BTR-TESOL Unit 6B - Speaking Skills
by Udambor Bumandalai




objectives of this unit

the least you should know

what it takes to speak

characteristics of successful speaking activities

activities to develop speaking skills

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



Speaking is one of the most sought after skills in foreign language learning. Because people need and want to communicate via speech for business, networking, education, and traveling, language learners are highly motivated to improve their speaking skills. Nevertheless, speaking skills are complicated and difficult to develop. It is important for anybody who is going to teach speaking to language learners to better understand what it takes to speak in a new language and know how to effectively teach speaking skills.

Back to Top


Ben is an American who went to Mongolia as a volunteer to help with a humanitarian service project. His primary responsibility was to help with local development projects such as assisting with events and workshops, helping with building projects, or caring for the needy. However, after he arrived, a change was made to his assignment. He was asked to teach an English speaking class to local young adults who had studied English in Mongolian schools for several years but still couldn't speak it. After teaching the first week of classes, Ben noticed that he did most of the talking in class while his students listened to him for the most part. When Ben asked questions, his students usually answered with only a word or two. He also sensed that his students seemed hesitant to speak in English. Unfortunately Ben did not know how to change this situation. He had no training in English teaching and wondered what and how he should teach this speaking class.

  • What would you do if you were in Ben’s situation? 
  • What do you think made Ben’s students avoid speaking in English?
  • What kind of activities could Ben have used to encourage his students to speak more?
  • Objectives of this unit

    After working through this unit, you will be able to…

    • Explain two key components of spoken language
    • Identify four features of successful speaking activities
    • Choose and use instructional activities that help students develop their English speaking skills.
    As you learn the content of this unit well, you will better understand what students go through when they try to speak in a foreign language, and be able to successfully identify their weaknesses and use activities that help them improve their speaking skills. 

    Back to Top

    The least you should know

    The ability to speak in a new language involves many complex processes. In order to speak, language learners need to hear a spoken message, then understand and process it, and finally respond to this information by producing a meaningful spoken message. Producing a successful spoken message requires students to connect appropriate words with correct pronunciation and grammar in the right context and in culturally appropriate ways. Much speaking also happens in real time, which means that learners need to learn to respond quickly. In class, students often need to speak in front of classmates and the teacher, which adds an element of fear or anxiety. As teachers use activities that help develop stronger speaking skills, students gradually learn to put together the different aspects of speaking mentioned above and become confident speakers. Because the speaking process involves so many factors and it is difficult to get them all correct at the same time, students may become discouraged easily. However, as you recognize your students’ weaknesses and teach to their needs by using activities that will help improve their speaking weaknesses, your students can successfully gain speaking skills.

    1. What does it take to speak?

    Several factors contribute to the complexity of the speaking process. However, they can be organized under two key components of spoken language. Spoken language needs to be first, accurate and second, fluent. When students develop both accuracy and fluency, they become successful and confident at communicating in English. Students’ speaking skills will improve as teachers use activities that specifically develop speech accuracy and fluency.


    Speaking accurately means being able to use the correct sounds, words, and grammar when speaking. Spoken language needs to be accurate in order for communication to be successful. Students who are beginning to learn English often focus on speaking accurately first. When students become more proficient, they sometimes stop thinking too much about accuracy. When teaching students how to speak accurately in English, you need to keep in mind the following features of speaking accuracy:

    • Vocabulary - Knowing enough words to produce spoken language is the very first thing students need to learn. To participate in meaningful conversation, learners need to know basic vocabulary. In addition, students need to know when or in what context to use words accurately. (See BTRTESOL Unit 7D to learn more about vocabulary teaching.)

    • Sounds - Accurate spoken language is produced when students can correctly pronounce the words that they use when speaking. Not knowing how to correctly articulate certain sounds often causes miscommunication and misunderstanding. For example, the words slept and slipped can change the meaning of a sentence drastically when the sounds /ɛ/ (“eh”) and /ɪ/ (“ih”) are articulated incorrectly. (See BTRTESOL Unit 7B “Teaching English Pronunciation” to learn more about pronunciation teaching.)

    • Grammar - Knowing grammar is another equally important factor in learning to speak because it allows students to place words correctly within sentences and ultimately enables them to carry on meaningful communication. Consciously learning grammar, as opposed to acquiring language naturally through exposure and interaction, is probably the most challenging part of the language learning process because there are many rules and exceptions to be learned. It takes a long time and a lot of practice for students to master English grammar. (See BTRTESOL Unit 7A to learn more about teaching grammar.)

    • Culture - Every aspect of life is subject to certain cultural patterns and rules. So when people are communicating, the knowledge of what is appropriate when and where always comes up. When students are taught about expectations based on cultural differences, they learn to communicate effectively. (See BTRTESOL Unit 1D “Understanding and Adapting in a New Culture” to learn more about teaching culture.)


