Every speaking lesson should be based on communicative activities which fulfil two important language learning needs. They encourage the learners to acquire language knowledge and prepare them for real-life language use. Achieving the outcome requires the participants to interact, which means not only speak with a person but also listen to what he or she is saying and react to it.
2.2.1Types of communicative activities
Communicative activities are dealt with in a large number of methodology books and their classification is distinguished according to each author´s point of view. However, all of them mention the same or similar communicative tasks but in different extent. Supported by a sufficient amount of literature, I created the following categorization of prevailing communicative activities:
Information gap activities
Information gap activities are described by Thornbury (2005, 80-84) who claims that in these kinds of tasks there is a knowledge gap among learners and it can be bridged by using the language. So, in order to obtain the information, the interactants have to communicate. Littlewood (1994, 22-26) labels these activities as functional communication activities. He emphasizes sharing the information among learners and its processing.
The most common information gap activity is spotting the differences in the pictures, exchanging personal information, guessing games and also creating the story based on flashcards shown to the students in random order, for a few seconds and one flashcard per group only. This makes the students cooperate and communicate with each other to find the lacking information.
Discussions are a commonly used activity in a speaking lesson. A topic is introduced to the students via a reading or a listening passage and then they are asked to discuss a related topic in order to come up with a solution or a response. Celce-Murcia (2001, 106) mentions that students need to be reminded that each person within a group should have a specific responsibility in the discussion – either keeping time, taking notes or reporting the results made by the group members.
A widely spread and one of the best communicative activities is a role play which trains the students in the classroom to deal with unpredictable real-life conversation in an English speaking environment. Ladousse (1987, 6) points out the special reasons for using the role play in the lessons. It puts students in situations in which they are required to use and develop language necessary in social relationships and helps them to build up their social skills. Using role play is useful especially while teaching shy students who have difficulty participating in conversation about themselves. Through this activity they are put into various roles and no longer feel that their own personality is implicated. Role play is an essential communicative technique which develops fluency, promotes interaction in the classroom and increases motivation.
Simulation is a kind of role play but the emphasis is put on creating the atmosphere of a real world. Students pretend they are a part of a simulated environment and take part either as themselves or are given a role and pretend being someone else. To achieve a suitable simulated environment, the classroom is usually rearranged and, where possible, converted in a required place according to the situation.
Guessing games can be used as free activities for revision of vocabulary or as an interesting way to give quite controlled practice. Although they are called “games”, they provide intensive language practice, especially in asking questions, so they should not be regarded as an extra activity. Students are fond of these guessing tasks mainly because they enjoy themselves without realizing they also practise and improve their speaking skills.
2.2.2Importance of pair work and group work
Pair work and group work present ways of organizing the class while teaching speaking. The teacher´s responsibility is to choose a suitable communicative activity depending on what is going to be practised – either fluency or accuracy – and organize the students into pairs or groups. In some activities such as role plays and guessing games, pair work is essential. On the other hand, discussions and debates require group work and enable the students to express their opinions on a given topic within the group. After that, the spokesman of each group notifies the rest of the class about the conclusion they have reached. This may lead to a following discussion among groups and if the topic is amusing, the speaking lesson seems to be enjoyable for both students and the teacher, too.
Advantages of pair and group work
There are many reasons for pair and group work to be used in the lessons. First of all, they provide the students with a lot more practice than working as a whole class. Students also feel more comfortable to speak to one or two people rather than the whole class and the teacher. Moreover, speaking to just a few people is closer to real-life situations.
Pair and group work allows each student to work at the pace of his or her small group or pair. The teacher is no more considered the only source of information but the students learn from each other. This creates opportunities for learners´ knowledge to be shared. In order to be successful, learners need to become accustomed to using English without the teacher´s permanent support. Therefore, working in pairs or groups helps them to build up their independence and confidence for further conversations.
The advantages of pair and group work can be noticeable not only from the learner´s but also the teacher’s point of view. It provides the teacher with more time to work with weaker students and encourage them, by participating in a role play or discussion, to communicate. Teachers can also benefit from a great availableness of different communicative activities being offered in bookshops and on the internet nowadays. The variety of materials for pair or group work speaking practice is praised by most of them and their use has proved to be very efficient for speaking skill improvement.
Slight disadvantages of pair and group work
However efficient and useful pair and group work is, it may sometimes cause little problems while practising speaking. According to Doff (1989, 141) the noise belongs to these obstacles the teachers have to overcome during lessons. Usually the students themselves are not disturbed by the noise, it is more noticeable to the teacher observing pairs or groups. However, the noise created by pair and group work demonstrates learners´ engagement in a speaking task and gives the teacher visual evidence of students´ involvement. Considering this, the success in working in pairs or groups depends mainly on the students´ and the teacher’s approach.
Another fact Doff (1989, 141) mentions is the difficulty to control the whole class during a communicative activity. To stop activity getting out of control, it is important to give the students clear instructions, define the speaking task clearly and set up a routine, so that students accept the idea of working in pairs or groups and know exactly what to do.
2.2.3The role of a teacher in communicative activities
The teacher is a facilitator of students´ learning and as such he has many roles to fulfill. Freeman (1986, 131) describes him as a manager of classroom activities. In this role, one of his major responsibilities is to set up activities that promote communication. During the communicative activities he acts as a consultant answering students´ questions, offers advice and provides necessary language items. One of the most important roles is to make sure that students know what they are supposed to practise and check if they do it effectively. These roles are called a conductor and a monitor. Although there is a great number of various activities which may be used in speaking lessons, their use would be confusing and pointless if they would not be logically organised. Being a good organiser should be an ability possessed by every skillful teacher.
Considering the facts mentioned above we can conclude that the teacher´s personality in a learning process is very important not only while participating in the activity but also while monitoring the students. The teacher´s less dominant role in communicative activities offers the students the opportunity to be involved in conversation and improve their speaking skills to be able to cope with the real-life situations.