The Development of Interactive Oral Proficiency in the Classroom
by Jake Haymes


I think speaking is special for two reasons. The first one is that most learners come to class and are prepared to invest a considerable amount of time and money in order to achieve the ultimate goal of speaking the language fluently. In this respect, we can say that the development of oral proficiency is the most important aspect of language learning (1). The second reason is that orally communicating one's ideas is personal and goes beyond the cognitive even for a native speaker, doing it in a code you do not yet command incorporates both affective influences and linguistic considerations.

I think it is also true to say that the success of most teaching and learning is evaluated in terms of our students' ability to speak. PPP methodology has been questioned and in many quarters rejected because its discrete item approach is an ineffective means of incorporating new language into fluent production. This methodology also fails to embrace the realities of talk exchange such as openings, closings, adjacency pairs, vague language etc. or the phenomena of real-time delivery such as "repetitions, false starts, re-phrasings, self corrections, elaborations, tautologies and apparently meaningless additions such as 'I mean' or 'you know'." Ur (1984).

Although people speak for many different reasons, these can be broadly categorised in two ways:
1. transaction - using language to get things done. e.g. requesting and giving factual information and service encounters.
2. interaction - using language for social intercourse. e.g. conversing, discussing, making friends and story telling.

This assignment will attempt to examine the second type of exchange. Brumfit (1984) states, "natural language use, for most people is primarily discussion and conversation." Despite this assertion, the focus of speaking activities in the classroom seems to be on transactional competence. Perhaps this is because it is easier to develop and assess. Transactional exchanges usually follow a fairly predictable pattern or routine. They tend to require shorter speaking turns and the functional language presented in course books is often more suited to this type of communication.

Some factors impeding the development of oral fluency

While a great deal of classroom time is spent on the perceived precursors to oral fluency; vocabulary, phonology, structures, functions and listening comprehension, it would appear that these alone are insufficient. Widdowson (1978) states "the acquisition of linguistic skills does not seem to guarantee the consequent acquisition of communicative abilities in a language." Bygate (1987) illustrates the difference between language knowledge and productive skill. He points out that, as native speakers, "we do not merely know how to assemble sentences in the abstract: we have to produce them and adapt them to the circumstances." While the value of linguistic knowledge should not be underestimated, it would seem that learners need something more in order to transfer the interactive speaking skills they possess in L1 to L2.

Fluent oral production is often seen as the final piece in the jigsaw. Nunan (1991) states that "course books, particularly those aimed at lower-proficiency learners, consist largely of manipulative, form focused exercises." I think this leads to two problems. Firstly, fluency isn't developed as learners are denied the opportunity to combine the disparate elements of their existing productive store to communicate authentically and secondly, the original structures themselves are not internalised (for possible production at a later date), as they are not used by the learners to create personalised meaning. While I will go on to argue that practice alone is not the most expedient means to oral proficiency, many learners become demotivated because they are not given opportunity to use the language communicatvely.

Although extended oral fluency practice is sometimes called free speaking, I would argue that most tasks are set in the hope that the learners will be able to incorporate some recently studied language items into production. While semi-controlled or bridging activities can, on occasion, help to effect this integration, I find the items selected by teachers and course books are sometimes inappropriate. Given the difficulties of real-time production they are frequently too advanced for learners' interlanguage systems to accommodate. With more advanced students, there is often no perception of need so that tasks are completed via their communicative competence. When a carefully chosen task does force the employment of the items, learners "do not treat the third stage of the lesson as an opportunity for fluent communication" but to "display the target form" and "as soon as they switch to circumstances in which the focus is on communication rather than conformity, learners will 'regress'." D Willis (1996)

Where genuine freer communicative speaking activities are to be found, the tendency is to set up the activity and then allow the learners to proceed. Richards (1990) outlines two major drawbacks to this "indirect approach". Firstly, that the type of language typically required is transactional rather than interactional (2); Students are only really practising the language of getting things done rather than conversing. Secondly, he cites Schmidt's (1986) research into the latter's own learning of Portuguese. This remained "deficient with respect to both grammar and appropriateness." While the second point concerns accuracy, I would argue that there is a clear link here to fluency. Many of my learners produce hesitant output and therefore do not develop fluency because they feel they are making too many mistakes. This approach is also limited in the fact that it neglects to draw the learners' attention to those features of talk exchange outlined earlier.

