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Talk until you drop

Gill Maynard's ideas brush up spontaneous speaking skills at AS and A-level

Students extending their GCSE speaking skills at AS and A-level are challenged by the clear move from first to third-person language and from transactional phrases to more abstract speech. Simple statements and opinions give way to discussion of different points of view. Above all, students can no longer rely on memorised chunks of language to deliver a presentation or sustain a conversation.

How can we give them the confidence to speak spontaneously and equip them with the skills to explain, discuss and argue fluently and coherently? One approach is to look back at the strategies we use in key stages 2 and 3.

Sixth-formers can be quite insecure, and games and clearly structured speaking tasks don't feel threatening. Classroom displays offer support and help visual learners to assimilate key language.

A 10-minute game based on speaking activities can become a regular feature of each lesson, and the routine helps students gain confidence. Plenty of praise and a relaxed atmosphere are essential and, occasionally, more challenging tasks give a sense of progression.

Students need support in three main areas: vocabulary, structures and ideas.


Use pictures and sources such as magazine advertisements to revise concrete GCSE vocabulary linked with a topic before moving on to more abstract ideas. Students feel they are building on prior learning rather than starting something new and potentially difficult.

Use accelerated learning techniques. One simple lesson starter is to ask students to think of three words connected with a topic then tell them to increase this to five words. Ask them to compare ideas with a partner.

Finally, collect all their suggestions on the board.

Put 10 to 15 key words written in the target language on an overhead projector or on the board at the start of the lesson. Ask students to volunteer any English meanings they know. During, and at the end of the lesson, show the words again and check how many they remember. This is a good recap activity, and they will have a sense of achievement if they know all the words by the end.

Make cards and write one key word or phrase in the target language on each one. Students take it in turns to pick a card at random and make up a sentence using the word. Develop this by putting two or three words on each card to use in one sentence.

A game of hangman - putting the correct number of dashes on the board first - instantly focuses everyone's attention.


Display key terminology on the front wall of your classroom and ensure all students can easily read it. Ideally, have one display of impersonal constructions (il est evident que), one of third-person opinions (beaucoup d'experts pensent que) and one of personal opinions (je suis d'avis que).

In French lessons, use different coloured paper to remind students of constructions followed by the subjunctive.

Make cards bearing simple statements such as "le tabac est dangereux".

Students take turns to pick a card at random and make up a sentence using a suitable structure: "la plupart des medecins disent que le tabac est dangereux". This gives practice in using more complex structures in speaking.

Ask a pupil, or the whole class, how many complex sentences they can produce in two minutes from one simple statement using different structures. After they have tried this a few times you can cover up the display to make the task more challenging.


Give students a list of six opinions, asking them whether they agree or disagree with each one. Ask them to put the ideas in order of individual importance, giving a reason why one opinion best reflects their own point of view.

Role play on different points of view. Ask students to state the likely opinions of different people, famous or otherwise.

Other suggestions

Display a selection of conversational phrases, such as "c'est une question tres interessante", and encourage students to use these when they can't think of an immediate answer to a question.

Ask students to pick a card and talk for one minute about the subject written on it. They hate this the first time, but it convinces them that they can speak spontaneously.

Ask students to prepare opinions - preferably extreme ones - to put to a panel. They can then take it in turns to be callers and members of the panel, such as a parent, a doctor or a politician. This activity makes use of a good mixture of prepared and unprepared language.

Ask students to work in pairs to prepare and record dialogue which could be used, for example, in a radio advertisement. Then get them to play it to the class.

Regularly ask students to prepare an oral presentation with bullet-point prompts to deliver to the class. Gradually progress from straightforward to more challenging subjects.

Give students different short texts, such as news items, to skim-read for 10 minutes in class. Then ask them to give a short verbal summary without notes. This is suitable for individual or pair work.

Gill Maynard is languages development officer at the Anglo-European School, Ingatestone and teacher of German and French at Chelmsford County High School, Essex

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