Spontaneous talk revisited – courtesy of Pearson…



I thought I was in for a quiet and blogless Saturday evening until I came across this very slick and glossy pdf  document by Pearson entitled ‘Approaches to spontaneous speakingwhich represents in my eyes all that is wrong about the way teachers in England are trained to teach spontaneous talk. Hence this post, that I really did not want to write – as it is based on the work of someone I respect (Dr Rachel Hawkes) – but I felt compelled to.

Whilst I do agree with some of the points made – especially the fact that speaking is under-emphasized in most MFL classrooms and that student-to-student talk is grossly neglected – and I did find the activities listed useful (if limited in scope and variety)  I was very disappointed with the advice given in this article, especially the absolute absence of a useful framework for classroom practitioners on how to get from imitation to speech spontaneity. A pity, since the rationale given for laying more emphasis on speaking is excellent; the rest, however, simply felt like a dry list of speaking activities (speaking instruction classics) and facts based on very feeble evidence described in an uninspiring OFSTED- or GCSE-specification-like style.

Hence, the impression one gets from reading this is the overly simplistic persuasion that by merely staging such activities lesson in, lesson out the students would develop spontaneity. I wish it was that easy !

I wasn’t surprised, though, as this is the kind of stuff teachers taking part in much Egland-based CPD on speaking get – a list of activities, some reference to what OFTSED would like to see in lessons and very little reference to neuroscience and the research that really matters.

These are the main problems I have with the Pearson article in question.

  1. Spontaneous talk equates with spontaneous grammar

As I often reiterate in my blogs, there cannot be spontaneous talk without spontaneous grammar. Whereas in immersive or naturalistic input-rich environments (e.g international school ; the L2 country) the L2 learner can acquire grammar subconsciously, in input-poor ones with little teacher-student contact time this is impossible without explicit grammar instruction and work on the automatization of the target structures/morphemes.

Hence, before being able to cope with unstructured communicative tasks (describing pictures, unplanned conversation tasks, simulations, etc.) language students need to be first trained to automatize grammar by applying it in speech in highly controlled tasks, what DeKeyser calls ‘Communicative drills’ such as the following (on negatives), that I produced for my year 11 French lesson last Monday :


This controlled, highly structured stage is paramount as, if we just give students open questions and unstructured tasks, as the article suggests, the students might simply come out in their answers with the same words and phrases all the time and teachers would not have any control on their output.

Moreover, unless we structure the kind of output we want the students to produce, they might produce language which does not contain the target structures we want them to practise and re-practise over and over again. Hence, recycling being the key to grammar automization, spontaneity will not be achieved. We all now that. Open tasks will not guarantee such recycling. Highly structured communicative drills, will.

Open questions and unstructured tasks, contrary to what the article suggests  should occur much later on in spontaneous-speech development than the authors suggest -in what I call the  Autonomous phase. This phase, if you have not read my posts on the topic, refers to the stage in which the students do not need scaffolding or any kind of support any longer and can stand on their own two feet. Only at this stage, once much consolidation and practice has occurred through structured and semi-structured tasks, should the students be asked open questions and involved in unstructured communicative tasks.

What it is often forgotten or ignored  is that spontaneity is the equivalent of automatization of grammar and vocabulary use across a very wide range of contexts. Hence, to scaffold spontaneity, one needs to get the students to produce the target language fast and accurately across a wide range of contexts through tasks which involve systematic recycling and repetition of core language patterns (e.g. the same sentence stems applied to different vocabulary such as: je ne vais jamais au restaurant du coin; Je ne vais plus au restaurant chinois du coin; je ne vais jamais au bar du coin; etc.)

For example, going back to the negatives example, in the first phase of speech spontaneity-development (structured production) a teacher would make sure that the students practise the structure through controlled tasks on the topic in hand many times over.

Subsequently, the teacher will ensure that the students practise the structure across past and future topics (Expansion phase). Whilst in the Structured and Production phases support materials could still be used, in the subsequent phase (Autonomous phase), such materials are phased out. In the final stage of automization, the teacher will ensure that the students routinize the target structure through tasks which aim at developing speed (Routinization stage). In this final phase, communicative drills like the above one can come in handy again and can be used alongside more unstructured tasks eliciting the use of the target structure in real time conditions.

