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CATESOL Book Review: The Art of Teaching Speaking: Research and Pedagogy for the ESL/EFL Classroom By Keith S. Folse

Michelle Skowbo

The Art of Teaching Speaking: Research and Pedagogy for the ESL/EFL Classroom by Keith S. Folse 

Image of Book The Art of Teaching Speaking Research and Pedagogy for the ESL/EFL Classroom Keith S Folse Michigan

Liza Martinez and Kara Mac Donald 

Anecdotally teachers and students most often mention listening as a challenging skill to teach. Listening content is fleeting and difficult for learners to catch and often listening is tested (i.e., a one-shot chance to comprehend) in the classroom, rather than taught strategically. Although a distinct skill, much the same can maybe be said for the teaching of speaking in the classroom. As much as possible, students are placed in groups to communicatively negotiate meaning and outcome of collaborative tasks. However, how well are the learners’ age, proficiency, and short- and long-term goals considered in each segment of the instructional program. Additionally, how do these student and class specific needs intersect with language production outcomes and instructional approaches? This volume is based on theoretical foundations but consists of a repertoire of classroom informed scenarios and instructional activities. 

Introduction to the Text 
The section is offered by an EFL high school teacher in Ecuador, addressing how students perceive a conversation class compared to how teachers perceive them, and the appropriate naming convention for such courses (i.e., conversation, discussion, Oral fluency, speaking etc.) 

Chapter 1: Five Fundamental Factors in Planning and Teaching a Conversation Class 
One basic component, but not the only one, to building students’ speaking proficiency is a conversation class. However, other language focus classes can draw on skills integration and some of the same guidance to incorporate speaking activities to build proficiency. Folse outline five factors: i) the learner demographics, ii) the school curriculum, iii) real-word or non-real-world topics, iv) IN-task versus FOR task activities in the classroom based on real-world scenarios, v) and how the Task serves to promote meaningful communication. 

Factor 1: The Learner, Especially the Learner’s Age, Proficiency Level, and Goals 

In the Real World 
The author highlights the importance of knowing your learners, which is true for any class, but especially for conversation classes that are often smaller in size and permit a lot of opportunity for sharing and discussing topics. He offers three examples from his past experiences that highlight the following; i) the need to see adult learners as adults even at lower proficiency levels, ii) the importance of understanding each students’ background, iii) and educational experiences in learning English. 

Discussion and Practical Application for Your Teaching 
In developing a speaking program and its lessons, the most important characteristics to know about the learners are: i) age, ii) reason for studying English, iii) level of proficiency, iv) orientation and opinion about English, v) restrictions on study time, vi) educational experiences, vii) gender, viii) stress factors around learning, ix) study and learning strategies, x) personality types, xi) openness to risk-taking in the classroom, xii) cognitive preferences (i.e., field-dependent/field-independent), xiii) L1, xiv) learning preferences, xv) and opportunities for practice outside the classroom. 

Factor 2: The Curriculum. Program, or School 

In the Real World 
It is key to understanding what students are required to do during their study at the instructional institute, what the final expected outcomes are and how students will be assessed at the end of the program of study. The author shares an example of working with Saudi National Guard students, and when answering a student’s question regarding a vocabulary item, but later learning the level to which the final assessment test would require of students he reflected that his response possibly was not as effective for the student even though correct. 

Discussion and Practical Application for Your Teaching 
A sound curriculum is founded around what students’ needs are and where they need to reach. Curriculums across schools and programs can vary greatly from being highly detailed to simply a general roadmap where the teacher determines what is taught. As a teacher, it is his/her responsibility to understand the curriculum, and this should be taken into account when seeking potential employers. 

Factor 3: The Topic Being Discussed 

In the Real World
In some teaching contexts teachers have little to no input on what topics are covered and are bound to a strict curriculum. In others, teachers have quite a bit of control over the topics introduced in class, but depending on the mix of students (i.e., age, proficiency level, background, focus of learning English), it can be difficult to meet all learners’ needs. 

