Oral Production

Oral production is developed sequentially in terms of the kinds of texts that are produced by the learner, i.e., from simple messages such as a salutation to discourse that involves coherent and cohesive thought, which is present in such texts as oral presentations or speeches. Oral texts can be of at least four different types: prepared or spontaneous, interactive or noninteractive. Each kind of text type takes time to develop in the second language classroom and requires different teaching strategies in order to ensure this development.

First and foremost, it is important to be able to discern the different types of oral texts that exist. Interactive oral texts involve at least two or more people who are engaged actively in dialogue with one another. This type of discourse is often typified by spontaneous speech or unprepared speech, such as conversations or informal debates. Noninteractive oral texts are texts in which the speaker produces an oral message but does not expect a direct reaction to what has been said. This type of discourse is almost always prepared, either fully or partially, and often consists of texts such as announcements, narrations, presentations, speeches, etc. Most often, prepared speech consists of the following kinds of characteristics:

  • 1) thoughts are organized and clear and
  • 2) argumentation is evident.

Spontaneous speech is often characterized by hesitations, false starts, long pauses, incomplete thoughts or statements, a lack of coherence in the thoughts and statements made, grammatical errors, and a modification of statements as the speaker listens to what he/she is saying in order to sound intelligible (self-monitoring).

Although the two types of oral texts, interactive and noninteractive, have typical characteristics, there is some crossover in terms of the degree of spontaneity or preparation that can take palace. For example., if, before making a telephone call to a colleague, you jot down a few notes to remind yourself of what you intend to discuss in your conversation, you have demonstrated a degree of preparedness, since the topics of discussion have been established prior to your conversation. However, there is still spontaneity because the exact discourse patterns have not been rehearsed. On the other hand, you may have prepared a very detailed speech for a presentation and upon its delivery you find that your audience in not in the least bit captivated by what you are saying. Consequently, you abandon your speech temporarily and create as you go along. This scenario demonstrates spontaneity in noninteractive discourse. Therefore, the context in which the oral production takes place can be a factor in determining the degree of spontaneity or preparedness of the oral text.

In the past, in the general course of oral language development, the tendency has been to allow students plenty of time to prepare their dialogues, skits, presentations, etc., in order for them to present the best possible product. This teaching strategy has been and still is an important aspect of language development, but its main purpose is to develop the students’ ability to order their thoughts and choose the correct linguistic elements and grammatical forms in order to fulfill the communicative intent. These cognitive and metacognitive strategies are important in the preparation of noninteractive texts but do not necessarily assist students in making the transition to unprepared texts. Therefore, a special effort must be made in order to develop students’ confidence in producing such texts, whether oral or written, which will allow them the opportunity to deploy certain strategies that are for the most part found in unrehearsed speech. These strategies include: self-correcting, paraphrasing, refining and clarifying meaning by listening to oneself, negotiating meaning by becoming actively aware or conscious of one’s language use, using circumlocution or asking for help with a word or phrase even if this occurs in one’s first language. In essence, then, it is up to the teacher to assist students in moving away from a dependency on prepared speech to be able to communicate freely in a spontaneous situation, which is more the norm outside the confines of the second language classroom than is prepared speech.

In the classroom, oral production activities will depend upon three factors:

  • 1) the purpose of the oral production, be it experientially – communicatively – or linguistically-based,
  • 2) the type of production activity that is being planned, and
  • 3) the linguistic-communicative level of the students.

For the most part, Beginner level students will need time to prepare their oral productions in order to reduce frustration. Nevertheless, the teacher should engage Beginner level students in simple spontaneous exchanges so as to develop their confidence in this kind of speech act. Intermediate and Advanced level students should be given more opportunities to produce spontaneous speech; however, this will depend largely on the type of oral production task or activity and its purpose.

An oral production activity’s purpose will determine the kind of “product” the teacher can expect. For example, if students are given oral drill exercises, such as transformation drills (exercises that involve students in making linguistic changes in sentences from singular to plural, from one tense to another, from first person to third person, etc.) or completion drills (exercises in which the students complete the sentence with a word or phrase), the type of expected “product” is the correct answer, since the focus is on language knowledge and use. These activities are appropriate for linguistic development provided that the structures are relevant and are carried out in a contextualized fashion. Further, these language activities must be directly linked to the actual oral production task in order to be meaningful to the learner. However, these types of mechanical activities are not to be considered communicative, since they do not convey messages that are a consequence of an information gap (Paulston, 1975).

