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Teaching ESL Speaking to Upper-Intermediate Students

Teaching ESL Speaking to Upper-Intermediate Students

For teachers involved in the learning and preparatory process with students of upper-intermediate level, aiming at a B1/ B2 degree, the challenge of overcoming persistent speaking difficulties can be viewed as quite a common occurrence.

What is most important, when dealing with such cases, is to overcome the misconception that the only way to tackle with, and subsequently, resolve a specific speaking impediment is to focus exclusively on the organization and implementation of our teaching methods.

We are dealing, in reality, with a multidimensional issue, characterized by gravity pertaining to its characteristics and evaluation that needs to be assessed and examined in depth.

Firstly, we should not disregard the social and situational factors in terms of the actual process and parameters pertaining to the actualization of the lesson itself, but rather, realize that there are unique and individualized circumstances under which the lesson takes place.

Challenges to Teaching ESL Speaking 

This goes to say, in other words, that if a student is influenced by predominant factors linked to family dynamics, such as health challenges and financial problems, the student will tend to be absent-minded or exhibit difficulty in forming correct sentences in speaking activities, because their attention can be often diverted to the above-mentioned entanglements. The inability to focus on the task at hand may present as a regular occurrence, which persists, even if the topics are familiar to the students, or of particular importance with regards to aspects of their everyday life (general interests and preferences, hobbies, technology).

The second factor has to do with the age of the learners studying English as a foreign language throughout B1 to B2 levels.

It would be counter-productive to have high demands and expectations placed on students who have reached the first and second class of Junior High school, and presume that they will be adequately equipped to fully respond to complex speaking topics required for the B1 / B2 exams, which the majority of coursebooks include in their corpus. Such topics might include unemployment, substance abuse, environmental pollution, societal structures, and others.

It is essential to keep in mind, when designing such speaking activities, that the activation of specific vocabulary and grammar schemata, which we, as teachers consider rather easy to navigate through, is not a realistic or feasible goal implementation, given the fact that our students may not yet be biologically ready or intellectually mature to produce the desired results.

The influence of methods

The third factor that should not be overlooked is the kind of instructional methodology and techniques applied in the English language learning process, meaning, educational tools and guidelines used in previous classes the students have attended, and the level of competency they were asked to exhibit. This signifies, that quite often, when we are assigned new students, we, as educators, have to place particular emphasis on the specific methodology we will choose to follow, and the frequency of application of those methods, to have the desired results in the speaking tasks.

Defining who we are as teachers

The fourth factor has to do with defining who we are as teachers, by being alert, examining / reevaluating our strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging our skills and limitations, so as to make a valid estimation regarding the proportionate group of students/speaking class that we will focus on and engage with on a regular basis.

It is crucial that, apart from this process, we consciously strive to observe ourselves and our teaching skills, to realise in which areas we lack and which specific aspects should be modified or altered in our teaching methods. A daily diary, where we can gather and organize our thoughts and ideas would be a fruitful means for a better understanding and critical evaluation of our purpose.

Choosing the best materials

The fifth and last factor has to do with the use of the most suitable coursebook series and materials. Of course, these sources work interchangeably with the type of students we have. Our work as educators is made easier in the current moment, because there is a wide variety of coursebooks to select from, and language exams at our disposal.

As far as exams are concerned, it would be best to choose the ones that we consider our students to be suited for, without applying added pressure on them, or rushing them to reach their goal, but rather, consulting them to sit for the FCE or ECCE exam when they feel ready. It would be ideal if the teacher could, not only, discuss the coursebook’s speaking tasks with their students, but also, make them active participants in the dialogue, even create tasks for the school year together.

Ask your students’ opinion of the coursebook’s speaking material, and do not impose the viewpoint of the author. Slowly and steadily, with patience and persistence, make an effort to get them involved in the ideas and arguments they have to develop orally in the speaking questions of each topic in each unit of the coursebook. It is of major significance.

To pay special attention to the fact that teenagers, at this learning stage, tend, by nature, to be independent, strong-willed, even reactionary at times, and that they value their freedom of opinion and expression.

Teaching ESL Speaking: Example A

Starting out

A good beginning would be the brainstorming technique before the actual reading comprehension activity, where students are asked to comment on the existence of vampires, witches, werewolves, whether they consider them to be true/ most likely to exist in some shape, form or fashion, or merely an urban myth not to be taken seriously.

