Challenges of Teaching Oral Skills to YL in a Non English Speaking Environment

by Maria Conca

The challenges of teaching English around the world are huge for many native and non-native EL teachers. By definition, a context where English is not widely spoken can hardly provide the practice opportunities or authenticity that is virtually unlimited in English speaking teaching contexts. The most difficult aspect of our job as teachers is trying to replicate real-life communication in the classroom between peers sharing the same L1 through an English-only environment, or realistically create sufficiently motivating, purposeful opportunities for learners to use English out of the classroom. While this is hard when teaching adults to learn how to read or write, it is even harder when teaching YLs to speak or listen effectively.

I’m going to be brave and address two of the biggest challenges of current ELT debate: teaching oral skills (both receptive and productive) and teaching lower secondary learners in a non English speaking environment. Why is it so difficult to teach oral skills to teenagers? What factors affect the way we teach speaking/listening in the language classroom?


What motivates YLs to learn is socializing. Even the most withdrawn learners try to establish some personal ways to express their feelings, their world and their ideas to others. Talking, chatting and sharing is what teens really enjoy. How can we help them do that in a foreign language?

If we aren’t providing our learners with what they need to communicate with each other or the world, we will not be able to motivate them to speak. Not only motivating learners, but also avoiding their ‘demotivation’ (Littlejohn, 2008:215) is our responsibility.

I genuinely believe that learners’ involvement in some level of classroom decision-making, task design and purposes is one way to achieve that and ‘promote a sense of competence and success’ (ibid. 223). If learners are given the opportunity to negotiate topics, tasks and activities types, it will be easier to keep them engaged and motivated. Using cued questions, role-plays and simulations of communicative events that happen in their real life out of class will build their confidence and encourage realistic language use through peer interactions. Information gap and problem solving activities will make language tasks cognitively challenging and more motivating.

Lack of authentic listening materials

For years I’ve been providing my learners with endless, useless listening comprehension tasks, taken from one of my favourite course books, in which teenagers chatted about a great (fake) experience somewhere in the world. I was often frustrated to see that they were not engaged at all. Why should they be motivated to listen to a conversation they are not part of? Why should they listen to information they won’t practically need out of the classroom and that they didn’t ask for in the first place?

We only learn when we need it. If there’s a trigger to meaningfully store language items for future use and communicate to others what we need, we’ll learn effectively. This is how first language acquisition takes place. Why should second/foreign language acquisition work differently? If learners don’t need to speak a foreign language in their real life, teachers should create a realistic context of use in the classroom that resembles the outside world as much as possible. How can we do that? Use the technology and bring the real life into the classroom! I think it’s crucial to design graded, realistic tasks that learners can do with real people and in real-life situations, in which they are required to listen actively, respond and participate. For example, you can ask your learners to call a shop in the UK on Skype and find out if they sell their fancy t-shirts online, how much they are, delivery, special offers etc.

This type of interactive listening tasks will provide authenticity to the classroom as learners will be exposed to real, authentic language use. Learners can do such things in their L1. Helping them prepare for the encounter in English can be a great confidence booster:

  • Set the context very clearly e.g. You won a gift voucher to spend on clothes
  • Arouse their interest in the topic e.g. Check out a few shop websites and choose what to buy
  • Set purposeful tasks e.g. Call the shop to find out prices/sizes/delivery etc. and complete a grid
  • Ask learners to prepare the questions they need to ask
  • Provide a model as appropriate depending on learners’ age and level e.g. you can make the call first

This way learners will perform pre-planned speech (asking a list of questions) and will do a purposeful, manageable task (completing a grid). The focus will be on completing the task successfully rather than understanding every word or irrelevant information. From ‘overhearers’ or passive listeners learners will take on the role of active, selective listeners like in real life in their L1 (Field, 2008). The unpredictability and interactivity of a speech event like that will provide the opportunity to manage ‘unpredicted’ situations such as misunderstandings, noise or speed. Learners’ predictions, guesses and communicative strategies from both L1 and L2 repertoire will be easily transferred to and applied to new situations. Learners will learn from their first hand experience with the language what strategies to adopt and how to recycle vocabulary and expressions in the appropriate social context.