    Speaking fluently in a new language requires the ability to speak with appropriate speed, acceptable flow, and proper tone of voice. When students are first learning to speak, they often tend to focus on their language accuracy and this focus frequently slows down their speech causing them to be less fluent. With students at the high intermediate and advanced levels, you should focus on fluency. To develop speaking fluency, you can focus on the following features:

    • Speaking rate - Students need to speak with acceptable speed. Speech that is too slow or too fast results in miscommunication. When students pause too long or too many times, such as after every word, they speak too slowly. On the other hand, students who do not pause properly while speaking also produce incomprehensible speech. So you need to help your students speak at an appropriate rate by teaching them how and when to pause.

    • Stress - When a syllable sounds louder and longer, it is called a stressed syllable. For example, the word English has two syllables: En-glish. The first syllable of this word sounds louder and longer than the second syllable: ENglish. When students learn to place stress correctly in words, their language accuracy and fluency improve.

    • Intonation - When people speak, they use high or low tones to convey different meanings. For instance, a rising or high tone at the end of the following statement makes it a question: He’s your friend? A falling or low tone makes it a simple statement: He’s your friend. Teaching students how to use intonation correctly will help them with both accuracy and fluency.

    • Reduced words - In spoken English not all words are clearly said. In fact, many words are used in shortened forms and some words even get combined. For example, the expression How is it going? is often said as Howzit goin? You can and should teach this process of reducing words to students. For instance, you can explain that within a sentence, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs usually get stressed and said clearly. In contrast, connecting words, helping verbs, pronouns, and prepositions often get reduced.
    As you can see, speaking in a new language is truly a complex process that includes many important elements. For this reason, developing speaking skills in students can be a long journey. You can make the journey shorter and more pleasant by using activities that have characteristics that experience has shown to be most helpful. 

    Back to Top

    2. Characteristics of successful speaking activities

    Students’ speaking skills can improve considerably when you keep in mind the following four principles of successful speaking activities suggested by Ur (1996). Many of these characteristics are also explained in more detail in BTRTESOL Unit 8A “Conducting Effective and Enjoyable Conversation Classes.”

    Students talk a lot

    Learning to speak in a new language requires students to speak a lot both in class and outside. Thus, students should talk as much as possible during any class period. Plan activities that require students to talk during class.

    Participation is even

    During any speaking activity, every student should have an equal opportunity to speak. You should carefully monitor classroom discussions and ensure they are not being dominated by a minority of talkative participants.

    Motivation is high

    When students are highly motivated to participate in classroom discussions, they overcome fear and eventually develop stronger speaking skills. You can keep students motivated by selecting topics that your students are interested in or already know. Playing games or having contests will also keep students excited about participating.

    Language is at an acceptable level

    When the language used in speaking activities is too easy or too difficult, students get discouraged or lose their motivation easily. Make sure that your classroom activities use language at the right level for your students.

    Back to Top

    3. Activities to develop speaking skills

    Now that you know what to do to make speaking activities successful in your classroom, here are some speaking activities that are frequently used in speaking classrooms to help language learners develop stronger speaking skills.

    Picture-based activities

    Pictures are a great way to start students talking. Picture-based activities can be as simple as having students describe what they see in pictures. That will help lower-level students develop speaking accuracy skills. Or you can use pictures for discussions with intermediate and advanced students to help build their speaking fluency. Picture-based activities can be used with all levels of classes. You just need to adjust the nature of the activity according to your students’ level.

    Information-gap activities

    In this kind of activity, students usually work in pairs. One person has information that the other does not have. Students then ask questions to each other to find the missing information. Information gap activities help build both accuracy and fluency and can be used with all levels of English classes. (See BTRTESOL Unit 4C “Communicative Language Teaching and Information Gap Exercises” to learn more about information gap activities.)


    Dialogues and drama are another way to get students talking. With dialogues, students are assigned roles and given scripts for their parts. Then they practice reciting their lines and perform when ready. This is a good way to build confidence in learners because they know what they are saying is correct and that they know exactly when to say what. Students notice structures and learn new vocabulary, which helps develop their speaking accuracy. Students also get to practice speaking fluently as they focus on pausing and using intonation in the right ways to deliver authentic performances.


    Role-plays are like dialog performances, but there is no predetermined script. You assign students roles and a situation and they act accordingly using language they have learned previously. It helps to review the words and phrases they might need in the role-play before they start. Role-playing is a good way for students to practice using spoken language. It is helpful for all levels of students and develops both accuracy and fluency.


    Participating in classroom conversations is a common way for students to develop speaking skills. During conversation sessions, students and teachers talk about topics that are interesting to them and at the right level for their language skills. As students speak extemporaneously, they build speaking fluency. Conversations are most suitable for use in intermediate and higher level classes. (See BTRTESOL Unit 8A “Conducting Effective and Enjoyable Conversation Classes” to learn more about how to teach conversation classes.)

    Rehearsed presentations

    To build your students’ speaking accuracy and fluency, you may assign them to give short speeches on various topics. They should have a chance to think, research, plan, and rehearse their speeches. Rehearsed presentations are usually most successful when students are at intermediate and higher levels because they usually require stronger speaking skills. (See BTRTESOL Unit 4E “Imitative, Rehearsed, Extemporaneous Practice” to learn more about rehearsed presentations.)

