Spontaneity in the foreign language classroom: how do we forge autonomous L2 speakers?


0. Introduction

In a previous post I concerned myself with the notion of spontaneity in target language production and provided some pedagogical ‘tips’ on how teachers can foster it in the  typical foreign language classroom. Today, during the professional learning time that Garden International School allocates to discussion and reflection every Friday afternoon, I discussed the issue further with my colleague Dylan Vinales, Head of Spanish, and experienced MFL teacher. This post encapsulates the main points of our discussion and expands on it.

1.What do we mean by ‘spontaneous talk’ in target language production ?

What does the notion of ‘spontaneous talk’ actually refer to in the context of L2 learning? In our view it means that when an L2 learner produces speech to initiate a conversation or respond to an external stimulus they do so ‘thinking on their feet’ , so to speak, without any pre-planning and without relying on any sort of support (e.g. vocabulary lists, talking mats, dictionaries, etc.). In other words, spontaneity equates with unplanned autonomous speech production.

Of course, as I advocated in my previous post, a competent L2 speaker is not simply one who can produce language ‘spontaneously’; s/he must first and foremost be intelligible and fluent and will possess a wide-ranging enough repertoire of vocabulary and discourse functions to be able to communicate effectively across various contexts.

Hence, any sensible foreign language teacher would not aim at learner spontaneity as divorced from fluency and intelligibility as the end-goal of their instruction; and whilst reserving to place a greater focus on accuracy and complexity at later stages of development, they will also aim at developing a level of learner mastery of L2 grammar use high enough to allow for generative power – the ability, that is, to effectively manipulate language grammatically/syntactically so as to generate new utterances from phrases /sentences acquired as formulaic items (e.g. from ‘I want you to know’ to ‘I want them to know’; from ‘To go camping’ – they go camping; from ‘ he plays with us’ to ‘they play with me’).

2. Define the teaching and learning focus

Developing spontaneous talk has been a very ‘trendy’ topic in the international teaching community in recent years. These days every L2 language educator posits ‘spontaneity’ in language production as the ultimate desirable goal of L2 teaching. However, I do wonder how much MFL teacher professional development and planning time is invested in figuring out ways to bring about spontaneity; how much effort is put into planning for spontaneity-fostering activities; how much formative assessment is devoted to tracking learner development across this all-important dimension of oral proficiency development.

For spontaneity to be attained teachers must keep the achievement of the ability to produce unplanned fluent intelligible talk in their focal awareness from the very early stages on L2 learning. A big chunk of their short, medium- and long-term planning must regularly focus on this steep goal; and this needs not be detrimental to the development of the other skills since, as I will discuss below, listening, reading and even writing  play an important role in the process.

3. Fostering Intelligible fluency

Fluency, conceived as a measure of time-to-word speech ratio, refers to the automatization of speech production; the speed, that is, at which words are retrieved from long-term memory to match a speech plan and uttered as part of an intelligible speech production unit (e.g. a sentence). Hence, it can only be achieved through masses of practice in retrieving language from long-term memory under R.O.C. (real operating conditions). Consequently, involving the students in oral interaction as much as possible is imperative; this calls for frequent student-to-student and/or student-to-expert speaker interaction.

4. Classroom practice: from controlled to unstructured

Let me reiterate here a point I have often made on this blog: the importance of starting from an imitative, highly scaffolded and controlled practice stage in which the students receive lots of prompts and support. This stage needs to be one of intensive and extensive practice; it can take a whole lesson, or even two, if the attainment of spontaneity is truly a priority. Throughout this stage the oral activities should become increasingly more challenging and should elicit more varied and complex responses. Activities may include: role plays/dialogues with visual or L1/L2 cues; Find someone who with real or fake identities; Oral translations; Surveys; Simulations; etc. Steve Smith, with whom I am currently authoring ‘The MFL teacher’s handbook’, outlines concisely what controlled practice activities may include in his latest blog: http://t.co/fkOSSeSAHC.

The highly scaffolded stage will be followed by a consolidation and expansion phase in which the language practised and learnt during the first phase is reinforced through activities aiming at strengthening retention in preparation for the next phase, in which communicative practice will occur without scaffolding. This phase, too, should allow for extensive practice. Interactional writing activities can be used during this phase (see my post at https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/the-writing-skill-most-foreign-language-techers-dont-teach-writership/  for this). During this phase the students should be encouraged to take risks and expand their vocabulary autonomously.

