Conversational Spanish lessons
Imagine you walk into your Spanish class one day and hear lots of chit chat.
But you soon realize that everyone is gabbing away… in Spanish!
So what if I told you there were some speaking practice activities that would produce such chatter in your class?
Today we’re going to take a look at three such activities, because after all, being able to communicate verbally in Spanish is the top target for most students. Being able to share and express our thoughts and feelings spontaneously is what makes us so keen to learn languages.
When I first met my GCSE students this year, I asked them to scribble down on a post-it note what had made them choose Spanish as an option at this crucial part of their education. There were many “cultural” responses, and all of them had something related to speaking.
Some were worthy of admiration, like “to be able to speak Spanish in volunteering projects around the world.” Others were charming, but less altruistic (“to pick up girls“). Whether it’s for work or pleasure, speaking the language is what really makes a student feel all the efforts are paying off.
What Makes a Good Language Speaker?
This is a complicated question. There are many ways to speak the language and many different aspects to consider: fluency, spontaneity, pronunciation, accuracy, intonation… so which are the most important?
When organizing different strategies in class, it is essential to ask ourselves before starting: What do I want my students to learn? What do I want them to excel at? In an ideal world, our students would master every single one of these aspects, but in our classroom there is only time and space for some.
So what do I want my students to be able to do? I want my students to go to Madrid and order food, to ask for directions or to book a room at a hotel, I want my students to be able to work in Latin America and discover the culture and, yes, I want my students to pick up girls in the sunny coast of Valencia. And the key to that is fluency.
There is always time for accuracy and grammar, but when I make my students speak, my target is to develop their ability to respond, to engage in a conversation and get their points across. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get them to ask a question with the verb conjugated correctly? It would be, yes. But I don’t want them to hold up the line for a bus just because they are trying to decide if pagar is an irregular verb.
Who wouldn’t love to get into a room in which every single student starts talking in the target language without even being encouraged to? I would definitely like that to happen, but it doesn’t. So, if our students want to speak, and that is their ultimate goal in language learning, what stops them?
The fear of failure.
There is such an emphasis on accuracy when we work on writing, that students become obsessed with it. They are afraid of making mistakes, and that’s the first thing we need to address if we want them to develop their speaking skills.
So how can we help our students overcome this fear, while getting in some fantastic speaking practice? Here are three activities to do just that:
1. Spontaneous Speaking
The aim of this exercise is to get students talking and letting go of that fear of making mistakes. Whether you have a screen, an electronic board or a simple blackboard, choose some pictures and display them. They can be anything: photos related to the topic you have been studying, a comic strip, famous people, pictures from the news, etc.
And then, encourage your students to make sentences, saying the first thing that comes to their minds. By giving them this very open task, students will choose things they already know and build on their confidence, which is the first step to create high quality spontaneous speaking.
Start the activity off in pairs, in a ping-pong style. Students take turns saying something, anything. If you have students that struggle, or if you want them to practice specific language, give them some sentence starters. This will make them feel even more comfortable about this new activity. Once they have had a few minutes to practice, open up the activity for the whole class. As they have already practiced in pairs, they will have things to say and they won’t suffer from stage fright. Keep a good pace, moving quickly from one to another, without stopping them to correct their grammar or syntax.
It’s key to be consistent; if we are telling our students the focus is spontaneity, we cannot stop the flow of spoken language to concentrate on grammar. This will confuse them and make them scared again of making mistakes. If there is an important mistake, just repeat the correct sentence after them so they can spot the error without making a big fuss about it.
If you teach in a mixed-ability class, you may want to improve this activity by stretching your higher-ability students with questions related to what they just said, or help your lower-ability students access what others mention by asking them to translate key words for the class.
2. Pay Your Token
The premise of this activity is that shy students, the ones that are always writing and have lower self-esteem towards the language, don’t like to stand out. They will do anything to move the attention away from them, so this is what we are going to use to get them speaking.
This activity works best in smaller groups of four or five students, although you can start it off in pairs to work on their confidence in speaking before moving to larger groups. Each student starts off with seven tokens and their aim is to get rid of all of them. Students are encouraged to speak, either about a certain topic or about some pictures, like in the previous exercise.
Every time they say something, they are allowed to let go of a token and put it in the center of the table.
Again, like in Spontaneous Speaking, this activity can be adapted to suit the needs of your students. You can provide them with some sentence starters, ask them to focus on opinions or get them to build on what someone else said by allowing them to get rid of two tokens if they do so.
The key to this activity is to let them “just speak, ” without establishing an order or a correct or incorrect way of doing it. Your shy students won’t want to be the ones with all the tokens, the ones that stand out, so they will make sure they have something to say to keep up with the rest of the group.
3. Role Play
I’m sure we have all worked with drama in our language lessons. Drama is a huge ally when the focus is speaking, and can help the less confident students enjoy this skill—which is usually the one they dread the most. Whether it’s a dialogue at a restaurant, booking a hotel room or asking for directions, the key to this exercise is to take the attention away from speaking.
Some students will get talking no matter what you do. These are your confident students, the ones that gain control of any debate or conversation you initiate in your lesson. These students will need less support than the ones who hate speaking and being spontaneous. The following are some tips to make these shy students feel relaxed and to get them speaking.
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