Chapter 4: Twenty Successful Activities 
Folse admits that there are hundreds of speaking activities that an ESL/EFL teacher can choose from. This can be overwhelming To alleviate this, Folse offers 20 activities that he has successfully used in ESL/EFL classrooms. He notes that a teacher will have to decide which to choose since he knows his students best. The activities range from language games or repetition drills to group discussions on controversial topics. The activities presented in this chapter are not in any rank order. Furthermore, some can be presented to a class as is; others have to be tweaked to meet students’ specific needs. The activities are organized in the following categories: 

● Title 

● Description 

● Materials Needed 

● Preparation Steps 

● Steps Conducted in Class 

● Caveats and Further Suggestions 

● Example Used in Class and 

● Source(s) for Lesson Activity 

Because of space, only the title and description will be presented here. 

Find Someone Who—Students are given a checklist whereby they ask other students if they have a specific characteristic; for example, “Are you left-handed?” If the respondent says, “Yes,” she will sign the checklist. Otherwise, he will go to another classmate until an affirmative answer is given. The purpose is to get the students talking for a purpose. 

Find the Differences—Students work in pairs. Each student has a picture that is similar but has some differences. Without looking at the other’s picture, each student describes what is in his/her picture. In so doing, the students should find differences between the pictures. 

Drawing a Picture—Two students have a different picture or drawing. Student 1 describes his picture; student 2 draws what he hears. While drawing, student 2 can ask clarification questions. Then the roles are reversed. This activity permits more real fluency practice. 

Information Gap: Simple Completion—Students work together to find missing information from a train schedule, simple map or family tree. Each student has a map with missing information. For example, Student B has information that is missing from Student A’s map. The goal is for the students to complete the schedule, map, or family tree. 

Information Gap: Group Problem Solving—Students work in triads to trade or verify missing information. Each person is given a set of clues that are different from the other students. The purpose of this activity is two-fold: to complete the task and build up students’ fluency. 

Ranking—This involves working with larger groups of five to seven students. First, each student will rank real-world items. Next, each student will discuss with other group members why he ranked the items in the way that he did. The group will then try to reach a consensus. The goal is for the group to come up with a ranking that is identical to the actual correct ranking. 

True or False? --Students work in groups of three or four. Each member says 4 statements; one of them is false. Students guess which sentence is false. As a part of the review, the teacher can add specific elements, which can enhance vocabulary or grammar. 

Auction—In groups, students work together in an auction format. They are shown a list of sentences; some of them have errors. The groups bet play money to buy a correct sentence. The group with the highest bid gets a sentence. Later, the teacher goes through the sentences. If a sentence is correct, the group that bought the sentence gets a point. If there is an error, no point is given. The goal is for a group to buy as many correct sentences as possible. 

If You Were the Judge (Real Court Cases) Students read about an actual court case. For homework, students imagine they are judges; they are to write 50 words with their decision. The next day, in groups, students discuss their decision; they attempt to reach a consensus. 

Liar (Group of 4) In groups of four, one of the students acts out an action; the fourth group member looks away and does not see the action. Later, the fourth person then guesses who did the action. This may be met by the word, “liar.” The goal is for the fourth person to decide who committed the action. 

Pair Talking (Minimal Pairs and Difficult Sounds) This activity involves two students. Each has the same sheet which consists of six sets of four pictures; they are minimal pairs. Student A describes the picture; Student B cannot see the picture. Then Student B must decide which picture is being described. The purpose of this activity is to improve listening and aural skills. 

Communication Crossword Puzzles—Students work in groups of three to solve a crossword puzzle. The clues are divided between the three students. Folse suggests that the clues should be meaningful to the students.

Twenty Questions (Pairs, Small Groups, or Whole Class) --Students ask yes-no questions to determine what the teacher is thinking about. The game is 20 Questions because 20 is the maximum number of questions the class can ask. This activity gets students to practice yes-no questions, the modal can, and recent vocabulary. 

Solve the Mystery: Finish the Story—Students work in groups or a whole class to decide the ending of a real story. This is a fluency activity that aims at i-1. 

Role Play (Pairs)--Students use their creativity to play a character in a role play. This activity is an opportunity for students to push themselves to extend their current level of English (interlanguage). 

Flexible Odd-Person Out (Groups of Three) In groups of three, students identify the object that does not belong from a group of 4 items. Folse suggests repeating this lesson many times to improve students’ fluency level. 

