Tony Gurr

Is SPEAKING the “lost eagle” of ELT? [Part FOUR]

In Classroom Teaching, ELT and ELL, Our Universities on 31/05/2011 at 9:55 am

Are we all sitting comfortably?


I left Part Three on an action-planning note:

If we are to have any success in “teaching” speaking (or facilitating its learning):

  • We have to have a decent “roadmap”
  • We have start walking-our-talk
  • We have to know how well we are doing (and let learners know about this, too)


This first point hints at the dimension of curriculum – an area I have devoted many posts to on this blog (so we won’t cover all this ground again). Suffice to say we have to see curriculum as more than a “series of teaching plans”, we have to conceptualise of it as being more than a “basket of instructional bricks” (or courses) that are “delivered” to students!

There are still many schools and universities out there whose only “speaking curriculum” is the content page of their textbook or the limited (and mind-numbingly boring) speaking activities dropped into these books.

There are others (cheered on by the “learning outcomes movement”) that have developed more systematic speaking outcomes, worked to staircase these across semesters and developed packs of curriculum outlines (and even their own textbooks). Sadly, however, even on these initiatives such curriculum tools are defined in terms of “teaching” or the language of curriculum developers – in addition to the “way we done things for years around here”.


There are very few schools and universities that have meaningfully moved away from a “topic-based teaching model” to one that starts with the question(s):

  • What type of “speaking” will our students need to do in “the real world” of the 21st Century? What should they be learning to “do” with their oral communication abilities and what they learn about speaking skills? How do we know this?

In Turkey, for example, this is evidenced by the fact that so few schools have aligned their speaking programmes to frameworks such as the CEFR or the “can-do statements” developed by ALTE.

In many universities, there are also many “hazırlık centres” that do not fully know how their graduates will “use” their English speaking skills in Freshman year – let alone the “real world”. In the absence of this type of data, they just keep on doing what they have always done – and prepare students for “academic speaking activities” (that more often than not do not take place or have little relevance to the real world).


In the real world, speaking is used for a wide range of activities:

When we look closer at these “activities” we see learners not only have to communicate who they are (or who they want to be seen as), not only have to get things done through communication such as negotiating deals, but also need to create “deliverables” and deliver performance pieces.

These are clearly very different, as Jack Richards has tried to tell us for years, and have different features:

These “types of talk” range from idle chit-chat or small-talk to serious negotiations or service relationships to business presentations or oral defences of proposals, etc. Learners need all of these – or at least a good balance across all three types.

Not exactly the type of thing that “hours and hours of grammar exercises” are going to help our learners with.


And, when we look closely at what happens at the classroom level – there are huge “gaps” in both the input students “see” and the learning opportunities provided to help them learn-by-doing and grow in a wider range of skill areas.

Learners clearly need to be getting the right kind of “input” as well as varied and rich opportunities for “output” – in addition to support on matters of both fluency and accuracy. All these elements need to have an explicit and “loud” voice on the speaking curriculum – and both teachers and learners need to know what their “shared outcomes” are.

You’d be amazed how many educational institutions still do not bother to “tell” students what they are supposed to be learning (and not just in the area of “speaking”)!

However, teachers need support in “breathing life” into such documentation – they need access to models, scripts, and materials if the curriculum is to become more than a list of “topics” they are expected to “teach”.


Institutions, then, need to ask:

Textbooks do not a curriculum make…and a curriculum is not just what a teacher “teaches” (or a nice file that gathers dust on a shelf). A curriculum “lives” in the space between “intended learning outcomes” and the “relationships” developed to realise those outcomes. Just as, in an organisation, culture is the shadow of the leader:

An effective curriculum is the best way to prepare the groundwork for making a real difference in the way our students “learn” how to communicate – and “speak”.

The teacher can (and should) then do the rest!


  1. Spot on! I always get a chuckle when I see tagged onto the list of things glossy coursebooks can allegedly do the words ‘speaking practice’. Trading Standards need to be informed in most cases 🙂

    Which reminds me of the person who listened to my case studies via my LinkedIn group and asked me how I assessed the students’ performance.

    It’s like everyone has forgotten they’ve got ears. The ability to record audio is magical…for assignments, acquisition and assessment.

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