2 Giving your students the language skills they need to talk about a topic

Students may find speaking in English difficult for many reasons. Another reason is that they may not have the language skills they need to speak English.

Imagine that your students have the following task: ‘Talk about a time when you were frightened.’ They may be attracted to this topic, and may enjoy hearing their classmates’ stories about when they were frightened. However, it is quite difficult to tell a story – even in your home language. Most students need some support for this kind of activity, and some students need more help than others. They need help with both the grammar and vocabulary.

Pause for thought

  • How can you help your students do an activity like telling a story? How can you help them find the grammar and vocabulary that they will need to use?
  • Write down your ideas and compare them with the list below. Add any ideas that you missed to your own list.

You could help students with the language they need to tell a story using any of the following techniques:

  • You could demonstrate what kind of story you mean by telling the class about a day when you were frightened. Keep the account short, and tell the story slowly. Use grammar and vocabulary that you think your students know. Prepare the story in advance.
  • Ask a few students to give some examples of when they were frightened. They could do this in their home language if necessary. You could write some of the key words on the board in English as they talk.
  • Write some useful phrases and sentences on the board, for example: ‘One day, I was …’, ‘I heard/saw …’, ‘It was a …’, ‘I felt very frightened/scared/afraid …’, and so on. Prepare these words and phrases before the class.
  • Remind them that they need to use the past tense, and quickly revise some common past tenses.
  • Remind them of words and phrases that are useful when telling a story, such as sequencers (‘first’, ‘next’, ‘then’).
  • Give your class some time to think about and note down the words and phrases they will need. Note that it is useful to give students time to think about the event too. They may need some time to think of a time when they were frightened.

You will now read about a group of students who are practising telling a story in English. As you read Case Study 2, think about how the teacher supports them, and helps them with English language.

Case Study 2: Mrs Vasanthi helps her students to tell a story

Mrs Vasanthi is an English teacher who recounts an activity she did recently with Class VIII.

We were studying Chapter 2 from the NCERT Class VIII textbook, Honeydew, which had a story about an ant and a cricket. My students know many different folk tales about animals, so I thought that they could learn to tell one in English. I decided to use one of my daughter’s favourite stories: the Panchantra tale called ‘The Snake and the Crows’. [See Resource 4 for a simple version of this story.] This story is quite easy, and the level of English is below that in our textbook. But many of my students have trouble reading those texts, so I wanted to make sure that everyone would be able to understand.

I began the story by showing my class pictures of three animals: a snake, a crow and a fox [Figure 1]. I found the pictures in my daughter’s story book.

  • Figure 1 A snake, a crow and a fox.

I drew a tree on the board and stuck the picture of the crow at the top of the tree, and stuck the snake at the bottom of the tree. Then I told the simple story, asking questions along the way. Here is an example:

This is a story about a crow and his wife. They lived at the top of the tree in a nest. What was in the nest? Can you guess? What can we usually find in nests?
Was it eggs, ma’am?
Yes, that's right. There were eggs in the nest. How many eggs? What do you think? Give me a number.
Three? Two? Six? Four?
OK. There were four eggs in the nest. Now, there was a snake at the bottom of the tree. And this snake was very hungry. What do you think the snake liked to eat?
Did it like to eat crows?
Maybe it did. But this snake really liked to eat eggs, and he wanted to eat the crows’ eggs that were in the nest. He couldn’t eat them because the crows were always there, looking after the eggs. But soon, the crows got hungry, and they left to find some food. What did the snake do? Can you guess?
He ate the eggs!
Yes, that’s right! He climbed up the tree and he ate all of the eggs. How do you think the crows felt when they got back to the nest to find that the eggs were gone?
They were sad.
Yes, they were very upset. But after a few weeks, they had more eggs and then they felt happy again.

By asking lots of questions and using the pictures, I told the story to the group. Since I chose an easy story, most of the students were able to follow it. This gave them confidence, which they needed because they soon had to tell the story themselves. Once the story was finished, I invited my students to tell me the story again in English: one told the first line, another told the second and so on. As they told the story, I wrote key words on the board (‘crows’, ‘nest’, ‘at the top’, ‘snake’, ‘at the bottom’, ‘upset’) and I also wrote some key verbs in the past tense (‘lived’, ‘liked’, ‘wanted to eat’, ‘climbed’). I reminded everyone that we use the past tense to tell stories.