English Language Question Task Cards—Students work in pairs or triads to determine the answer for a grammar or vocabulary item. The goal is for the group to discuss possible answers and come up with a consensus. The goal is to raise students’ awareness of these items. 

Battle: Find it First—Students (in pairs or triads) are given a set of drawings; each drawing differs slightly. One student will pick a drawing but not say which one it is. The other group members have to guess which is the selected picture by asking yes-no questions. 

Tell It Three Times: 3-2-1—In groups of three, each student tells a story based on the prompt the teacher has given. Next, each student has 3 minutes to tell his story. Then two members move to other groups. Each student has 2 minutes to tell his story. Again, two members move to different groups. In their new groups, each member has one minute to tell his story. For Folse, this is a fun and fluency-building activity. 

Strip Story—Students are given a strip of paper with a sentence in it. Together, all of the strips tell a story. Each student stands up and says his sentence. Students do this as many times as needed. Students then stand up and line up according to the sequence of the story. They then read each strip and if it is correct, the teacher says, “Yes.” If it is incorrect, the teacher says, “No.” The students have to try again. The goal is to get students to speak as much as possible. This activity is fluency-building. The goal is to get students to speak more and thereby raise their English proficiency. 

Each of these lessons engages students in completing meaningful tasks which successfully build students’ fluency, 

Chapter 5: Ten Unsuccessful Activities
Folse begins by admitting that every teacher has had a bad lesson. The result is some reflection on why it did not turn out well. For Folse, reflection should also take place when a lesson goes well. Why did it work? 

What follows are 10 activities that Folse considers unsuccessful. He breaks down each activity into situations and comments. 

Unsuccessful Activity 1: Presenting a discussion topic without any tasks 

Situation: The teacher began his lesson by sitting on the top of his desk. He then asked his Japanese students what their opinion about capital punishment is. There was silence. The teacher asked other questions about capital punishment. Again, there was silence. 

Comments: For Folse, the teacher did not start well by sitting on top of his desk. The teacher did not consider Japanese culture. Japanese students do not answer questions that are asked in such an open-ended manner. It would have been better to have students do one or two tasks before discussing capital punishment. Finally, the topic is one that Japanese are unfamiliar with as capital punishment is not common. 

Unsuccessful Activity 2: Using a Task Inappropriate for Students’ Age

Situation: Folse recalled a teacher who played “Simon Says” with a class of adults. The teacher explained to the class how “Simon Says” works. He also had the students blindfold their eyes so they would not look at other classmates. 

Comments: Not only were students playing a child’s game, but they were also asked to be blindfolded. This was a free adult class in which no spoken English was taking place. Folse stressed that before one has adult students do an activity, the teacher should ask himself if he would be comfortable doing it. Folse noted that half of the class did not return after the “Simon Says” activity. 

Unsuccessful Activity 3: Using a Task Unsuitable for Students’ Proficiency 

Situation: A teacher received an email that enthusiastically praised the difficulty of the English language. The teacher’s lesson revolved around this topic. There were a series of questions which had a double meaning. Unfortunately, her students did not understand the play on words. The result? The teacher spent his entire class explaining what individual words and the play on words meant. This was followed by an explanation of cultural references. 

Comments: This lesson did not work because the language was too difficult literally and metaphorically. The sentences contained cultural references that the students did not know. In the end, the amount of teacher-talk far exceeded student talk. The students just listened to the teacher. Folse questioned how useful this lesson was.

Unsuccessful Activity 4: Using Discussion Prompts That Can’t Generate Discussion 

Situation: A teacher had his upper-intermediate students work in groups of four. The teacher gave each group a set of cards. The students read aloud the cards which had questions; e.g., What is your favorite color? Why? Then the students discussed their answers. Unfortunately, the students did not seem enthusiastic about doing the activity. For Folse, it was because there was nothing to discuss. 

Comments: The problem is the topic. It is not a discussion starter. This class might have worked with a beginning or low-intermediate class. The solution is to have questions that promote a difference of opinion: For example, what are three things you would buy if you won the lottery? 