The final stage is the autonomous stage in which communication occurs without scaffolding and in which accuracy is not a concern unless it impedes communication and errors should go untreated (common errors raising concern can be dealt with at the end of each round of oral interaction or at the end of the lesson). Whilst scaffolding materials are removed, the teacher will play an important role, monitoring, facilitating and providing feedback on student performance. At the end of this phase the students can be asked to video themselves talking in pairs – rigorously without a script.

In a previous post I proposed a framework which integrates the three phases just outlined with emerging digital technologies used successfully in our school by myself and other colleagues (see: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/digital-learning-and-oral-fluency-in-the-mfl-classroom-rescuing-the-neglected-skill/ )

Please note that it is crucial that throughout each phase teachers ensure that students are exposed to an increasingly wide range of questions, as ‘spontaneous’ speakers must be able to react to as many external stimuli as possible in real time. The complexity of the questions should ideally increase, too. Research in L1 and L2 acquisition clearly indicates that the variety, length and complexity of the questions learners are asked play an important role in language acquisition.

This also calls for a form of flipped learning which is not sufficiently encouraged and scaffolded in the typical L2 classroom: actively seeking opportunities for oral practice outside the classroom. Funny how since the advent of certain emerging technologies educators put enormous effort in promoting flipped learning of the digitally-mediated kind; however, very few language educators seem to focus on this more potentially beneficial form of autonomous learning, which can but does not have to involve the digital medium.

Think of the enormous benefits of having the vast majority of your students practising oral skills regularly outside lesson time. Yet, how many MFL meetings are devoted to try and work out ways to create opportunities for and instill in L2 students the desire to do just that and to scaffold the process in a principled way? The real flipped MFL classroom is the classroom where students WANT to carry on learning by their own free will; where speaking happens after the lesson is over. In international schools like the one I work in, where there are plenty of target language speaker students and parents, not to explicitly and systematically foster this kind of engagement is a massive missed opportunity.

Another dimension of fluency refers to speed of sound production. When our articulators (larynx, mouth organs, etc.) have not automatized effectively the pronunciation of the target language sounds, speech production will slow down and vocabulary retrieval will be hampered too, as memory is phonologically mediated. It follows that pronunciation must be focused on consistently, too. This will call for instruction in micro-listening and decoding skills of the kind I have advocated in my posts on these topics.

Throughout the process, teachers must obviously ensure that their learners’ output is intelligible. Hence, the practice of getting students – when working in TL oral pair-work – to jot down the meaning of what their partners/interlocutors have just told them in response to a question may be useful. Yes, it does slow down the conversation, but (a) it is a real life task (L2 speakers interpret for their peers all the time); (b) it makes the listener pay more attention to their partner’s input; (c) you will not get the students to do it all the time. Say you have organized an oral communicative activity such as a GCSE style interview; you may want to engage each student in four rounds of interviews; the students will do the L1 translating/interpreting for two of the four rounds, whereas for the other two rounds, the listener will focus on providing feedback on their partner’s pronunciation, range of vocabulary, correct use of tenses or any other language feature(s) constituting the focus of the lesson.

Here are some other practical easy-to-set-up activities to promote fluency other than oral learner-to-learner communicative activities. They are very effective as pre-communicative activities as they foster fast retrieval from long-term memory whilst not involving the use of the articulators and the added emotional stress and cognitive load of oral interaction:

  • Fluency is about speed of retrieval of the required L2 items from long-term memory. Hence, getting students to respond to a visual stimulus, a sentence to finish up in their own words or questions under time constraints (possibly setting a minimum required number of words) provides good training. I do this quite often as a starter with my GCSE classes other with MWBs (mini white boards) or on a google doc shown on the classroom screen. It is paramount to vary the type of stimuli / questions as much as possible and avoid merely sticking to the topic-in-hand;
  • Engaging the students in translations of short sentences on MWBs – again under time constraints – accomplishes the same purposes whilst forcing the students to be accurate and allowing the teacher control over student output. Students are shown short sentences on the classroom screen and must translate under time constraints. 100% accuracy is not a must;
  • Where logistically and technologically possible, give the students an iPad or other recording device and ask them to record themselves talking about a specific topic, possibly one that is not too recent but that you know they can talk about. Better if you give them five or six specific sub-topics to focus on in the way of bullet points; including one or two sub-topics which you know they will find particularly challenging in terms of vocabulary will give you an idea of how well they can cope in terms of compensatory strategies deployment.
  • Interactional writing (see my post: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/the-writing-skill-most-foreign-language-techers-dont-teach-writership/)