Being able to sequence instructional activities effectively and knowing at which proficiency stage to use them and for what purpose is what enhances one’s teaching, not random lists of tasks with a brief explanation of what they consist in.

In a nutshell, it is not clear from the article how on earth language students would ever be able to develop the all-important spontaneous grammar, as there is absolutely no mention of it. This is why a lot of the spontaneous talk one witnesses in English MFL classrooms is so ungrammatical and often contains many fossilised (automized) mistakes.

  1. Total absence of reference to receptive processing

The article does not mention the importance of listening in bringing about spontaneous speech – a shocking omission. Yet, how can one hope to develop spontaneous speech without listening ? The often unintelligible pronunciation and intonation patterns that language students exhibit in their speech is due exactly to this widespread and deeply engrained bad habit of teaching students to speak without adequate modelling through listening. Such modelling is imperative for spontaneous speech to happen. As long as the listening-speaking connection is not made explicit and emphasized by CPD providers and teacher trainers,speaking and language instruction will stay inadequate.

Another dimension of receptive processing vis-à-vis spontaneous talk which is grossly neglected in the article refers to Listenership, i.e. the ability of being able to respond to an interlocutor in real time (someone talking to us) in order to stay in the conversation. This is a very important component of spontaneous speech – unless we talk to ourselves, that is. No student training in this important skill is mentioned, yet, it is fundamental. That is why we have in England entire cohorts of language learners who do not comprehend impromptu questions in the target  language .

In sum, students need to have speaking modelled to them through aural input day in day out and need to become expert ‘spontaneous comprehenders’ as well spontaneous speakers as one cannot produce an effective response without understanding the question or stimulus that would prompt it in the first place.

  1. No mention of pronunciation and decoding instruction

As most current models of speech production clearly posit, there is no way a language learner can produce fluent speech without developing fluent pronunciation and decoding skills. The reason for this being that for spontaneous speech to occur, cognitive control over the articulators (responsible for speech production) must occupy subsidiary awareness (i.e. must occur subconsiously). Without pronunciation practice how can students develop correct and fluent pronunciation? Emphasizing the importance of this dimension of speaking instruction is imperative as , sadly, nobody teaches pronunciation these days…

  1. No explicit framework provided

As mentioned above and discussed in section 1, the article provides no framework whatsoever on how to take the students from novice to expert speech production. Not only it advances the preposterous notion that we should start teaching spontaneous speech by asking open questions – which goes contrary to how children acquire languages, which is exclusively through masses of caregiver modelling through the aural modality (listening) and closed questions, at the initial stages ; but it does not even remotely show how a teacher should structure and map out the evolution of spontaneous speech. Hence, it is of no use to any classroom practitioner who may want to design a curriculum or even an instructional sequence aiming at developing spontaneous speech.

A random list of tasks without any recommendation as to how should be sequenced in the process of automatisation of speech production is of no use whatsoever.

  1. Spontaneous and accurate and intelligible talk ? Or simply spontaneous ?

Another gross omission is the reference to an important aspect of spontaneous speech – intelligibility. There is no use in forging spontaneous speakers if these cannot produce intelligible speech. Again, in reading this article the impression one gets is that all teachers have to concern themselves with is spontaneity. And how about accuracy, comprehensibility and appropriateness vs ungrammaticality, unintelligibility and inappropriateness ? For spontaneous talk to be fluent as well as accurate and comprehensible, there must be a skilful mix of speaking tasks focusing on accuracy and tasks focusing on fluency. No mention of this is made in the article and again one is left with a sense of ‘randomness ‘ and amateur nonchalance in the approach to spontaneous talk put forward in this article.