While most experts agree that prolonged exposure to listening texts is essential if oral proficiency is to develop, I suspect that these activities are rarely used in ways which actively highlight the connection. Many non-authentic recordings do not incorporate the phenomena of natural speech such as discourse markers, back-channelling, etc. and are therefore unsuitable for awareness raising activities. Additionally, the role of paralinguistics should not be underestimated in the tactical manoeuvring of talk exchange (3). While listening comprehension skills may well develop via the use of non-authentic, audio-taped texts, the switch to production remains arduous.

Possible approaches

Activities which call upon the students' ''vast private store of knowledge, opinions and experience" (4) as a classroom resource have two major benefits. Firstly, we can be sure that the language the students are producing, or attempting to produce, is relevant to them. This language can be focused on subsequently and I would suggest that it is more likely to be internalised because a need or desire has already been demonstrated. Secondly, students are encouraged to relate to one another as people and not just language learners. Having this dynamic within the classroom creates the right conditions for realistic interpersonal communication (5).

Once this atmosphere has been established we need to look at how language performance can be enhanced. It would seem that an examination of what actually happens during interactive talk exchange via conversational analysis is the ideal starting point. If we use authentic discourse as the basis for learning then the student will be concentrating on use. De-contextualised structures can only demonstrate usage and although the linguistically competent learner may eventually be able to produce many language possibilities, he or she will be no nearer commanding probable language (6). The use of transcripts to focus on the features listed below allows "learners time to notice features that may not be noticed for a long time if only heard in the flow of real-time conversation." Willis, J & Willis, D (1996).

  • Fixed expressions / semi fixed expressions
  • Vague language
  • Discourse Markers
  • Openings, closing and adjacency pairs
  • Back-channelling
  • Pragmatic meanings

Once 'partially pre-assembled patterns' and 'formulaic frameworks' (Widdowson 1989) have been elucidated and analysed, suitable practice activities can ensue. Native speakers build discourse from multi-word items and encouraging our learners to do the same can go some way to developing fluency. The learner is able to minimise "the amount of clause-internal encoding work to be done and frees himself to attend to other tasks in talk-exchange." Ellis (1997).

Vague language, or language which enables the speaker to continue talking despite being unable to recall an exact word or expression is a common feature of native discourse and is an essential tool for the learner. If the students have access to a productive store of items such as the thing you use for… and it's a bit like… then they will have the confidence to attempt longer stretches of speech where they would otherwise finish the turn.

Dornyei and Thurrell (1994) highlight the value to the learner of other conversational strategies such as paraphrase, approximation, appeal for help, asking for repetition/clarification, interpretive summary (So are you saying that…?), checking (Are you with me?) and fillers. These provide "a sense of security in the language by allowing extra time and room to manoeuvre."

More focus on the communicative meaning creating potential of utterances could lead to a mushrooming of learners output capacity. I believe that learners at all levels have a store of fixed or semi-fixed expressions that they have assimilated and are confident in producing. However, they tend to limit their use to the meaning they were first exposed to. This meaning is usually the most literal although not necessarily the most frequent. For example, another meaning of I'd like to help you could be made available for almost immediate output with just a little focus on sentence stress. Pragmatic meanings and indirect speech acts seem to be common in interactive talk where speakers tend to share and assume most knowledge. The contexts provided by transcripts are invaluable in guiding learners to an increased awareness of the extent to which relatively simple and therefore accessible utterances can be used to convey a variety of functions and meanings (7).

Planning time can significantly aid both the quantity and quality of the language produced. Foster's (1996) study found that preparation time for narratives led to improvements in both syntactic complexity and fluency. While it may be argued that this does not replicate what would happen in 'real life' communication, I think that the effect on learner confidence is invaluable. Because the students have planned the output themselves they are more likely to be able to access it at the production stage. When this approach is combined with some teacher involvement, as advocated by Johnson's (1991) 'tennis clinic strategy', the student also benefits from being able to 'try out' and modify new output before the communicative activity is embarked upon.