A final point: teachers often ‘compartmentalize’ teaching and learning by topic; what I mean is that whilst dealing with a unit of work (e.g. work and career) the oral activities during the 6-8 week period devoted to that unit only cover the topic-in-hand. That should not be the case. To develop spontaneity, ways need to be found for learners to be engaged ever so often during those 6-8 weeks in conversation/information-gap activities on past topics or even on topics never encountered before to ‘test’ their communicative limits

5.Vocabulary repertoire and communicative functions

Speaking autonomous competence requires knowing a wide enough range of vocabulary to express yourself across a sufficient range of semantic and functional contexts. In other words, for a learner to spontaneously produce language utterances that enable them to meet their communicative goals, they must possess a repertoire of lexical items (words and stock phrases) with high surrender value which allows them (a) to talk about a wide range of topics; (b) perform the most important communicative functions (personal, interpersonal, directive, referential and imaginative; complete list at: http://www.carla.umn.edu/articulation/polia/pdf_files/communicative_functions.pdf ).

Hence, vocabulary teaching must be an important focus of classroom / out-of-the-classroom L2 learning. Whilst it is more time-effective to ‘flip’ vocabulary learning, it may be more beneficial to choose web-tools/apps which do not simply focus on word level and teach words as discrete items (e.g. www.linguascope.com, www.vocabexpress.com or www.languageperfect.com ) but which enable students to learn the words in context and across as many linguistic contexts as possible.

It is important for vocabulary teaching which aims at developing fluent spontaneity to aim at (a) fast retrieval and (b) transfer across contexts. Here, too, the MWB translation activities under time constraints of the kind outlined above can come in very handy. Recycling, as I often reiterate in my posts is extremely important for reason I have already explained to death on this blog. Teachers must plan carefully for recycling ensuring that each unit of work provide opportunities for the recycling of old ‘material’. This rarely happens in MFL department or course-book schemes of work, yet is possibly the most important factor in determining learners’ retention of the target vocabulary.

An important` point: very often British L2 textbooks and online resources provide detailed lists of nouns but not verbs. However, without the mastery of a wide repertoire of verbs the generative power of nouns is limited and the ability to talk across a wide range of topics is drastically reduced – affecting the learner potential to talk ‘spontaneously’ across context. Adjectives/Adverbs are often neglected, too.

For a principled approach to teaching vocabulary refer to my post ’13 steps to effective vocabulary teaching’.

6. Aural skill instruction: providing models and teaching listenership vs ‘quizzes’

In order to effectively foster fluent spontaneity teachers need to change their attitude to listening skills instruction. The listening tasks teachers must involve their students in will not be those which aim at testing their inferential strategies (e.g. true and false quizzes), but those that model useful language and teach learners to be effective interlocutors (e.g. be able to function effectively in the context of a conversational exchange by understanding and responding to their interlocutors’ utterances).

6.1 Modelling useful language

Students must be engaged in listening activities involving exposure to useful comprehensible input which aims at (a) reinforcing and expanding their existing repertoire of vocabulary and communicative strategies; (b) enhancing their pronunciation and decoding skills; (c) modelling ‘spontaneous’ talk.

For (a) and (b) to be achieved teachers must involve students in tasks which require them to pay attention to lexis and sound. A very easy-to-set-up activity is obviously translation. The teacher utters useful sentences and students translate them on mini boards. Transcribing short texts can also help. Another  activity involves providing the students with a – as literal as possible – gapped translation of a listening text and play the audio track; the task: to fill in the gaps in the translation (in English of course). Jigsaw listening and L2 gapped-text tasks can be useful, too.

