Everybody says that pair work and group work are among the best approaches when it comes to speaking practice in an ESL/EFL classroom. I totally agree if we would live in a perfect world, but we don’t. When it comes to speaking practice one of the advantages of pair work (or group work) in an ESL/EFL classroom is that students feel more comfortable speaking to each other than speaking with the teacher. Definitely, it is a very effective way of practicing speaking skills.
As I said, we don’t live in a perfect world, so there aren’t always the right conditions for doing speaking practice in pairs or groups.
Usually, in small size classes, pair work and group work can be done really well. Let’s say that you have 15-20 students in your class (language centers usually have this amount of students in their classrooms ... at least here in Vietnam) and all students are the same level. You get maximum 10 pairs of students practicing speaking in groups that can be monitored and helped easily. This is the perfect world I was talking about!
What happened if you want to do speaking activities with a 45 student class in which students’ level ranges from elementary to intermediate? More than that, they are all teenagers (14-15 years old who don’t really care about learning English language).
You get 22 pairs of students that are quite impossible to be monitored. You can’t monitor them, so you can’t help them, you can’t know if they are speaking English or their own tongue, you don’t know if they make mistakes when they are speaking, and of course you can’t give them the valuable feedback. I tried different approaches but in this kind of classes the most effective speaking practice activity, pair work, doesn’t do the trick.
However, there is a way of doing it, at least one way that I am aware of. You have to design the activity in a way that it doesn’t give students many ways of cheating. Let’s say you have 22 pairs of students and you want to practice past simple. Write on the board five questions that each student can ask his partner.
What did you do last weekend?
Where did you go yesterday?
Ask students to write the answers in their notebook using the third person singular and tell them that a third student is going to ask them the questions about their partners.
Student 1 asks: What did you do yesterday?
Student 2 answers: Yesterday I went to cinema with my friend.
Student 1 writes in his notebook: He went to cinema with his friend.
Student 3 asks Student 1: What did Student 2 do yesterday?
Student 2 answers: He went to cinema with his friend.
In order to make this speaking practice activity more enjoyable, you can ask students to lie in their answers. Everybody is eager to give a funny answer even if it is a lie. For example, a student’s answer to the above question might be “Yesterday I met president Obama.”
Some may argue that this is not a speaking activity anymore since they have to write down the answers and the speaking time is considerably reduced. But I will say that instead of five minutes of speaking their native tongue and teacher being unaware of that, three minutes of writing (which is a proof that the students have spoken together) and two minutes of speaking is much better. Having the answers written down makes answering the third student’s question more comfortable.