have a conversation. It also levels the playing field for less confident or able learners. It is also quite natural for ellipsis to occur in conversations, so the conversation above is not incorrect.

 

It might take them a few tries to get used to it, but I have had a really good reaction from this activity. It seems to allow the lower level and less confident learners a real chance to participate. I usually rotate the partners around a few times in a kind of speed chat (See my post on speed chats for more information http://bit.ly/2jTAsaw).

 

I hope this works for you. As always, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Neil Millington

Neil Millington

Neil Millington has taught English as a foreign language in Japan for over 12 years. He has taught a wide range of age levels from pre-kindergarten students to adults. He is currently teaching at the tertiary level. He earned his BA at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England and his MA in TESOL at Lancaster University, England. Currently, Neil is working on his PhD in language learning motivation also at Lancaster University. Neil is also the co-founder of dreamreader.net, an English reading website with hundreds of free lessons for teachers and learners.
Neil Millington
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