    Songs and games

    Using songs and games in teaching English is also good for developing students’ speaking skills. Songs and games can be used for developing either accuracy or fluency. (See Units 8B “Using Songs to Increase Participation, Recall, and Enjoyment” and 8C “Using Games for English Language Teaching” to learn more about using games and songs for teaching English.)

    Back to Top

    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  • What two key aspects of spoken language do you need to help your students develop?
  • What are some things that you should watch for to make speaking activities successful?
  • Describe at least three activities that can help develop students’ speaking skills
  • Back to Top

    Video examples

    Click here to view a short video of a novice teacher teaching at a university in China. As you watch this video think about how it can be related to what you have learned in this unit. Then answer the questions in the following “Reflection and Responses” section to check your understanding of this unit.

    Reflection and Responses

    As you view this video clip, think about each of the following questions.
    1. What was especially good about this class? What did the teacher do right?
    2. What teaching principles or activities discussed earlier in this unit did you notice in this clip?
    3. What adaptations could you make for the situation you are (or will be) teaching in?

    Write your reflections and responses in the box provided below. After posting your comment, you may scroll down to see what other users of this unit have said in their reflections and responses. If you want to read even more, click on the "Load more comments" button. When you're done, scroll down to the next section of this unit.
    blog comments powered by Disqus

    Back to Top

    Where to go to learn more

    Connections to other units in this program

    Here are some other units in this program that relate to the topics that have been addressed in this unit about teaching speaking skills. By better understanding these additional aspects of spoken language, you will be better prepared as a teacher to develop speaking skills in your students.

    • 1D “Understanding and Adapting in a New Culture
    • 4C “Communicative Language Teaching and Information Gap Exercises”
    • 4E “Imitative, Rehearsed, Extemporaneous Practice”
    • 7A “Teaching English Grammar”
    • 7B “Teaching English Pronunciation”
    • 7E “Teaching Culture”
    • 8A “Conducting Effective and Enjoyable Conversation Classes”
    • 8B “Using Songs to Increase Participation, Recall, and Enjoyment”
    • 8C “Using Games for English Language Teaching”

    Back to Top

    Online and other electronic resources

    For conversation and interview based activities

    ESL Gold homepageESL Gold
    This website provides conversation topic ideas along with vocabulary and expressions.

    Dave's ESL Cafe homepageDave's ESL Café
    This website has a list of interesting scenarios that can be used as sources for conversations.

    ESL Go
    This is a website with many ideas and activities for interesting conversations. 

    ESL Flow interview questions
    This website has a section with some helpful information as well as sample activities for job interviews.

    Daily ESL homepageDaily ESL
    This website has ideas for conversation activities that make use of different scenarios given through listening and reading passages.

    For role-play and drama activities

    ESL Flow roleplay
    This website provides worksheets for many role-play activities.

    The Internet TESL Journal roleplay
    This website provides a list of links to lessons that make use of role-play activities.

    Dave's ESL Cafe homepageDave's ESL Café
    This website provides interesting scenarios for having role-play activities in your classrooms.

    For picture based activities

    ESL Flow picture lessons
    This website has many lesson ideas for using pictures to teach speaking. 

    Back to Top

    Print and paper-based resources

    New ways in teaching speaking book cover Kathleen M. Bailey and Lance Savage. New Ways in Teaching Speaking. Publisher: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc, 1994. ISBN 0-939791-54-4. Available for purchase at

    This book provides a wide variety of activities that are organized under four main sections that include 14 subsections. Some of the subsections include teaching ideas using dialogues and role plays, games for speaking, using audiovisual aids, and group work.

    How to teach speaking book cover Scott Thornbury. How to Teach Speaking. Publisher: Longman, 2005. ISBN 978-0-582-85359-1. Available for purchase at

    How to Teach Speaking talks about many components that are required for speaking in another language and how it is different from speaking in one’s first language. This book also suggests activities that will help develop speaking such as dialogues, drama, jokes, out-of-class speaking, and using live listening. 

    Practical English language teaching: speaking book cover Kathleen M. Bailey. Practical English Language Teaching: Speaking. Publisher: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2005. ISBN 0-07-310310-1. Available for purchase at

    This book introduces teachers to key aspects of teaching speaking and gives in-depth information on teaching speaking at all levels. Readers are offered reflection questions and action tasks throughout this book to apply their understanding of the ideas.

    Talk a lot book cover Keith Folse. Talk a Lot: Communication Activities for Speaking Fluency. Publisher: University of Michigan Press, 1993. ISBN 0472082450. Available for purchase at

    This book contains exercises that require learners to speak based on the knowledge that they already have and build on that knowledge and improve their speaking fluency.

    Additional References

    Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Back to Top


    Please give us feedback on this unit, so we can improve it for future users.

    Take the survey