Anecdotes are useful, not only in the sense that the language produced is personalised but also because speaker is given the opportunity to engage in longer stretches of discourse. Labov's model (1972) (8) could easily be adapted to provide the learners with a structure to plan their anecdotes.

Abstract How does this relate to what has just been said?What is your story going to be about?
Orientation Who? Where? When? etc.
Complicating event What happened?
Resolution How was the situation resolved? What happened in the end?
Coda How does your story relate to yourself and your listeners now?

The ability to evaluate at all stages is the mark of a successful story. McCarthy (1998) suggests that this provides "interest" and "tellability". The problem is, however, that during a narrative most learners are fully engaged in recounting the events at the expense of personal reaction and comment. One way I have found to encourage students to produce anecdotes which are not devoid of the human element is to use picture stories as a starting point. The story can be told by the learner in either the first or third person. The central character is frequently rather exaggerated and/or unfortunate so learners can easily incorporate adjectives of feeling and embellishment into output. By allowing students the opportunity to practise this fundamental element of storytelling with a fictitious character before delivering their own stories, I have found affective barriers are lowered while subsequent personalised output is more genre appropriate.

I believe that recording and transcribing the learners' anecdotes provides an opportunity to develop fluency from a discourse perspective. The longer turns inherent in anecdotes can be used to draw attention to areas such as the need for variation (both lexical and syntactic), and the use of pronouns, substitution, ellipsis and determiners. These features are frequently overlooked when the focus is at sentence level. With just a little teacher guidance, most learners are able to improve their work. If the task is repeated, as proposed by Bygate (1996), these modifications do seem to become incorporated into fluent output. Firstly, because students see their relevance and secondly, because the changes have been made by the learners (and not the teacher), their interlanguage systems can cope.


If learners are to develop their interactive oral proficiency then firstly they need the confidence to be able to speak at length and negotiate naturally occurring difficulties. An awareness of conversational strategies can help to give learners more control here.

While good group dynamics are valuable in all areas of language learning, I think they are essential in the development of natural speech. Shared knowledge, a fundamental aspect of interactive discourse, can only be put into practice in the classroom if students really know about each other. Activities which can be personalised to incorporate the learners' opinions and experience are beneficial in establishing this environment. In addition, it is often the case that language which is personalised is more memorable.

Because speaking, unlike writing, is subject to time constraints, the integration of new language into fluent output will always be problematic. Therefore I believe more input in pre-communicative stages should be determined by students' existing output. This will necessarily involve reflection from both teacher and student and should lead to a situation whereby linguistic improvement can, in effect, be 'tacked on' to the learners' developing interlanguage systems. I am fortunate that the majority of my groups are quite small (3-5 students). I will, therefore, have the time to help individual learners develop their interlanguage in this way.

In the medium term, it would seem expedient to base both linguistic and skill development on authentic models. Widdowson (1978) states that "what learners ultimately need to acquire is an awareness of how the language being learned is used for talking." This awareness can most easily be facilitated by this type of exposure. I will therefore need to spend time accessing such materials and finding ways to exploit them effectively. The presence of natural speech in the classroom should also sustain learner motivation; it is the ultimate goal for many students and should be available for analysis whenever possible.

((1) "most learners are interested-whatever else they might want-in speaking the language." (Lewis 1997)
(2) Many British people complain that while they are capable of buying fruit and asking for directions in French, they could not begin to hold a conversation with a native speaker of the language.
(3)"We speak with our vocal organs but we converse with our entire bodies." Widdowson (1978) quoting Abercrombie in 'Paralinguistic communication' in ECAL Vol. 1 Ch. 6
(4) Jones (see bib.) quoting M Swan 'A critical look at the communicative approach (2)' ELTJ 39/2, 1985
(5)In these conditions, learners can speak to each other about things that matter to them without having to verbalise the co-text of situations. This replicates what happens in many native speaker conversations and discussions.
(6) Widdowson (1978) illustrates the difference between what could be said - language usage and what is said in any particular context - language use.
(7) e.g. What are you talking / on about? = I don't agree
I haven't got any money = Can you pay?
Is that the time? = functional exponent of preparation for leaving
8) Taken from McCarthy (1994)


