Five tips to encourage spontaneous talk


Today I came across the following tips for encouraging spontaneous talk whilst browsing the web.

Top 5 tips for encouraging spontaneous talk in the MFL classroom

  1. Have keyphrases on the wall so they can use them when they want – e.g. ‘I would like…’
  2. Take all opportunities to encourage students – ‘I need a pen’
  3. Give as much supportas possible – literacy mats/vocab sheets/peer help
  4. Rewardbravery!
  5. Build it into routineslike entering the classroom (hold up a MWB of a key phrase at the door like ‘opinion in French’ and they have to give an example as they come in. That way each child has said something in TL before you’ve even done the register!)


These are useful tips which can help teachers create a culture which may encourage pupils to talk in class, no doubt. But do they really promote spontaneous talk? In order to answer this question let us have a look at what ‘spontaneous’ means. The Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary offers the following definition of the adjective ‘spontaneous’:

Performed or occurring as a result of a sudden impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus:

Michelle Cairns’ tips reflect the kind of pedagogic advice given by several other MFL educators and are rooted in a misunderstanding of the notion of ‘spontaneous talk’ both in terms of the cognitive processes it involves and the developmental mechanisms that lead to the ability to produce speech autonomously.

Since ‘spontaneous talk’ refers to the ability to produce speech without prompts, Michelle Cairns’ tips, like those dished out by many other MFL educators, refer but to the very embryonal stage of spontaneous talk, what in my model of speaking skill acquisition I refer to as the ‘imitative’ stage. However, in order to bring our learners from the ability to ‘parrot’ phrases on the wall or on writing mats to what applied linguists call ‘autonomous speaking competence’ (i.e. spontaneous speech) it takes way more than those five tips, unless we hold a very simplistic view of oral proficiency acquisition.

For spontaneous talk to be developed effectively in large classes (i.e. classes of the size typically found in secondary schools), the top tip according to much research (e.g. Varonis and Gass, 1985; Pica,1996; Macaro, 1997; Donato and McGlone, 1997; Macaro, 2007) should be to engage students in NNS (non-native speaker)-to-NNS oral interaction in the context of tasks requiring negotiation of meaning (e.g. information gap tasks).

Whilst the ‘parroting’ stage alluded to above is important, especially when it ‘drills in’ carefully selected high frequency phrases useful in the real world, the most important part of the oral-skill acquisition process occurs when students are practising the skill of putting a message across to an interlocutor, regardless of the mistakes they make. Only after much such practice, supported by writing mats, dictionaries and expert TL speakers at the early stages one can develop spontaneous speech.

Many teachers refrain from staging oral tasks involving oral learner-to-learner interaction for the following reasons:

  • Students do not always stay on task and lapse in their L1
  • Teachers are concerned about the negative effective for learning of pairing students of different levels of proficiency; the more able learners might not be ‘stretched’ enough if they work with less able ones;
  • By working with their peers, learners might pick up erroneous utterance that they might end up fossilizing;
  • Not all students enjoy it.

As for (a), studies by Brooks and Donato (1994), Knight (1996) and Brooks et al. (1997), Anton and Di Camilla (1998) found that students do generally stay on task and do tend to use the TL most of the time. What is more interesting, even when they do lapse into their L1, they tend to use it for TL learning enhancing behaviours, i.e. (1) to facilitate the negotiation of meaning; (2) to talk about the task (e.g. how to conduct it; what the expectations were). These studies also produced an interesting finding: learner-to learner interaction tasks promote a whole host of self-regulation strategies which enhance TL acquisition and that I observe every day in my lessons during such activities (e.g. whispering to oneself to repeat a word they have just heard from a peer or teacher in order to commit it to memory) – a further reason to implement such classroom activities.

As for point (b) and (c), above, Iwashita (2001) investigated if pairing students of different levels of proficiency might have adverse effects on the frequency of interaction and the modified output that would result from the interactions. She got her students to work in three proficiency pairs: High-High, Low-Low and Hig-Low. She found that the lower proficiency students gained a lot from working with higher proficiency students and produced lots of modified output, whilst the higher proficiency learners were not seemingly disadvantaged.