In order, then, to ensure that these types of activities do play an important role in the development of students’ linguistic abilities, teachers must choose pattern exercises that develop certain linguistic structures which are in keeping with the context and the oral production task to be carried out at a later stage. For example, if the field of experience is “Food” and you want to drill the verb “to take”, this should be done in such a way that the verb is contextualized in terms of food and not dealing with any of its other uses. This transfer will come when the next appropriate context predicates it. Thus, to drill the verb appropriately, a context needs to be set that is related to the verb’s authentic usage, such as in a restaurant situation where a waiter would ask customers what their order would be. Further, to drill the verb effectively, one must ensure that the type of drill questions used are within the experiences of the students. For example, if one asks the question “What do you take for dinner when you’re in a great restaurant?” to Grade Four students, they may have difficulty answering this type of question because it may not be within their realm of experience; however, Grade Ten students may be able to answer more readily since they may have experience this very situation. Therefore, it is also important that the type of oral linguistic exercises given to the students take into account the context, students’ interests, their experiences and their cognitive maturity.

In order for an oral production activity to be communicative, then, it must have the following characteristics:

  • 1) involve the transfer of information that is unknown or not well known to the listener(s),
  • 2) be task-based; i.e., it relates to an activity that occurs in real life,
  • 3) be contextualized; i.e., the speaker has information regarding who the audience is, for what purpose he/she is producing the information, any other circumstances surrounding the production, etc., and
  • 4) be meaningful to the learner; i.e., the activity is relevant to the speaker’s age group and life experiences (Tremblay, 1989).

In these oral communicative activities, students are required to supply information that is needed or missing in order to carry out the task, which may be either prepared or unprepared. Communicative activities consist of such techniques/procedures as brainstorming, role-playing, taking surveys, giving directions/instructions, playing games, especially those which are played in real life), carrying out impromptu conversations, interviewing and so on.

The same types of communicative activities can be done at an experiential level. The difference, however, lies in the fact that now students are making the decisions regarding the linguisitic knowledge and skills they will need in order to convey their own intents based on the context. In this sense, the language experience is taking into account the students’ experiences and interests by carrying out the activities which are meaningful and relevant to them. A brainstorming activity will help illustrate how the same technique/procedure can be communicative in one instance and experiential in another.

Brainstorming, when used as a communicative technique, has a very specific purpose. For example, in the field of experience “Food”, students could be asked to brainstorm all the food words they know in English which they think may sound the same in the second language and verify if they are similar or not. In this case, the students are communicating ideas, but the intent of the activity is very specific; i.e., the students’ knowledge is being directed towards the development of a food vocabulary list based on what they know about food in general. In addition, there is an information gap, since the students are not certain whether the vocabulary they are furnishing exists in the second language or not; therefore, their hypotheses are being verified and they are bridging the gap with the words they are supplying, albeit in their first language.

However, in order to make the same technique experiential, the teacher could ask the students to brainstorm the types of food they would like to eat at their end of the year class picnic. Once the list has been prepared, they could decide who would bring what item to the picnic. In this sense, the activity is experiential in that it is relevant and meaningful to the students, with their interests at the core of the activity. In effect, they are actually participating in making decisions that pertain to them. In addition, this same activity has a context and gives students a reason for communicating. Essentially, then, the distinguishing factors between a communicative activity and an experiential one are:

  • 1) the limitations placed on the activity, i.e., its function- learning (communicative) versus application (experiential), the presence of a communicative intent and a context,
  • 2) how relevant and meaningful the activity is in terms of the students’ interests and maturity, and
  • 3) whether or not the students are playing an active role in a decision-making or problem-solving process.

There are a variety of oral production activities and tasks which can be planned and used at all language levels (Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced). The difference in these activities will be determined by the complexity of the language used, i.e., simple language expression versus more sophisticated language use at the more advanced language levels. A useful example is a survey activity, which involves the reading comprehension skill, since surveys or questionnaires usually appear in print form.

At the Beginner level, a check-off format is most appropriate as a means of gathering information, since these surveys will focus mainly on language at the word level, For example, if the field of experience under study is “Clothing”, then the type of survey questions asked would relate to simple word usage such as “When it is hot, do you prefer shorts or a bathing suit?” Students would answer the question using a one-word answer which would reflect their choice. A full sentence is not necessary, because the purpose of this type of activity is to convey one’s message, not focus on the ability to create a sentence with the chosen word.