Practical exercises that students enjoy

There are a lot of other adjustments that the teacher can make with regards to the content of the text, such as readjusting in random order the text’s paragraphs and asking them to find the correct order in which the text is put together. This serves as a way to actively introduce the information pertaining to the lead character of the story, a woman back in 1884, Sarah, who inherits the wealth of the Winchester family, after the deaths of her husband and child, and reinstates the family to California, with plans to build a huge house, as a way to start over and maintain the family balance.

This initial task aids the students to get better acquainted with the text, and also assists them to explore the function of certain vocabulary items, in order to understand the text to its full extent.

How to skilfully use questions

As far the activation of the vocabulary items is concerned, we can start by asking them some questions about expressions used in the second paragraph of the text, to establish the level of their understanding of the key terminology :”inherited”, ”fell into a deep depression”, “consult a medium”, “haunted by the ghosts of”, “spirits”, ‘victim”. These questions can take the following form:

  • What did Sarah’s husband left her in his will, and was her emotional state affected by the death of her family?
  • What is a medium? Do you think there is a specific reason why Sarah visited one?
  • What was the medium’s advice, and do you think a contemporary medium/psychic would make the same suggestions?

At this stage, the teacher can extend the activity further if the student faces extra difficulty answering the questions in a cohesive manner.

Also, try to personalise the task by asking if a distant relative of theirs, like an aunt or grandma, has inherited such fortune, under which circumstances, and if those relatives experienced similar fear of spirits. As the student is narrating their personal account of events, remind them to use the vocabulary that they have just been introduced to or other similar vocabulary.

An alternative approach

An alternative way to do this is to ask them to reproduce a scene/dialogue, where they reenact the supposed meeting with their aunt and listen as she narrates her story, or to ask them to write the actual dialogue between their aunt and the medium.

If you are dealing with a larger group of students, you can ask them to create the dialogue in pairs and act it out aloud interchangeably, or pass their paper with the dialogue they have just written to a couple of students sitting next to them, to correct any possible errors and add ideas that ameliorate the produced text.

All of the above alternate ways to deal with the same activity can spark the interest of the students to participate in a productive manner.

Thus, as you proceed with the actual reading comprehension activity, it is much more likely that your students will participate more eagerly, and they will use the speaking skills required by the guidelines of the unit.

Attend to the needs of students

Usually, the coursebook consists of vocabulary and grammar pages and listening activities in a particular layout (after the brainstorming and the reading comprehension activity). Still, it would be beneficial if you chose not to stick exclusively to the construction of the textbook, even shift the focus when necessary and applicable, to better attend to the needs of the students that require additional help in their speaking skills. This would mean that you could move straight to the speaking activity, leaving the grammar, vocabulary, and listening pages for later on.

According to the book’s speaking task, the student is asked to compare and choose between five ways to uncover the truth that lies beneath local mysteries. At this stage, the book indeed offers some interesting ideas, like borrowing books from a library or doing research on the internet. The issue, though, with students that have difficulties in speaking, is that they cannot illustrate their tt’s easily by using the right grammatic forms, adjectives, verbs, or conjunctions, to name a few. In this case, the teacher can take on that task and see how the student gradually develops their strategy further down the line.

Breaking Dawn

I will provide a specific example for this: Ask them about the films “Breaking Dawn,” a movie franchise involving vampires, that most teenagers have probably watched.

Such questions could be:

  • Do you remember how the girl first learned about the Cullens? Through the internet, right?


At this point, you can allude to/incorporate phrases like: she carried out research with meticulous attention to detail on articles, learned revealing facts or well-kept secrets about the Cullens, etc. Then, the students can pick up where you left off and build up sentences.

The same method can be applied with other ideas generated by the storylines available

In my experience, it would serve better to ask them to use the Language Bank at the extension questions, when asked, for example, to talk about their favourite book. If they find it challenging to present the parts of the book that stood out for them, ask them whether they could suggest a ghost story or a ghost film to a pen pal who has come to Greece and doesn’t speak the language very well yet. Some fresh ideas might spring up, points of reference, creative arguments.

In the end, you can produce the final draft (based on the topic of their preference), first in written form, and then in oral form.

Teaching ESL Speaking: Example B

In a pre- speaking task about sports, from the same coursebook of a specific book series(B1 + Upper-intermediate), students are asked if they would consider taking part in a Spartan race, if they prefer team sports over individual sports, and finally, if they favor a specific team or athlete over another.

At this point, students may be unfamiliar with the terminology required to discuss sports at their level(B1 + Upper-intermediate). Or, they may lack the necessary vocabulary sophistication, a hurdle which would inhibit them from completing the task. As mentioned before, an effective way to overcome such an obstacle would be for the teacher to illustrate the unknown vocabulary on the blackboard, or, preferably, by other technological means, like the internet and slides-presentation. You can also ask another student to perform this illustration for the whole class.