  1. Contain the conversation with students through implicit recasts

The article invites teachers to keep the conversation going through implicit recasts when students make mistakes (in teacher-student conversation), ignoring to consider the fact that implicit recasts usually go unnoticed and are of no use in terms of modelling and learning. There is plenty of research evidencing that (Macaro 2007).  No alternative means of providing effective feedback strategy which may scaffold spontaneity are offered – yet, spontaneity can and must be coached (e.g. through critical listening)

    7. Where do they get the answers from?

Another classic of English-based CPD: showing a task without telling the teacher where the students are going to learn the answers from and how – convenient, as this is the hardest bit of all. In the article there is a picture task with lots of questions in different tenses listed next to it. Do I need to read a document by Pearson to learn that I can get my students to ask questions about a picture? I was taught that on the second day of my PGCE and the GCSE photo-card task is basically that. What teachers need to know is: how do I get the students to comprehend and answer those questions fast and reasonably accurately? That is what a teacher needs to be told.

Concluding remarks

As it often happens with articles and CPD workshops attempting to enhance teacher competence in the development of spontaneous speech, this document by Pearson merely provides a random list of speaking activities without suggesting any approach rooted in sound cognitive or even mentalist theory as to how teachers can use those activities to take our students from A to Z. A teacher reading this article is left with the misleading impression that by simply staging the tasks listed in lessons day in day out they will magically develop spontaneous talk. A highly disappointing piece, coming as it does from a publishing giant.


Six contexts in which we may not want to use the target language

A few weeks ago, an American educational guru gave a talk to some colleagues of mine about target language use in the classroom. She was categorical – reportedly – about the fact that teachers should talk in the target language ALL of the time. Although, I can see some benefits to this practice, if teacher classroom talk is carefully planned and executed (so as to include specific linguistic features one aims to model and/or recycle), I do believe that the positive impact of masses of fronted classroom talk on L2-language development overall is overrated by many.

In what follows, I will not discuss the advantages or disadvantages of 100% or less target language use by the teacher, as it is a topic that has been debated to death. Moreover, frankly speaking, as far as I am concerned, whether teachers should use or not the target language when they talk to their students should not even be an issue, as in my view unless the teacher is modelling (in the MAR phase of MARS EARS) they should talk as little as possible and limit their L2 use in the classroom solely to instructions and to very basic structural explanations. It is the students who should do ALL of the talking, in the context of learner-to-learner interaction involving meaning negotiation or more ludic activities such role-plays, find-someone-who, board games, etc.

However, since lessons in which a significant amount of time is devoted to fronted teacher-to-student/class communication do exist, I thought it would be helpful to at least point out six contexts in which, in my opinion, there are strong enough reasons for target-language teacher talk to be ruled out or drastically minimized, as it would have negative cognitive and/or affective impact on the learners. The reader should heed the following caveat before proceeding: the typical foreign language classroom I will be referring to, here, is a classroom where the four language macro-skills, Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing are given more or less equal emphasis and where teacher contact time amounts to 2 or 3 hours maximum a week and where grammar is taught explicitly. Hence, if the reader espoused teaching methodology is TPRS, C.I. or any other methodology rooted in Nativist theories of language acquisition, my discussion may not be particularly relevant (apart from Context 1, below, I guess).

These are six scenarios in which teachers should not use the target language in fronted communication with individual students or the class as a whole.

Context 1: With absolute beginners, when teachers do not have near-native command of the target language pronunciation

The best French teacher I have ever met is an Irish lady by the name of Gillian Bruce, for whom French is the least strong language (English and German being her dominant languages) and whose accent is good but not near-native. You do not need to be a target-language native or near-native speaker to be an excellent L2-teacher. However, when it comes to teaching absolute beginners, unless we do not lay much emphasis on accurate pronunciation as a long-term goal of our teaching, language instructors who do not have near-native to native target language pronunciation should refrain from producing masses of aural input.

The reason is that during the early stages of L2 acquisition there is a perceptual mismatch between a given target language sound we hear (as uttered by a native speaker) and its internal representation in our brain. Why? Because our brain, in order to try and make sense of it, automatically matches it with the closest approximation it can find in Long-term Memory, i.e.: the nearest equivalent in the languages we know. Hence, if we are monolingual L1 English learners, when attempting to imitate the French uvular trill /R/, we shall depend on our first language ‘phonological system’ to reproduce it and will pronounce it as ‘/r/.