Unsuccessful Activity 5: Using a One-Way Task 

Situation: A teacher chose a mini mystery for students to read. The teacher prepared for the lesson by ensuring that the language was at an accessible level for the students. In class, he put the students in triads. He gave them five minutes to read the story. Once time was up, he asked the students to discuss who committed the crime. In one group, the first student said he didn’t know. Another was silent while the third member said he knew who committed the crime. He blurted out the answer, and other groups heard him. At that point, the students looked at the teacher; they were ready to discuss or go to the next activity. 

Comments: A good activity requires discussion, which was missing from this activity. The teacher should have split up the clues among the groups much like a strip story. The groups would have discussed the story much more. By giving the students all the clues, this is a one-way information gap. There is no need to exchange information. 

Unsuccessful Activity 6: Using a Problem-solving task with a Difficult Solution 

Situation: A teacher came across a familiar problem-solving brainteaser, which involved a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage. Because it was written for native speakers, the teacher rewrote the story. Clues were prepared so this would be a two-way information gap. In class, he had students work in pairs. He wrote the story on the board. He then gave students either clue A or clue B. Students talked at first. In time, they all became silent because they thought there was no solution. 

Comments: The problem was that the solution was too hard. It is not only difficult for ESL learners but native speakers, too. This was the reason students gave up after a few minutes; they thought the problem was unsolvable.

Unsuccessful Activity 7: Using a Task with Overly Complicated Instructions 

Situation: A teacher gave his students a paragraph to read. He then gave the groups a total of 7 oral directions to follow. When Folse heard the instructions, he became confused and wondered what the discussion activity entailed. 

Comments: For Folse, the oral directions were too complicated. He did not even recall what the topic of the paragraph was. This could have been avoided if the teacher had given the instructions in steps. Once a step was completed, the teacher could move on to the next step. Finally, he could give the students time to work together rather than rush them. 

Unsuccessful Activity 8: Pretending that Checking Answers is the Same as Discussing 

Situation: A teacher had his students check answers from a sheet. This was not discussing because there was one correct answer. In cases where there were differing answers, this involved some back-and-forth exchanges, but soon a consensus was reached, and the discussion ended. 

Comments: For Folse, this activity does not involve speaking or discussion. He notes that a discussion arises when there are differences of opinions. 

Unsuccessful Activity 9: Choosing an Inappropriate Topic for the Students 

Situation: A teacher had a lesson on American football. He brought in magazines and football regalia. The teacher began the lesson by asking students what they knew about American football. Some students responded, and he wrote their answers on the board. Then he moved to the focus of the lesson. He told the students that American football was more difficult to play than soccer. By then, the students were in groups. Some students noted how American football had nothing to do with the feet whereas soccer did. One said that soccer was better. From here, the class discussion turned to soccer or sports they participated in. Others spoke in their native language. The students were off topic. 

Comments: An irrelevant topic could be a bad choice for a discussion. The topic may not lead students to their goal. For example, if the students were TOEFL students, their goal would be to pass the TOEFL. They may or may not be interested in American football. In the present case, the teacher did not have a plan. He simply presumed the information he shared would be enough to get the students talking. 

Folse suggested that a good discussion involves a series of concrete tasks. These were missing from the present lesson.

Unsuccessful Activity 10: Using Videos Incorrectly as a Speaking Task 

Situation: A teacher had students watch an episode of Friends. Then the teacher told the class that they would watch the episode again and then talk about the topic presented in the show. When the episode ended, the teacher asked the students a series of questions. What did the students think about the episode? Did they understand everything that was said? Did they find anything confusing? The students did not respond. The teacher had the students get in groups. They were to discuss effective ways to tell a roommate that one no longer wanted to live with him. 

Comment: For Folse, the video was too long. This was compounded by most students’ inability to understand what was occurring. Many relied on visuals and body language to understand what was occurring. A shorter video would have worked better. 

Folse suggests covering the screen as students listen to the video. Next, have the students watch the video again. Ask the students what they understood. Write their answers on the board. Include keywords and phrases. Finally, play the video segment again. The goal is to push learners’ interlanguage. 

Every teacher has a lesson that fails. Good teachers reflect on what went wrong and why. If the lesson is presented again, hopefully, the outcome will be positive. 

