1 Choosing topics to stimulate your students to speak in English
Many of your students will agree that it is useful to speak English well, and they will be motivated to learn the language. You can support their interest in learning English by providing interesting topics for them to talk about in your classes. If students are interested in a topic and have something to say about it, then they are more likely to speak in class and participate actively in learning.
Activity 1: Choosing topics that your students are interested in
How well do you know your students? Which topics do you think your students would be interested in and like to talk about? Write them down. How could you find out which topics they are interested in?
Look at the list of topics you have written. Are these topics in the textbooks that you use to teach English?
Table 1 shows some topics from the NCERT textbooks for secondary English. Read the topics and make a note of the ones that you think your class would enjoy talking about. Discuss the list with a colleague if you can.
Animals (pets, wild animals, desert animals)
Boring or household chores
Different places in India
Dreams and ambitions
Education and school
Fairs and festivals
Friendship and family relationships
Heroes and heroines (for example, Einstein, Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela)
Memory and forgetting things
Success and hard work
Travel and trips
Work and jobs
You and your colleagues may disagree about which topics you think your students will want to talk about, but it is likely that you feel that some topics will be of more interest to secondary students than others. If you feel that your students will not be interested in the topics in the textbook, there are ways that you can relate these topics to students’ lives and make them more interesting for them.
In the case study below, a teacher wants to get his students speaking as much English as possible. He does this by adapting the textbook topic to make it more relevant to his students’ lives.
Case Study 1: Mr Rangan adapts a textbook topic for discussion
Mr Rangan teaches English to Class IX. He is trying to think of ways to get his students to speak more English in class.
After each reading in the textbook there are speaking activities. For example, in the Class IX Beehive textbook, there is an activity on page 108 that asks students to prepare a short speech motivating female athletes to dream big. I tried this activity, but it didn’t work out. Some students just read out some of the sentences from the lesson in English. Others discussed it in Hindi. Many just sat quietly. Most of the time, students don’t have much to say about topics from the textbook, and this kind of activity is difficult for them. But I have noticed that they talk to each other before and after class about their hobbies and interests.
I started to think of ways that I could develop their speaking skills through making the textbook lessons more interesting and relevant for them. We were looking at the chapter with a passage about the tennis champion Maria Sharapova. I know that most of my students may not have heard of Maria Sharapova or Wimbledon – they don’t really know that much about tennis, so they may not feel that the text is relevant to them. But I know that my students are interested in sport, and enjoy talking about it.
So I thought that I would try a speaking activity around the topic of sport. I asked my students to name their favourite sporting heroes. Then I wrote some sentences on the board and I told them to write down the sentences and complete them:
I then asked students to sit in groups of four or five. I asked them to compare their answers and agree on who their greatest sports hero is. I gave them five minutes for this activity.
As they discussed the subject, I walked around the room and I listened to the groups. Some of the groups were very animated and disagreed about the choices. I left them to their discussions.
I always prefer if students speak English, and I encourage them to do so. But I didn’t mind too much about what language they were using for this activity because it is about discussing something and finding consensus. I didn’t want to hinder their motivation if they were excitedly discussing the topic in Hindi!
One group was not talking at all. I decided to sit down with them and help them. I looked at their notebooks and said: ‘Ravi likes Lionel Messi the football player, but Santosh prefers Sachin Tendulkar. Is Messi better than Tendulkar? What do you think?’
In another group, I noticed that some students were using their home languages at times, and some were mixing English and their home languages. Where this was the case, I tried to help them with translations for words or phrases in English. For example, I told them that ‘चैंपियनशिप’ was called ‘championship’ in English.
After five minutes I stopped the activity. I asked one student from each group to say who the greatest sports hero is. I then asked the students if they had heard of Maria Sharapova. They hadn’t, so I asked if they could guess what sport she was famous for. The students guessed a few sports. Then I asked them to open their books at page 105 so that we could start the textbook activity. They were much more interested about reading the text than they usually are.
Now, whenever I think that a topic in the textbook is difficult for students to talk about, I try to relate it to their lives and interests. This helps them to speak in English and build on this knowledge with the textbook activity.
Activity 2: Try in the classroom – relating a textbook topic to your students’ lives
In Case Study 1, the teacher tried to make the lesson more accessible by relating it to the students’ interests. Follow these steps to try this technique in your classroom:
What is the next topic in your textbook? Do you think it is one that your students would enjoy talking about?
If it is, write down some sentences about the topic that they can complete. For example, if the topic is ‘wedding ceremonies’, you could write sentences such as:
- ‘The last wedding I went to was …’
- ‘A good wedding should have …’
- ‘The best food at a wedding is …’
If the topic is more difficult for them to talk about, then you could think about a topic that might only be loosely related to the lesson, but would be of more interest to your students. For example, if the topic is about a hero that your students don’t know, then you could write some statements such as:
- ‘My hero is …’
- ‘I like this person because …’
- ‘This person’s greatest achievement is …’
In class, write the statements on the board, and ask your students to complete them. Give them a time limit of three or four minutes for this.
Next, organise your class into groups of four or five, and tell them to show their sentences to each other. Ask them to decide on one response. Allow five minutes for this task.
As they discuss this, walk around the room and give help to students who need it. Encourage everyone to use English where possible. See Resource 1, which will help you carry out this activity in English.
You may feel that talking about something that is it not in the textbook might be a poor use of class time, but activities like this can be very beneficial because they encourage students’ interest in learning English and give them opportunities to practise useful language skills. For more ideas about resources beyond the textbook that you can use as discussion points in your classes, see the unit Using resources beyond the textbook.
Pause for thought
Here are some questions for you to think about after trying this activity. If possible, discuss these questions with a colleague.
It is good if your students use English in activities like this and you should praise them for doing so. If they are struggling to find words, you could offer them a translation or provide them with some useful phrases. But don’t discourage them from using other languages; the main purpose is to help them feel more confident and motivated to use English.
If you are looking for more topics to discuss in your classes, you could ask your students what they would like to talk about. You could show them the list of topics listed above in Table 1 and ask them to vote for the topics that interest them.
If you found it difficult to set up the groupwork activity and get all students to participate, see Resource 2.