More than just speaking: developing speaking skills – a summary of Adrian Doff’s webinar

Posted: January 28, 2015 in Activities, ELT methodology
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Last night there was a great webinar on developing speaking skills by Adrian Doff. Adrian analyzed what language students need for fluency, shared some materials (conversation snippets) that exemplify that language and suggested a number of teaching activities to help students master it.

I teach English in a non-English speaking environment and fluency has been a major issue for a lot of my students, so developing fluency is one of the areas that I’m very interested in. I even picked this area as a focus for one of my Delta Module 2 lessons and wrote a series of posts about my attempts to work on fluency in class.

So all in all, this was a very interesting topic for me – and an extremely interesting webinar. I liked Adrian’s ideas a lot (some reinforced what I’ve already been doing in class, and others were very fresh but at the same time simple and intuitive), and I’m going to bring a lot of what he shared to class.

Below is a summary of the webinar – the recording will be available on CUP blog here: The summary turned out quite long – mostly because the ideas are very valuable and I want to have a detailed record to refer to when planning fluency activities.

The main question that Adrian was addressing: How can we improve speaking skills? ‘Fluency activities’ do help, but how to do that in a more focused way?

In the webinar Adrian


Question for the audience: What language (grammar, vocabulary, expressions) might you need to invite someone to your home? What language would the other person need to respond effectively?

Obviously, functional expressions (e.g. Would you like to come round for lunch? / Thanks, I’d love to. How do I get to your house? / Take the train…), but a typical coursebook dialogues exemplifying those functional expressions might not quite sound like a real, natural conversation – it’s a bit robotic (does the job but it doesn’t really flow).

Adrian went on to compare a coursebook dialogue with a natural conversation:

A: Would you like to come round for lunch? A: Oh, by the way..
B: Yes?
A: I was meaning to ask you – would you like to come round for lunch?
B: Thanks, I’d love to. How do I get to your house? B: Oh.. Oh yes, thanks. I’d love to. Are you sure? It’s very nice of you.
A: Of course.
B: OK, great – How do I get to your house?
A: Take the train to Park Street. Go out of the station and turn left. It’s Queen Street, number 10. A: Well, let me see.. Take the number 15 bus to Park Street then you..
B: OK, the number 50 bus.
A: No, not 15 – 50.
B: Good. B: Oh right.
A: I’ll see you at 6.
B: See you, then.

We see that what’s missing from a coursebook dialogue is Speaking strategies that ‘oil the wheels’ of the conversation (in this particular case, expressions for introducing a topic / responding positively / giving yourself time to think / clarifying / correcting).

Adrian went on to analyze speaking strategies in a number of conversation snippets:

  1. Look, I’m not sure how to put this…
    What is it?
    Well, the company hast to make cuts.. ( Strategy: introducing bad news / softening)
  2. So you press this button – OK?
    B: This button here? (Strategy: checking that you’ve been understood / rephrasing)
  3. Well, anyway.. (Strategy: changing the topic / going back to the original topic / a way of closing the conversation in a polite way: Well, anyway, I must be heading on).

Are these necessarily only for advanced students? No: at lower levels s/s will need at least expressions for

  • Attracting attention (Excuse me)
  • Expressing uncertainty (Er, I’m not sure)
  • Giving yourself time to think (Well)

At advanced levels, s/s will need more advanced expressions.

[Comment: this last remark reminds me a lot the insight that I got from analyzing my own attempts to master German: I analyzed the transcript of my first ever speaking lesson, during which I code-switched to English all the time and my teacher was providing me with German equivalents of the expressions I was looking for. It turned out that the majority of the expressions were not ‘topic vocabulary’ but language for evaluation (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging), sentence adverbs (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least), meta-language to clarify the use of some expressions and manage the lesson (informal/this isn’t used like that/irregular comparative forms/I’ll delete that/cross that out) and a lot of expressions to compensate for lack of vocabulary (this is something like…/the opposite of…/I can’t think of a good English equivalent-word/there’s no equivalent in English). So maybe if we allowed the students to code-switch, a lot of strategies would come up naturally.]