Chapter 6: Assessing Speaking 

Chapter 6 involves the role of assessment in speaking. Folse stresses that assessment should be considered from the time the initial class is being planned. For him, the mark of good assessment is evaluating a skill in the same way it is taught. 

Revisiting Student’s Speaking Needs 

Folse revisits Chapter 1 with its call for a needs analysis; this will give teachers/curriculum writers reasons why students are taking a speaking course. In turn, this will affect the types of classroom activities offered. Finally, the activities determine what is assessed. 

Three Stages of Speaking Assessment 

Folse notes how assessment can occur at three stages: pre-instruction, during instruction, and post-instruction. Pre-instruction is a diagnostic where a teacher is trying to determine what a student knows. The results will enable the teacher to decide how much time will be spent on an area. It will also identify potentially advanced and weak students. 

During instruction involves assessing students during a lesson. Oftentimes, this involves a teacher observing his students. Based on students’ responses or lack of them, a teacher can determine who is understanding the topic of the lesson or who needs help.

When it comes to student correction, teachers should do so at the end of an activity: post-instruction. Folse suggests that a teacher keep a list of errors that students make during an activity. Then go over them after an activity is completed. 

Formal Assessment 

In this section, Folse talks about two types of assessment: achievement assessment and proficiency assessment. The latter come from a publishing or testing company. In contrast, an achievement test determines how much a student has achieved in a course. The purpose of achievement testing is to determine if students have met a course's objectives. Interestingly, not all speaking courses end with an achievement test. This is particularly true of speaking classes in EFL settings. 

Speaking assessment falls into one of three categories: pronunciation, fluency, and language accuracy. For pronunciation, one of the advantages is that every sound that is taught is assessed. A disadvantage is that this assessment involves reading not speaking. For Folse (2006), “Fluency...can be measured by the amount of language produced in a certain period of time. Furthermore, fluency is demonstrated by a student’s ability to produce language without hesitations, self-corrections, or self-interruptions” (p. 216). Language accuracy is determined by the amount of language produced without errors. 

Direct vs. Indirect Assessment 

Assessing a test-taker through an interview is a direct assessment. The problem is that it is time-consuming; furthermore, what do the other students do while a student is being interviewed? An indirect assessment involves, “...the ability to construct an utterance accurately in written form” (p. 219). For example, a dialogue is given with blanks. The student fills the blanks with appropriate words. These words are part of the indirect assessment which can be either “active/production or passive recognition” (p. 219). 

Proficiency Assessment 

In a proficiency assessment, a teacher is trying to determine a student’s proficiency level at a particular point in time. Some examples of proficiency assessments are the TOEFL, the TSE, and the IELTS. Folse suggests that students be taught with material that is similar in content and format to the TOEFL, TSE, and IELTS. Each is used to measure a student’s academic English. 

As for the TSE (Test of Spoken English), it is the most widely used assessment for spoken English. The TSE is used for student placement, work assignment, or general proficiency assessment. It has a test-taker do “real” things, such as narrating a story, making a recommendation, giving and supporting an opinion, and persuading another person. 

Finally, there is the IELTS (International English Testing System), which consists of four modules: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The speaking test lasts 14 minutes and consists of three parts. Part one consists of personal topics, while part two consists of a more serious topic but still personal: e.g. describe a teacher who has made an impact on your life. Finally, in part three the test-taker and tester discuss more abstract topics, such as what makes a good teacher. 

Folse notes that assessing speaking is not an easy endeavor. If you test directly, this involves testing one person at a time, which is time-consuming. Furthermore, a tester has to assess how many points to assign to each component. In contrast, an indirect test is easier to administer and more reliable. Folse concludes that when it comes to the TOEFL, TSE, and IELTS, lessons should be created that help students achieve their speaking needs. This is the goal of any good speaking class. 

One author had used this book when it was published in the early 2000’s and it better informed her understanding of how to design and implement speaking activities and/or conversation classes and on a more recent review found it an engaging refresher of the fundamentals. The other author suggested the book for a review based on her use of the book before and now. The fact that text is so comprehensive and founded on pedagogical basics makes it a relevant resource regardless of a teacher’s trajectory in his/her career and the ESL/EFL context in which he/she teaches.