Finaly, as far as point (d) is concerned, Macaro (1997) found that oral pair-work made most of the students feel comfortable and they  reported learning and remembering a lot. Very few of the students reported negative attitudes.

Obviously, the process of acquiring spontaneity in TL speech production will have to be supported by the teaching of masses of TL vocabulary (not just nouns – but a wide range of verbs, too), of discourse function markers and by lots of exposure to comprehensible aural input.

Computer/ Tablet-mediated interactional writing (see my previous post on it) can also play a very important role, as it allows the learner to converse through the written medium at a speed high enough to practise fast TL processing but slow enough to allow for more self-monitoring.

The one tip from Michelle Cairns’ post that I would definitely ‘save’ as pivotal in fostering spontaneous speech is to ‘reward bravery’, not only to create an atmosphere conducive to risk-taking and tolerance of error, but also because it encourages the deployment of another important catalyst of spontaneous speech development: communication strategies, the ways, that is, in which MFL learners compensate for their lack of language by coining new words, paraphrasing or explaining unknown vocabulary, resort to gestures or onomatopoeias or overgeneralize TL rules.

These are my top tips for developing spontaneous talk beyond the obvious imitative stage that Michelle Cairns’ pedagogic advice in her very useful blog referred to:

  1. Teach masses of vocabulary, ensuring there is a balanced mix of nouns, adjectives and verbs. As Macaro (2007) and Conti (2015) point out, far too often teachers neglect equipping their learners with a wide enough range of verbs. Extensive reading should be promoted as a way to acquire new vocabulary;
  2. Involve students in lots of oral interaction involving negotiation of meaning and practising a wide repertoire of communicative functions (e.g. comparing and contrasting; persuading; agreeing and disagreein). Oral interaction tasks should be sequenced wisely in terms of the cognitive load they place on the learners; hence, one would start with highly controlled tasks (the imitative stage Michelle Cairnes alluded to) and gradually move to less structured communicative activities (e.g. the ones investigated by Varonis and Gass, 1985, and Macaro (1997);
  3. Expose learners to lots of comprehensible aural input (e.g. through narrow listening tasks). Increase the amount of listening tasks which aim at modelling language use rather than testing students. In other words, use the listening tasks to draw students’ attention to the language items you want them to ‘pick up’ rather than simply ask to guess if statements are true or false or identify details in the text;
  4. Model to students creative ways to put a message across to an interlocutor when they do not know vocabulary; i.e. train them in the deployment of communicative strategies;
  5. Ask them to practise digitally-mediated interactional writing independently with their peers or other target language knowers on the internet – the way I picked up two of my languages.

In conclusion, the acquisition of ‘spontaneity’ in speech production (autonomous speaking competence) is a complex process which goes from an imitative stage in which the learner is highly dependent on models and scaffolding to an autonomous stage in which the learner has a sufficiently wide repertoire of vocabulary, discourse function markers and compensatory strategies. Teachers must plan for it carefully and work towards its attainment through the systematic application of the five principles just outlined whilst creating a non-judgmental learning environment conducive to risk-taking. Ultimately, the extent to which students become effective autonomous TL speakers will largely hinge on the amount of vocabulary they know, the speaking practice they will have received and their willingness to take risks.

A final point: spontaneous speech without the development of fluency intended as the automatization of intelligible speech production is not conducive to effective communication under real operating conditions (e.g. real life communication). Hence, in my view, MFL educators should posit ‘fluent spontaneous speech’ as the desirable goal of speaking proficiency instruction, where fluency refers to time-to-word ratio in intelligible-speech production.

Apologies to Michelle Cairns for the criticism of her tips, which is not specifically directed at her or her blog – which actually usually contains excellent teaching resources and advice for teachers – but to a general attitude towards MFL pedagogy found in many language teaching blogs which may be misleading as it presupposes and divulges an overly simplistic view of language acquisition.