Teaching speaking strategies

Adrian went on to suggest some teaching activities:

Activities for noticing that the speaking strategies are there: 

  • through a gapped transcript of a dialogue – give out a gapped transcript, ask s/s if they remember what’s in the gaps and/or play the recording to let s/s fill the gaps;
  • such tasks are appearing in coursebooks; but anyway coursebook transcripts that are meant to serve a different purpose – e.g. introduce a grammar point – are very often good for exploring strategies too, so explore coursebook transcripts
  • through prediction: play a dialogue line by line and get s/s to guess what is going to be said next (e.g for a phone conversation); play around with with what the possibilities are – great for turn-taking expressions and adjacency pairs (Here you are / Thank you; How are you? / Fine).
    [This is something that I’ve never done and I really look forward to trying this out in class! Especially with language for natural reactions, and telephoning / teleconferencing.]

2. Activities for practicing the speaking strategies
Mini exchanges (all s/s get a piece of news on cards (e.g. Someone’s just stolen your iPhone / You’ve decided to get married / They’ve discovered life on Mars); s/s share their news and practice reacting in a mingling activity (Do you know? They’ve discovered life on Mars! Oh, that’s interesting.)

3. Using strategies in communication

When it comes to freer activity, in the heat of communication learners are quite likely to forget to use the new expressions.

E.g. it’s a common situation when learners have been presented expressions for polite disagreement but in the middle of communication the learners will slip back to their comfort zone. [Yes, this is something that’s been a struggle for me ever since I started teaching Business English, really!]

So what are some possible ways to make them stick?


  • Less is more! Reduce the number of expressions to two to three
  • Empower the students – let them choose 2-3 that they like and want to use;
  • Get feedback After the activity ask the s/s what they used – write them up on the board [Nice!]
  • Make it a game / use an observer (a group is having a discussion, while one student acts as a dedicated observer who notes down what strategies have been used; another example: one student tells a story, other people respond / show interest, the observer gives feedback on how they did this) [I’ve tried this a few times and really liked how it went, so note to self: use this activity more consistently.]
  • (an idea that came up at the end of the webinar during a question/answer session): Have s/s write a dialogue, then put it away and have this dialogue again in speaking (so that it ends up as an improvised – though rehearsed – conversation). [This is something I’ve never had the courage to try, as the activity would take quite a lot of time and because it feels unnatural to write spoken language – but come to think of it, the activity would give students firm confidence that they can use the target language, which would be extremely valuable, so I’ve finally resolved myself to try it.]

Psychological preparation.

How to introduce preparation for fluency activities? In foreign language it’s extremely difficult to think and speak at the same time. Example: let’s say we have a discussion activity: ‘How important it is to have privacy?’ If we just ask students to talk about this, this might run dry: some people won’t have any ideas / some people will be shy etc. The answer: allow students preparation time. How?


Hand out a cline: How important is privacy to you? Mark your place on the line.

Very important 5 ____4____3____2____1 Not very important

Now sit with other students; show them where you put yourself on the line and why.
This activity is a lot more likely to work because the students have had the chance to think.

Another example:

Project an image of a house. Purpose: to get the students to discuss Who lives in this house? / where is it? / …  Preparation stage: Take the class through some questions (don’t get any responses – just ask the questions and allow some thinking time:):

Where is it? Why is it in this place? What is it used for? Now imagine you get into the house: what’s in the house? How many rooms are there? What objects are there? Is this a beautiful house or not a nice place to be? Just get a mental image. Now turn to your partner and exchange what you’ve imagined.

What I especially liked about Adrian Doff’s ideas is that they’re little tweaks or short activities that could be easily used with existing material (or as short warmers) on a regular basis. In my experience it’s such little tweaks (e.g. pronunciation slots/ways to re-phrase instructions/etc) – and self-discipline on my part to apply them consistently – that make the most difference to my teaching. Thanks a lot to the presenter and to Cambridge University Press for organizing the webinar!

  1. Adi Rajan says:

    I lurked in this webinar and wrote a sketchy summary. Yours is so thorough 🙂

    • olyasergeeva says:

      Hi Adi,
      That’s because I need every technique out there to help students with natural interaction and fluency, and so want to make sure I don’t forget anything =)

      I mentioned this during the webinar – some of my students, especially at higher levels, have been very dismissive of any work on functional language for interaction, backchanneling, fluency markers and so on. Down to insisting that fluency markers are only used by ‘bad speakers’ – that was _after_ we’d analyzed a few examples of competent speakers’ speech. Been trying out the ideas from this webinar, with dogged persistence. =)

      Btw Adi, thanks a lot for your idea based on a Triptico app – haven’t tried that yet but will as soon as I get a chance.


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