Then I put students into groups of four or five. They are used to working in groups, as we often do this, so they got into groups quickly. Then I told everyone to start telling the story to each other. I told them that one student would start the story, the next would continue and so on. The groups started to tell the story, and as they spoke, I walked around the room listening to make sure that they understood the task and to see how they were performing the task and speaking in English. For this activity, it was important that the students tried to speak in English and tried to use the vocabulary that I made them aware of when I told the story.

When most groups had finished telling the story, I told everyone to stop, and asked them:

Most students agreed that they could tell the story better, so I asked them to tell the story again. This time, I asked them to choose different parts of the story, so that the person who began the previous time would not begin this time.

Groups began telling the story again and as they spoke, I moved around the room once more, listening to two or three groups. I noticed that they were better this time. There was an improvement in the use of language, and students could speak more quickly and confidently. They were more fluent. They made some mistakes, of course, but I didn’t interrupt them – I just listened. Some of the more advanced students added some detail to the story.

When most groups were ready to finish, I asked students to stop the activity, and I told them that they were better the second time they told the story. My students were pleased that they could tell a story together.

Activity 3: Helping your students to tell a story

Listening to and telling stories can be interesting for students of all ages and language levels. But you need to choose a story that you think will be interesting for your students and appropriate to their level of English. If you do this kind of activity often, you can progressively use more difficult texts.

Follow these steps to try a similar activity in your classroom:

  1. Choose a story that you and your students can tell. The story could be one of the following:
    • A story of your or your students’ choice – see Resource 3 for examples of simple stories.
    • Events from a story or passage that they have read in class. For example, they imagine that they are a character from the story and describe what happened.
    • A local news story that has captured the interest of your class.
    • A story from a film or a television ‘soap’ drama.
    • An event from personal experience (for example, a time when you were frightened or very happy, or a day at a fair, wedding or picnic).

Before the class, find some pictures that relate to the story. They could be pictures from a story book or the textbook; a picture from a magazine or newspaper; or a photo of an event, such as a wedding or picnic. You could also draw a picture on the board, or ask a student to draw a picture.

Practise telling the story. Remember to ask questions as you tell the story. Practise these questions too.

  1. In class, tell the story. If students don’t know it already, tell them the story simply and slowly. If they already know the story, ask more questions so that you and the students tell the story together. (See Resource 1 for some of the classroom language that you might need to do this activity).

    As you tell the story, write useful words and phrases on the board. You can adjust the amount that you write on the board depending on the level and ability of your students. Students who are not used to speaking English may need more support with language.

  2. Provide students with some of the language that they will need to tell the story themselves. If the story is ‘A day at a picnic’, you might write the following phrases:
  3. Now tell students that they will tell the story themselves. Put them into groups and ask them to take turns to tell part of the story to the students in their group. Remember that when groups are speaking at the same time, it might be noisy.
  4. Move around the room while your students tell the stories. Listen to some groups. Make sure that you listen to different students each time you do a speaking activity, and listen to ones from the back of the room as well as the front.

When most groups have finished telling their stories, end the activity. If you have time, students could tell their stories again. This time, each student could tell a different part of the story. This would provide further motivation for students to listen to each other’s stories.

Pause for thought

After trying this activity in class, think about the following questions:

  • Did everyone have the opportunity to speak in English?
  • With support, were students able to tell a story? How would you do the activity differently next time?

Some students may enjoy speaking in class. Others might need to be encouraged to speak more. Make sure to call on the ones who are shy as well. Be patient and encouraging, giving them time to choose their words. Allow them to use their home language if they need to.

If you find that some students do not participate, it might help to change the groups that students are in so that some students will be more comfortable to speak.

It will take time for students to develop confidence and abilities in speaking English. Activities in this unit may not work the first time you do them. If they don’t, just try them again. Keep notes on what you think went well and what you think you could have done better to remind yourself the next time you do a speaking activity.

1 Choosing topics to stimulate your students to speak in English

3 Giving students useful and positive feedback