Consequently,  if our teacher’s first language is the same as ours and s/he pronounces certain sounds with a fairly marked English accent, we will continue to rely on our first language phonological representations and our brain will not feel the need to try and create new revised more target-language-like versions (efferent copies) of those sounds. If this is not corrected early on, after some time, we will fossilize those sounds and carry them for rest of our lives with us in unmonitored speech.

Context 2: When one is teaching challenging grammar points

When we perform a task in a foreign language we are not highly fluent in, we experience some degree of cognitive deficit compared to when we carry out the same task in our first language. Such deficit will be higher, the lower our level of proficiency. It goes without saying that when, as teachers often do, deliver an explanation of a challenging grammar structure they should preferably do so in the students’ dominant language(s) in order to prevent cognitive overload and facilitate understanding – and, ultimately, learning. This applies to oral feedback on error, too, obviously.

Context 3: When one wants to otpimise learning time

I strongly belief that in most curricula MFLs are not allocated sufficient contact time for languages to be learnt effectively. Hence, time has to be used as productively and efficiently as possible. Using solely target language to explain a relatively complex learning activity you want the students to engage in (e.g. a board game, an inquiry based task, a simulation or the use of an App, etc. ) can be considerably more time-consuming than doing it in the learners’ dominant language(s) – and one wonders whether the proficiency gains the learner gets from passive exposure to the kind of target language used in task briefs actually justify this practice.

During my teacher training (PGCE) one of my supervisors told me off for not explaining the instructions for a complex communicative task I was staging in my lesson in the target language. In all earnest I had practised it in the target language at home and I had calculated that it would have taken me at least ten minutes to explain it to my students without a word of English; not to mention that I would have had to produce props – a waste of valuable teacher time for just a one-off learning activity. After listening to her ‘lecture’ on the importance of target language use in the MFL classroom, I asked her if she was absolutely confident that the students would have learnt more from me talking (giving instructions) for 10 minutes in the target language about how to perform the task or from having 10 more minutes (learner-to-learner) talking time. She said she was not 100% sure but that was not the point. MFL students need to get used to the teacher speaking in the target language all the time. It is a must – was her final line.

Context 4: When one feels one might ‘lose’ a few students in the process

I have observed many lessons in which a fair number of the students could understand what the teacher was saying but several others seemed lost and looking quite anxious. Is it worth to engender learner anxiety just for the sake of a dogma (i.e. target language at all costs!) or in the belief that they have to learn to cope and will eventually adapt and understand? When I worked in England I witnessed many cases in which students did adapt and loved to hear their teacher talk 100 % TL all the time; but I also came across many who – with exactly the same teacher – did not learn to adapt and kept complaining all year long about the 100 % target-language-in-the-classroom policy until they became completely ‘switched off’ as a result. Affective/Cognitive empathy with our students should be crucial in determining our course of action and we should be prepared to negotiate with our students when and for how long the target language should be used if we identify serious issues with our practice.

Context 5: When providing affective feedback

I am a near-native speaker of English, have lived in England for 15 years and have been working in a British international school for 10 in a country whose official language is English. Still, when someone praises me in English it does not feel as good as when I am praised in my mother tongue (Italian). I have asked many of my students who are mostly fully bilingual if they preferred to be praised in the target foreign language or English and the vast majority said that it felt more authentic in English. This was particularly true of my L1 English students. It would be interesting if colleagues investigated the validity of this hypothesis of mine with their own students and fed-back.

Context 6: When you know you are going to translate it into English anyway a few seconds later

This is a more common scenario than one may expect. Not much point talking to the students in French or Spanish if you are then going to translate it into English – especially if you do not challenge the students to show their understanding of what you said. Some students will pick up on that and after a while they will not try to understand your instructions/questions in the target language and will simply wait for the translation.

In conclusion, I do believe that teacher talking-time should be reduced to the minimum. Learner-to-learner interaction should be emphasized. When teachers do engage in fronted talk to the class they should ensure their target language input is gauged to the appropriate level even at the risk of sounding artificial (caregivers/parents do that with children all the time in first language acquisition). The contexts I outlined above are only but a few in which I believe the target language should not be used, but I have been told by a few people that my blogs are too long…

Ultimately, our decision to employ the target language or not should not be based on dogma but on the persuasion that our elected practice is going to significantly enhance learning.