A follow up to this activity might involve having students summarize the results of the survey orally, followed by a written summary of the results in which the students would copy down the report as a form of guided practice in which knowledge is transferred to the written skill and reinforces what was learned orally.

At the Intermediate level, the focus will be more at the sentence and paragraph level, where students are asked to state their opinions, likes/dislikes, etc., in which their responses consist of a string of ideas. For example if the field of experience is “fashion”, a survey question at this level might be, “On weekends, what do you like to wear and why?” As such, students are required, then, to substantiate and elaborate on their answer, where they might use complete sentence or other appropriate rejoinders in order to maintain the flow of information. The survey would be made of question relating to other activities that students participation and the types of clothes they would wear for these occasions. Notes can be jotted down on the survey form as the question are being asked, replicating an activity done in real life. Once the data are collected, an oral or written class summary can be carried out, which could be used later on in the unit or the project.

At the Advanced level, students’ oral productions will focus on using sophisticated language forms in a more elaborated fashion, i.e., students will communicate their thoughts as a series of cohesive and coherent ideas, linked by discourse elements such as “seen that, for that, as,” etc. as a means of connecting these ideas and giving their productions more fluidity. As such, surveys at this level can take on the role of determining students’ knowledge and the ability to synthesize and evaluate it. If for example, the field of experience under study is “Being Independent” and the unit or project revolves around the creation of a pamphlet describing essential aspects of living alone, the types of questions asked would require the student to describe in detail an incident that he/she has experienced or a friend has experienced so that information can be gleaned from the scenarios. For example, one scenario could be “Imagine that you have been accepted to a university in Eastern Province and you should move. Describe what you would think is your new life. Explain what are your expenses, etc. The scenario type question then requires that students use more sophisticated language as a means of closing the information gap.

As can be seen the same type of oral text can serve a number of levels, what will change, however, will be the level of sophistication of the language use.

Brainstorming is a cognitive learning strategy that generally involves the process of generating or creating ideas to resolve a problem. In the second language classroom, this process can be used to generate vocabulary, expressions or, at more advanced communicative/linguistic levels, ideas for discussion purposes. This type of activity focuses on communicating thoughts, not on linguistic accuracy. Therefore, linguistic errors may be found as a product of this activity and should be accepted accordingly; however, if errors impede total comprehension, then the negotiation of meaning will be required in order that the students’ intents be understood. Error correction may even still be necessary if the error persists. This kind of activity can be done as an entire class or in small groups of between four to six students. Students will have to be reminded that the goal is the generation of words, expressions or ideas and that all answers should be accepted without criticism. This process can also be used as a pre-production activity or as will be seen later on as a means of communicating ideas as it relates to a reading passage or a writing assignment.

Role-playing or simulations are oral production activities which are often based on listening activities, which have already exposed students to certain linguistic and sociolinguistic patterns needed for this task. At the Beginner level, especially, it is advisable to demonstrate or model the process for students. This can be done by the teacher or through the use of audio tapes or videotaped scenes. In some cases, students can be supplied with cue cards that present the entire situation with only certain aspects missing, which are then filled in spontaneously by the students. Or, just the beginning of the dialogue can be supplied and students can complete the dialogue. In another case, cue cards would provide students information on what they are to talk about and no more.

It is up to them, then, to develop the conversation, following the appropriate protocol for the situation, such as formal versus informal language use, and so forth. Variations of this process include: partners switching roles, an audience member intervening and giving one of the characters advice, one participant actually playing one role while the other role is played by an “imaginary” person requiring the audience to determine what the “imaginary” person is saying, one person can play both roles or various groups can replay the same roles with the class listening for the differences/similarities in the simulations. For students at the Intermediate/Advanced levels, role-playing can replicate more difficult situations, such as giving a classmate advice on a problem he/she may be experiencing or simulating a situation in which one character expresses an opinion and must support it with documented evidence. These types of activities, then, allow students to recycle knowledge and experiences.

