Speaking: The Achilles Heel of Language Learning

Back in November we contacted a number of teachers, teacher trainers, oral examiners etc. and asked them to write about this thorny issue. When we received the articles we found out that most of them dealt with the Speaking Part of Tests.
“I can understand my teacher’s English, but when I speak to ‘real people’ I can’t understand them”. Have you heard this comment?


Students clearly feel that classroom-based speaking practice does not prepare them for the real world. Why do students so often highlight listening and speaking as their biggest problems? Partly because of the demands of listening and speaking and partly because of the way speaking is often taught. It usually consists of information-gap activities or is used to practice a specific grammar point. Neither teaches patterns of real interaction.


A couple of years ago I wrote an article in which I stated that young Greeks lack speaking skills and are unable to hold a conversation. Even university students who study in the UK have problems in expressing themselves in a clear and natural way. In other words our learners have not developed effective communication skills during their school years. In my opinion the main reasons are:

  1. Teachers teach the way they were taught. If speaking was neglected in their school years, they will neglect it in their teaching years.
  2. Lack of confidence in speaking
  3. Much of the language has been lost especially when teachers teach lower level classes
  4. Lack of time


Designing a speaking lesson requires a considerable amount of time. The teacher should design plenty of activities to help his/her students interact with each other. Firstly, the teacher should select authentic speaking activities. In an authentic activity, students experience how the language is used in daily life. It helps them learn more meaningfully and purposefully. It also maximizes the development of learners’ communicative competence.

In addition authentic speaking activities encourage collaborative learning. The benefits of collaborative learning are twofold. Shy students who feel nervous speaking in front of the whole class will feel more comfortable and relaxed working in pairs or groups. In addition collaborative learning helps students learn “extra knowledge”.


When students work together, they share their ideas. The content of the speaking topic is thus expanded and enriched.


Secondly, a speaking activity is an output process. Students must get enough input to be able to speak. So before a speaking activity, the teacher has to make sure that students are FULLY prepared. Have they learned the vocabulary? Have they mastered the grammar topic?


So what can we do in the classroom to prepare students for real interaction? Use technology apart from the speaking prompts your coursebook provides. Videos, power point presentations, debates, digital story telling etc. are excellent tools for making students develop speaking skills. Identify their interests –hobbies and after school activities- and challenge them to speak about them and about themselves. We all like to speak about ourselves; in the classroom context the more your students speak about themselves the better.•

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