As far as (c) is concerned, videos of native speakers (not actors) engaging in spontaneous interaction / talk can be beneficial as they model useful linguistic and paralinguistic features of native-speaker spontaneous talk.  Such videos can be found on the web or can be created by teachers interviewing native speakers (e.g. language assistants or L2-native-speaker colleagues). Because they don’t have to last more than a few minutes and have to be as spontaneous as possible, they require no planning – apart from deciding on the questions to ask. Thus the process is not very time consuming.

6.2 Listenership

Listenership development can be fostered by involving students in any listening or oral communicative activity which requires them to understand and respond. Some of the MWBs activities outlined above can be recycled in this context, too. Videos of conversational/transactional exchanges between native speakers where students need to demonstrate understanding of the questions being asked. Frequent practice in answering a wide range of questions and responding to statements – for instance, as a starter, make a statement in the L2 and ask the students to respond saying if and why they agree/disagree with it (example: the food in the canteen is unhealthy). If we are aiming at fluency too, we can do this under time constraints. Obviously, any oral communicative activity involving negotiation of meaning will serve this purpose,too.

7.Encouraging risk-taking and modelling and practising compensatory strategies

Students should be encouraged to take risks. For this it is crucial that errors are tolerated in unstructured oral communicative practice. Risk-taking, however, requires some scaffolding, too. By this I mean that students should be equipped with effective strategies to cope with communication breakdown, e.g. how to make up for lack of vocabulary.

We advocate the teaching of the following compensatory strategies:

Coinage – this involves showing the students how you can create an L2 word from and L1 word (this strategy does not obviously apply to all languages). For instance: how to get the French for university, city or proximity by changing the ‘y’ to ‘é’ or how to obtain the Spanish equivalent of verbs ending in ‘-ate’ in English by replacing ‘-ate’ with ‘-ar’ e.g.: exagerar, alternar, enumerar, etc. This also entails encouraging students to create new L2 words that may actually not exist but can be understood, such as ‘ her eyes are watering’ for ‘she is crying’;

Paraphrase – this involves teaching students how to make up for lack of vocabulary by providing a basic definition/description of a word (e.g. for ‘glass’ – you use it to drink water);

Approximation – this involves using a word that is close enough in meaning to the one you need (e.g. ship for sailboat) with or without the use of miming to enhance expressive power;

Teaching the above strategies can be a lot of fun. Some teachers may frown upon the idea of their students learning how to produce erroneous L2 items in order to get the message through. However, these strategies are not simply compensatory strategies; they are ultimately learning strategies in that their use usually results in a correction which provides the accurate L2 form.

Spontaneity does require the kind of risk-taking and creativity that the application of these strategies entails. Compensatory strategies allow a speaker to keep up the spontaneous talk even when they lack vocabulary and grammar; hence, they are important communicative ‘tools’.


Spontaneity in oral production can only be achieved through tons of practice, especially of the productive kind. For learners to be spontaneous they need:

  • Masses of vocabulary. The more vocabulary a learner knows the more they will be likely to communicate;
  • Practice in manipulating stock lexical phrases (formulaic language) to adapt them effectively to various linguistic contexts. This may require some teaching of grammar and syntax;
  • A classroom climate which encourages one-to-one oral interaction and risk-taking and prioritizes fluency and communication over grammatical accuracy;
  • Extensive controlled and highly scaffolded one-to-one oral interaction practice which leads to unstructured practice. Such practice should aim at developing transferrable communicative routines, whose automatization will ultimately lead to spontaneity;
  • autonomous vocabulary learning and seeking oral interaction opportunities outside the classroom;
  • practice in compensatory strategies;
  • listening which models useful language and transferrable communicative routines.

A final point: if teachers do value spontaneity, fluency and intelligibility in speech production as the most important end-goals of L2 learning, then they should ensure that this is reflected in their curriculum design and everyday teaching. The achievement of spontaneity requires relentless practice and systematic formative assessment. Fortunately, as I have attempted to show above, focusing on spontaneity in speech does not harm the development of the other three skills. Even reading, which I have not mentioned thus far, can indirectly play an important role in enhancing spontaneity by widening our students’ vocabulary – provided, that is, that they possess effective decoding skills which enable them to accurately transform L2 graphemes into L2 sounds.


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