Conversations are similar to role-playing but differ in the sense that they relate more to unprepared discourse and to events that often occur in one’s daily life, such as asking friends about the movie they saw the night before or inviting a friend out to see a movie. Brainstorming is one activity which can be done as a precursor to the conversational activity so that the class as a whole or small groups can determine the kinds of words, expressions or appropriate social conventions they think they will need for the conversation. From there, depending on whether the teacher is dealing with Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced level students, he/she may wish to give them time to prepare mentally or to allow them to carry it out impromptu. The latter format assists students in becoming more independent and confident speakers as well as better risk takers in unstructured situations.

When students present their conversations to the class, those who make up the audience should be actively engaged in an activity that corresponds to the conversation. Students can be asked to do an activity such as those outlined in the listening comprehension section or they can be asked to evaluate the conversation (see peer evaluation in the section on Evaluating StudentsWork). Whatever format is chosen, it is important to involve students in their peers’ oral productions as this will assist them in directly developing their listening comprehension and indirectly in improving their oral production skills.

Interviews are a variation on conversations but require a preparation phase in which the types of questions that will be asked are often predetermined. For Beginner level students, the teacher may prepare a sequence of questions or the questions may be decided upon as a class. An example of this format is a game called Social Bingo (Omaggio, 1986), in which the students attempt to fill in their Bingo cards by interviewing fellow classmates so as to determine which situation belongs to whom. Once they have found the person, they write the student’s name below the situation. The teacher then decides what vertical or horizontal line, the X, and so on will be the winning combination.

At the Intermediate or Advanced levels, students can be allowed to prepare their questions in advance, in which case they would be creating a structured interview. This preparation process can be done individually, in pairs or in small groups (three or four students). When the students have decided upon their questions, they can be transferred to cue cards to help facilitate the interview process, which replicates a process that is often used on television. Interviews can also be unstructured, but this is probably best done at the Advanced level, since this type of activity will encourage students to be more spontaneous in the application of their language knowledge and to choose the best means of expressing themselves. This type of activity mainly requires the use of metacognitive strategies, since students are required to sustain the interview process by choosing the best linguistic expressions, monitoring their speech and self-correcting their message. This type of interview is used best for gathering general information, since it is more like a conversation than a question-answer session.

A debate is a production activity that requires high levels of language ability and is best carried out at the Advanced level, since students at this level will have a larger vocabulary and are able to access more linguistic structures. Furthermore, this type of activity requires critical thinking skills which are often associated with more mature students. This type of activity can involve two steps:

  • 1) researching the topic, and
  • 2) brainstorming prior to the debate.

The first step can involve a “reading for information” stage in which students gather data regarding the topic to be discussed, which would include the jotting down of notes which students could use to support their opinions during the debate. Alternatively, students may wish to interview key resource people who could supply them with information on the topic, in which case they also would be using interview techniques. Students could then be grouped according to their opinions so that as a group they could develop a defence for their opinions. Once students have pooled their information, the groups can be divided again so as to carry out a practice session to determine if their defence is solid enough. At the same time, they can determine what appropriate linguistic forms and vocabulary will be needed in order to best express their intents. Once the “mock” debate session has been completed, the second step can take place.

This step involves students in brainstorming linguistic items, such as “floortaking formulae”, i.e., expressions needed to agree or disagree, to show objection, to support an idea/opinion, to express an opinion, etc., so that they will have at their disposal the necessary linguistic formulae that will assist them in sustaining their communication. This type of activity also allows for the use of negotiation techniques, which can also be brainstormed so that students have access to ways in which they can clarify another’s communicative intent. Once the debate begins, the teacher’s role, as an observer, is to note frequent errors in communication which will be discussed at a later date but not during the process. Students not participating in the debate are also observers and should be given a task that relates to the debate, such as writing a summary of the key points raised by either side or writing an opinion from the observer’s point of view as to which side presented the best arguments. The summary can be given orally, followed by a discussion of what types of difficulties the students experienced in presenting their opinions, which takes the form of analysis and reflection. This activity, then, is probably the most difficult and challenging for students. Thus, students must be given ample time to prepare properly for this task.

The last type of oral production activity to be discussed is the use of games. Games are an excellent means of reviewing linguistic structures or they can serve as information gap activities. Games are highly motivational and students easily become involved. Games that are offshoots of well-known games or games which are broadcasted on television are particularly popular. The advantage of creating and using games that they are based on these models is that students are already familiar with the rules.


Government of the Northwest Territories (Canada).


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