Brumfit, C Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching CUP 1984
Bygate, M Speaking OUP, 1987
Bygate, M Effects of task repetition: appraising the developing language of learners (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996
Carter, R & McCarhty, M Exploring Spoken English CUP, 1997
Cook, G Discourse OUP, 1989
Ellis, N Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word- class, and meaning in Vocabulary ed. Schmitt,N & McCarthy,M CUP, 1997
Foster, P Doing the task better: how planning time influences students' performance (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996
Jones, R A consciousness-raising approach to the teaching of conversational storytelling skills ELTJ Vol. 55/2, OUP, Apr. 2001
Lewis, M Implementing the Lexical Approach LTP, 1997
McCarthy, M Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers CUP, 1994
Nunan, D Language Teaching Methodology Longman, 1991
Richards, J The Language Teaching Matrix CUP, 1990
Ur, P Teaching Listening Comprehension CUP,1984
Widdowson, H.G Knowledge of language and ability for use Applied Linguistics 10/2, 1989
Widdowson, H.G Teaching Language as Communication OUP, 1978
Willis, D Accuracy, fluency and conformity (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996
Willis, J & Consciousness raising activities in the language classroom
Willis, D (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996


Jake, originally from Nottingham in the UK, has been teaching in Madrid since 1997. During this time he has taught general & business English classes and been responsible for the planning & execution of residential courses for professionals.
In 2002 he followed the Cambridge DELTA at the British Language Centre in Madrid. He has been a teacher trainer since 2003.
His areas of interest include helping learners develop their presentation skills, phonology and TBL.

Lesson Plan

Time: 60 minutes

Level: Pre-Intermediate

Class profile:
The group comprises 10 adult learners. They are mostly unemployed graduates or undergraduates. There are two university lecturers who are combining work with higher degrees. One student is considerably weaker than the others, and one, Bernardo, the eldest member has a slightly higher level. This class will be their eighth hour of English on this course but only the second with me.

Main Aims:
To provide extended oral fluency practice in anecdote telling. (stage 5)-To increase learners' awareness of and give practice in some of the sub-skills of fluency speaking. e.g. intensifiers and fillers. (stage 3)
To encourage students to listen to and interact with each other. e.g. ways of showing interest etc. (stages1 & 5)

Subsidiary Aims:
To provide listening comprehension practice. Specific detail. (stage 2)-To transfer recently studied language (past simple and adjectives of feeling 'fed up', 'embarrassed' etc) into active language via a personalised situation. (stages 4&5)
To raise awareness of phonological aspects of anecdote telling. Intonation to show interest, surprise etc. (stage 3)

Timetable fit:

This will be the students' eighth hour of English together. They have recently reviewed the past simple tense and studied adjectives of mood and feelings. This would seem an ideal opportunity to allow students extended oral fluency practice using both tense and lexis in a personalised way. Until now much of the student/student interaction has been very controlled. I hope that by allowing the learners an opportunity to relate personal experiences to others the speaking skill, group dynamics and linguistic competence will benefit.


Learners may have used past simple and adjectives of mood and feeling productively during previous learning experiences.
This group have recently reviewed these language areas in isolation and should be able to form the past simple tense and adjectives of mood/feeling.
The students will have been made aware of the value of relating new lexis to personal situations.
Students have been made aware of the importance of speaking only English in the classroom, they have been provided with a classroom vocabulary sheet to enable them to ask questions, request repetition, explanation etc. from the teacher and other group members without recourse to L1.

