What do we mean when we teach speaking in the ESL class

What do we teach when we teach speaking?

What do we teach when we teach speaking?


  • Speaking
  • Pronunciation
  • Cambridge English
  • Teaching qualifications
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

Undoubtedly, learning how to speak is one of the main priorities when it comes to dealing with the language. 

Therefore, it's no wonder that the majority of students ask for teachers’ professional help for this exact reason: they want us to help them to become successful speakers

But what does it really mean? What exactly do we teach when we teach speaking? We are going to find the  answer to this question in this article.

Tips on teaching speaking

What does it mean to teach speaking?

When we try analyzing the history of the teaching method, we see that approaches have been changing and evolved  from simple grammar explanations and translation from L1 to L2 to the complexity of various methods that will lead the students to the major goal – free communication.

The history of ELT also shows that teaching students to speak implies  many stages and steps rather than explaining the rules and learning the basic lists of words that may be needed.

OK, so if teaching speaking is more than that, what does it  include?

The thing is that language itself is much more than just a list of rules and words. It is also history and culture which is embodied in idioms or collocations, for example, as well as non-verbal communication.

Knowing all that, we face the next question: what exactly should an ESL teacher pay attention to in order to turn the students into successful speakers?

What do we teach?

Here is a list of ideas on what exactly free communication requires and how it can be reached. 

Coherently expressing one's opinion

Sure, speaking is necessary in order to successfully interact with others and coherently express opinions.

To deal with this task, students will definitely need both vocabulary and grammar. 

Also, they will need some practice on how to combine the words into sentences and apply certain grammar in real context.

Understanding accents

However, it often happens that even though your students are confident in their knowledge of grammar and target language, they freeze as soon as they hear a person with a clearly different accent or some specific words or even sounds that are natural for certain accents and weird for others at the same time.

That is why exposure  to the authentic materials and listening practice based on these materials is crucial if you want to make sure that your effort doesn’t go in vain once your students hear Scottish or Australian accents. 

Of course, there is no need to rush with such examples right from the start and overload the memory of your beginners with this information. 

On the other hand, make sure to start gradually implementing such content into your lessons with the intermediate students. 

Improve your listening skills!

Discover typical issues

Thinking in a foreign language 

One of the most common mistakes both in teaching and learning is using translation from L1 to L2 all the time. 

This results in having a strong language barrier, spending too much time on constructing and producing sentences, using literal translation, projecting students’ native language rules into the one they learn, which of course becomes the source of endless fossilised mistakes.

However, this is not something that can’t be overcome. Usually, this habit may be traced back to the A1-A2 levels, where the teacher constantly referred to L1, translated their own speech, or was trying to create too many comparisons or analogies with the students’ mother tongue. 

Neither translation nor analogies are prohibited, of course, but the teacher needs to make sure not to overuse this method in order to not make students used to constant translation and limit their foreign language’s thinking development.

People who are proficient in the language, and especially teachers, know that there is no need to translate every single word: it’s a much better and productive idea to practice deducing  the meaning, grasping the concept, relying on definitions rather than instant translation etc.

Such an approach imitates the natural process of language acquisition, where you don’t need to look up and translate every single unknown word. Sometimes even those words your students already know are enough to deal with a new target language without translating.

How to use L1 properly?

Interacting with the language on different levels 

Teachers may often hear things like “I don’t need grammar, my goal is speaking improvement” from their students. However, such requests do not  sound realistic.

Your students can’t just speak 24/7 to become fluent in English. One needs words and phrases to speak. They  can usually be found in different texts, or audio and visual materials.

Therefore, your students would need to spend their time reading and listening. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine a person who is capable of building correct sentences with no basic grammar knowledge.

That, of course, means that even the students with the speaking priority would have to learn and practice grammar. 

To sum up, everything is interconnected and it’s impossible to become proficient in English without paying enough attention and effort to developing certain skills in every sphere of the language.

Using  the language in different contexts

Another common obstacle that many students have to overcome when they speak is being well-prepared for certain conversational situations and being  under-prepared for the others.

Say, your student is a pro in everyday conversations but feels very uneasy in the academic environment or business meeting.

The language is used for different purposes. So, once your students are confident enough about dealing with basic conversational situations, it’s time to try to apply the knowledge in an absolutely different context. It might be hard at first, but this is what actually defines proficiency.

Reasons to contextualize grammar

Understanding cultural peculiarities and non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication, ability to correctly interpret idioms and awareness of cultural peculiarities are the  road to language mastery that anyone who wants to be fluent reaches sooner or later.

This is the most complicated part because it is not something that can be learnt in the classroom. A student has to be extensively exposed either to the communication with native speakers or consumption of high-level audio-visual content to learn such things.

Anyway, to master idioms and non-verbal communication students have to deeply understand the culture and history  of the country/countries where the language is spoken.

On the other hand, not everybody needs such a level of proficiency in their foreign language. Therefore, a lot of learners may never get to this point. However, these small things are the actual definition of speaking fluency and they should definitely be taught at least partially.

Promoting self- and life-long learning

Last but not least, it is important to explain to your students that there is no final point in learning the language.

It is a never-ending process, and every new day may bring a new piece of vocabulary that will enrich their speech. 

The only way to continue this eternal process of discovery is not by  attending  various courses, but by making language a habit and a hobby which is integral to their everyday lives. Listening to music, watching movies, reading books or enjoying podcasts are all representations of both hobby and habit. 

Language proficiency doesn't include non-verbal communication.

Article authors & editors
  • Arina Kravchenko

    Arina Kravchenko


    Teacher of General English & IELTS



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