Oral Practice Opportunities

Surely, it has happened to you to quickly practise some key vocabulary through a reading or a short listening and move swiftly to the ‘It’s your turn’ or ‘Speak up’ section of your worksheet with the genuine expectation that learners would be able to ‘speak’ and ‘use’ the language on the spot. How many times have you realized that they were avoiding the task instead? Learners’ only anchor seem to be reading aloud any given examples or resorting to L1. Why is that? How can they reactivate prior knowledge in a new situation and experiment with new language so quickly?

Teaching around the world where English is a foreign or an additional language often means that you (especially as a native speaker) or the internet are the only source of exposure to L2. The only opportunities for learners to practise real language in authentic, spontaneous interactions might be a chat with teachers in the school café or to a lost tourist at the bus stop. On the other hand, the supposedly unlimited self-access materials online do not always boost learners’ confidence: I’ve often heard my learners say that they had been watching their favourite celebrities’ interviews on YouTube for hours without managing to understand them. While lucky YLs travelling to the UK for intensive summer courses seem to acquire the language more naturally and a lot quicker because they’re ‘surrounded by the language for many hours each day’ (Lightbown & Spada,2006:111), it’s quite hard for learners around the world to receive the same amount of natural language input at home. Language learning in a classroom environment does not always reflect real life as language input is modified, at times oversimplified by teachers, who try to make it comprehensible and learnable for their learners (Krashen, 1981). Video talks like TED talks are a perfect example of ungraded, real language material that can be exploited in class both as ‘naturalistic’ language input and as a model for meaningful language production. They’re great oral, content-based texts that promote discussion and provide useful material for class questionnaires, surveys and peer interviews. As self-access material they can be selected by teachers and become a self-study opportunity that feeds back into the classroom in various ways: news broadcasts, presentations, impossible interviews with inventors, instant interviews on a negotiated topic etc.

I strongly believe that maximising learners’ talking time in the classroom through peer interactions is the key. As ‘learners acquire language in conversation’ (Hatch,1978 cited in Richards,1990:77), the language classroom should provide opportunities to learn conversation through interactive tasks that focus on

  • ‘using the language to complete a task’ (ibid.78)
  • negotiation of meaning
  • purposeful information exchange

For instance, you can ask your learners to make a 3 minute video interview to a partner with their mobile phone about their dream school trip. The class will then decide the best ones to be posted on the school blog. It’s a fun activity that motivates learners to prepare their speech, perform and finally review their own as well as their partners’ performances for a realistic purpose.

While attending to the social purpose of language learning, communication both in the classroom and in the real world can be promoted if there’s an information gap and an immediate feedback to motivate learners to interact. The idea is to create a variety of communicative contexts that allow natural acquisition as opposed to conscious learning or language mastery (Littlewood,1981).Teaching oral skills should therefore aim at  performance-oriented language reception and production through realistic  and  manageable tasks.

Author’s Bio: Maria Conca has been teaching English for over nine years in the UK and in Italy, where she’s based and has been running her self-owned language school since 2011. She took her CELTA at IH Rome in 2007 and has recently completed her Delta at IH Newcastle (Module two) and Distance Delta IH London (Module one & Three). She has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer in primary education and CLIL, DoS and academic manager. Her main interests are YL, Teaching oral skills, CLIL, SLA and materials development.


Field, J. (2008). Listening in the language classroom, CUP

Krashen, S.D. (1981).  Second Language Acquisition and Second language learning, Pergamon

Lightbown, P.  &  Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned, (Third Edition) OUP

Littlejohn, A. (2008). The Tip of the Iceberg: Factors Affecting Learner Motivation. In RELC Journal  39; 214

Littlewood, W. (1981). Communicative Language teaching, CUP

Richards, J. C. (1990). The Language teaching matrix, CUP