Getting Students to Speak

The ELT Chat summary on how to motivate teens to extend their speaking activities is up. While certainly teenagers are the most likely to give short answers–“I agree”, “I disagree”, “I liked it”, “It is interesting”–when asked an opinion question, I find any given student might fall into the unwilling to speak long category.

A lot of great ideas came up in the discussion and I won’t repeat them here since they’re in the summary. Or check out the full transcript.

But a good question raised was what kinds of topics are interesting to teenagers (or by extension students) so that they will want to talk a lot about them? And while I’ve found that playing “devil’s advocate” or feigning ignorance about issues often works well, in general topics or questions that are “obvious” to students simply don’t work well, especially with teenagers.

For example, during the Olympics I tried to do a discussion lesson on sport and why it is important. I asked, “Is it good to work out?” There was an uncomfortable pause and then one student said, “Yes, being fit and healthy is important. So we must do more sports.” A few nods around the table and then silence. “What is your favorite sport to watch?” Same silence, then the same student said, “Football”, nods all around, silence. Later I asked, “What can Kazakhstan do to become an Olympic powerhouse?” That generated discussion because some students thought it was impossible, some students thought we needed to import foreign athletes, others said we need to develop special sports institutes. They asked what the US did to prepare Olympic sportsmen. And we talked for about 15 minutes on that one question, which branched out into ten other questions.

So how do you identify questions that have obvious answers? I really think knowing your students and knowing their culture is important. Which topics are they exposed to? What information is presented to them as gospel truth by their parents, mainstream media, the government, the schools? What topics are too taboo for them to question and what topics are just controversial enough that they are willing to talk about them?

Which leads to my second point. If you want them to say more than “Yes” or “No” there has to be something to say about the topic or question. If you ask a class, “So do you think the police should have the right to arrest anyone and put them in jail indefinitely?”, 90% of students are going to give one answer: No. Because it’s bad. Even provocative questions like, “In what situation would you steal something?” might seem to lead to discussing poverty or unjust situations where someone stole from you first, those situations are often outside student experience.

And course books with simple vocab exercises that then say, “Discuss your answers with another student,” rarely lead to real discussions beyond,

“I put strong for number two.”
“Oh, I put powerful.”

So while catering to your students’ interests by discussing say, music and movies with teenagers can often backfire because there may not be a whole lot more to say than, “I like Britney Spears. Her songs are fun and I like to dance to them.”

One way to pick out good topics with meat to them, so to speak, is to discuss them with your friends and colleagues. See which questions generate discussion and which lead to short answers.

Any other ideas for selecting good topics and questions to get discussion going?

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