Anticipated Problems and solutions
(stage order)
Understanding Instructions (all stages) This will be quite a 'busy' lesson with lots of mini-tasks within the stages. Some learners may have difficulty in understanding the instructions. I will try to explain both verbally and visually and do an example with the group whenever possible. Checking questions will be important.
Listening Comprehension (stage 2)As there is some difference in level within the group, some learners may not be able to answer all the comprehension questions. The students will be given the chance to compare their responses after the first listening and if they are still having problems after the second playing the provision of the transcript will allow them the opportunity to find the required information.
Anecdote Preparation (stage 4)If some learners are unable to think of a suitable anecdote, I will refer them back to the lead-in which provides numerous possibilities.
Delivery (stage 5)Students may feel shy and self-conscious, they may not have the confidence to deliver an anecdote in English. With this in mind, I will give them a preparation sheet on which they can make notes and plan their anecdote. They will be able to refer to this, if necessary, during the speaking activity. The learners will only be relating their anecdote to their partner and I will not interrupt them during this time unless a complete breakdown in communication occurs.
Inability to Incorporate Language Features Productively (stages 4&5)Even though these learners have recently been looking at the past simple and adjectives of feelings, I don't think it is reasonable to expect them to produce them completely accurately. Some learners will be unable to do so and others may lose a lot of fluency in trying. I will make the aim of the activity clear at the start and the feedback will focus on the communicative performance of the learners.

Home-made listening. (anecdote)
All other materials home-made and included.
Highlighter pens (blue and green)
Original idea taken from Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate pp 20-21

Lesson Rationale
The lesson aims to provide the learners with an opportunity to combine previously studied language with some of the sub-skills of speaking to prepare and deliver an anecdote. It is to be hoped that the students will find the class challenging, achievable and beneficial. If successful, the learners will begin to transfer some passive language into oral production, thereby consolidating knowledge whilst communicating their own ideas and memories. The speaking activity should also make the learners aware of the value of student-student interaction and help to create positive group dynamics.

The lesson can be divided into six main stages, the first four aim to prepare students to be able to achieve the speaking activity.

In stage one, the students are given the opportunity to start the anecdote checklist with their L1 knowledge of the skill. By allowing the learners to express their feelings towards the subject, I hope to engage their interest and make them receptive to the later stages of the class.

By showing how this class fits in with previously acquired knowledge it is hoped that students will see the relevance of the following stages. The students are then asked to consider important first experiences. This should prepare the group for the listening activity which follows and provide ideas, should they be required, for their own anecdotes.

In order to be successfully exploited, the coursebook listening (pp 22-23 Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate) requires vocabulary input, lead-in, intensive and extensive questions. As the main aim is extended oral fluency I feel the focus of the lesson may become confused were the class to follow the material in the students' book. The home-made listening text is intended to provide students with an anecdote model.

By starting the language focus at a text level the learners should become aware of a fairly typical pattern of anecdotes and this may well be copied by the students in their own anecdotes thereby extending speaking time. While moving directly from aural to oral skills is perhaps the most natural approach, I feel there is a greater possibility that students will grasp the key ideas if they are given the opportunity to analyse the features of an anecdote on paper. Having them mark past tenses and intensified adjectives with highlighter pens should facilitate the transfer of these language areas to their own anecdotes

Students' attention is then drawn to intensifiers such as really, quite and very. I feel that learners could easily combine these words with the adjectives of mood to substantially increase their active language.

While students will be made aware of fillers, I believe that drilling at this stage could be counter-productive and may lead to stilted and unnatural production

Interaction between speaker and listener will be the next focus. In order to be truly communicative the anecdotes must include listener reaction and perhaps some negotiation of meaning. Indeed the learners will be made aware that communicative interaction is a vital part of the activity.

The preparation time affords the learners an opportunity to combine all the relevant components of an anecdote and include any areas of language they feel are necessary for the following activity. I will monitor progress and provide help when required. If students appear slow to start, I may encourage them to discuss ideas in pairs.

The students will be reminded of the importance of the communicative element before beginning the fluency activity. This should promote more interaction.

During the production stage I shall unobtrusively monitor performance and I will not intervene unless there is a complete breakdown in communication.

After completing the activity students will be encouraged to evaluate their own performance via an exchange of views with other learners. The final stage, in which the learners reflect on the morning's work is essential to show what has been achieved and the place of the lesson in their learning programme.


Time &

5 mins


STAGE 1 Lead-in
-What is an anecdote?
-Tell students what they are going to be doing and why.
-Relate to lessons given by other teachers
-Get stds to tick 'firsts' they can remember. (check vocab)
-How did you feel?
-Ensure stds are familiar with basic idea & start board checklist with stds' knowledge which will be added to
-Provide ideas for speaking activity if required & start stds thinking about personal past.