Discussing The Spartan Race

In particular, when discussing the topic of the Spartan Race, the teacher could initiate the discussion by describing with accurate and vivid language the sport. ”A Spartan race is a race where many talented and rigorous athletes take part. The most important feature of a Spartan race is that the participants compete, not just in one, but in many sports, for instance, the pentathlon.

After you have completed the description, ask them some simple questions.

  • Do you think it takes a considerable amount of time for these athletes to become adept at these sports?
  • What is your personal opinion on the regimen or the routine followed by such athletes?
  • Are similar sports practiced in modern times, and is such an option-to its full extent-even plausible?

This ”illustration ”is of great importance because the students who struggle more need to acquire as much information from you as possible in the areas they lack, for example, the correct use of adjectives, expressions, verbs, and other lexical items. Also, concerning morphological features of the language, with a wealth of cues and information provided by the teacher, they can significantly improve their ability to formulate comparative sentences when comparing the individual characteristics of one sport in relation to another.

Describing pictures

Similarly, you could help these students in the main part of the speaking task, where they are required to compare pictures depicting individual sports, analyse advantages or disadvantages, say which sport they prefer, or discuss the importance of certain features and benefits that this athletic experience could provide.

In the pair of pictures that discusses team sports versus individual sports, and whether it is more important to win or have fun while taking part in these sports, you can try using the method of personalization, to elicit the vocabulary needed to adequately describe the activity, if you feel confident that your student can respond with accuracy.

An example

To demonstrate my point, I will mention an upper-intermediate student of mine, Christiana, who is a keen ballet dancer. The same goes for her sister. So, I thought of giving her the right stimuli to talk about individual versus team sports, by asking her to compare her routine, the techniques involved in the instruction of ballet with that of her sister’s.

The questions were as follows:

  • Do you and your sister do ballet in a team or individually?
  • While practicing the sport/dance, what do you do differently than your sister?
  • What do you personally prefer? Performing ballet in the chorus or as a soloist?
  • When taking part in ballet competitions, what does your ballet teacher tell you topay attention to?
  • Is a ballet competition stressful, and if so, why according to your opinion or experience?

Having, first, been given time to prepare and answer the questions at her own pace, with the incorporation of the appropriate vocabulary, she was able to narrate her experiences and share her thoughts.

For example, she could say:

  • When practicing individually, you pay more attention to details, and you coordinate your movements in a more controlled fashion because you are completely exposed to the judge’s eyes, they scrutinize your every move

The benefit of pre-teaching vocabulary

This method of providing the student with useful vocabulary proved somewhat helpful when, later on, she was asked to compare two team sports depicted in the speaking page, parkour, and golf, in terms of fun and popularity. At this stage, I gave her a guideline of necessary phrases in order for her to compare and contrast, the key factor being that she had already explored useful vocabulary through the personalised questions.

The book also included many extension activities for speaking practice. I am going to refer to such an extension question and how I processed composing an answer, with the same student, Christianna (B1 level).

The question was about determining which sports could be deemed more suitable for boys and which for girls.

Using the personalising technique

In this case, once more, I relied on the personalizing technique. I asked my student to make a catalogue of appropriate sports for the members of her family, like her mom, dad, grandpa, uncles or aunts, etc., and explain her reasoning.

Once this initial stage was completed, I asked her to narrow down the adjectives that could describe her relatives.

For example, ‘‘My grandpa is witty and sophisticated, more of an introvert, so he did not prefer to practice sports when younger. So, I would choose golf for him because, as a sport, it matches more an analytical personality, and physical strength is not a primary requirement.”

“My mom, on the other hand, who is an avid gym-goer, slim and flexible, could respond well to extreme sports like kayaking.”

Following the completion of this task, you can ask the students to tell you what they have concluded. Are some sports more suitable for boys than for girls?

How examples proved useful

The provision of examples that have helped them express their opinion will, in turn, help them share their opinion with the rest of the class. It is essential to keep in mind that most probably, their answers will depend on their personal experience.

Teaching ESL Speaking: Conclusion

In conclusion, the questions in Speaking Tasks should not be applied in a rigorous way that does not allow flexibility. Instead, teachers should try to activate the students’ minds, stir their imagination, encourage them to share their experiences or views of the world on different topics in a structured, yet, not overly complicated manner, so as to prevent any fear of embarrassment or reluctance on the students’ part. Following such an inspired path and designing the order of the given speaking questions in a spirit of versatility will bring out the best learning results, and most importantly, it will bring out the best in each student.

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