10 mins


STAGE 2 Listening
-Listen to first sentence. What first was it?
-Predict what happened.-Listen again. 4 questions (where, when, who, what, how feel)
-F/B adding the above to checklist on board (how long?)
-Provide stds with a model for later analysis. (Stages 3 & 4)
-Provide int. listening & highlight components of anecdotes.

15 mins



Stage 3 Content analysis
-Notice? 3 parts 1) situation, 2) what happened 3) result
-1 group underline PS other identify adjectives-swap
-Notice anything about adjectives? (intensified)
-Listen to sentence-stress changes? drill
-Notice pauses?
-Listen to erm etc. drill
-F/B-what makes a good anecdote? (+ to previous info.)-interjections other aspects-spoken-really stress two people-compare two sentences put interjections in right place
-Raise awareness of composition at text level
-Draw attention to relevant language. Visual (form)
-Raise awareness of intensifiers in spoken lang.
-Show native strategies when pausing to think of what next and facilitate transfer of strategies to L2.
-Provide collated consensus for reference in stage 4
-Stress how listener is involved/can help speaker via verbal or non-verbal responses and/or negotiate meaning

10 mins


Stage 4 Planning-Stds prepare own anecdote T available for individual help.
-Dictionaries available. Instruct listeners-board collation.
-Enable students to approach task with confidence.

10 mins


Stage 5 Production
-Students relate anecdote-others listen and interact where app.
-F/B. How did you feel speaking? Did you use…? Did listeners help you?
-Provide extended speaking (personalised). Provide listening practice
-Allow students to express feelings in real situation.
-Raise awareness (further) of nature of communication.

5 mins


Stage 6 Collation
-Listeners complete board plan What did we do today?
-to fix what they have achieved >>next class



1. Which of these do you remember?
Tick the appropriate line.

  • your first day at school, university or work
  • the first time you travelled alone or went to a different country.
  • your first date
  • the first time you met someone important in your life
  • the first time you drove a car
  • your first English lesson
  • your first pet
  • the first time you bought clothes for yourself
  • your first Holy Communion
  • another important first

2. You are going to hear someone talking about the first time they did something.

a) Listen to the first part.
What is this person going to talk about?

The first time ___________________________ .

----------------------- FOLD --------------------------

b) Listen again and answer the following questions.

i) When/Where did it happen?
ii) Who else was in the story?
iii) What happened?
iv) How did she feel?


The First Time I Taught English (TRANSCRIPT)

Okay… well, I remember the first time I taught English… to Spanish people in Madrid. It was about… five years ago and it was only my second week in Spain so I didn't speak Spanish, well, I could say a few things like hello, goodbye, a beer but erm.. I really was quite nervous erm …anyway, before the class, I prepared everything really well, erm I started learning students names from the list, I made all the photocopies, wrote a really detailed lesson plan and felt quite relaxed quite confident, so… you know I thought the class would..would be fine and then at about seven o'clock the students started arriving, they sat down in their chairs and suddenly I got really, really nervous. I got so frightened standing in front of them that I… didn't know what to do. I think I gave a really bad lesson and the students were definitely very bored and probably a bit angry. They certainly didn't learn very much. At the end of the class I just couldn't wait to get out and I was so fed up with the way I had taught that I… left the room without saying goodbye and… very, very embarrassed and feeling really, really guilty because students paid for the classes. So I decided to speak to my boss and tell him that I didn't want to be a teacher anymore. My boss… told me to sit down and relax and he said 'look, just remember that they are interested in what you have to teach them and they want to learn so don't worry, just relax, it was your first time, the next time will be better.' Anyway, the next time, I decided to just not worry and relax. I planned the class really well and this time I felt really, really comfortable. I was actually surprised because the class went really well everyone seemed relaxed and in a good mood and erm I was really happy and here I am still a teacher.


Preparation Sheet

The first time ____________________________

Where/When did it happen?

Who else was in the story?
What happened? How did you feel?
What vocabulary do I need?
What verbs do I need?
What can I do if I need to pause? When I am listening how can I show
1 interest:

2 surprise:

3 I don't understand:


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