What is ‘speed chat’?
One of the main principles of communicative language teaching is giving students opportunities to speak in the target language. This can be difficult in large classes, and it can also be a challenge for students with limited language skills.
An easy to implement strategy that works well across languages, sectors, topics and ability levels, is what I call ‘speed chat’. You may be familiar with speed dating, which sees singles get together, talking to one potential partner for a short period of time, before moving on to the next. The idea is to talk to as many people as possible, and build connections based on first impressions.
The concept is similar in speed chat, but the aim is to get students talking, not dating! Students talk about a familiar topic for a short period with a partner, swap, and repeat.
What are the benefits?
Speed chat can be adapted for any language level. Beginner students can sustain longer periods of conversation by talking about a single topic, as they repeat the process with multiple partners. Because the interlocutor is changing, and no two interactions will be exactly the same, interest is also maintained. Students learn from each other, negotiate meaning together, and share their knowledge. I’ve found that students regularly recycle each others’ questions and use new vocabulary learnt from one peer with the next. In fact, for the last round of the activity I always increase the time period, and thus far no-one has noticed. This is likely because students have collected stories, vocabulary, questions and confidence along the way.
‘Speed chat’ gives students an opportunity to use language without pre-planning or memorising dialogue beforehand – a daunting task for many learners, particularly those in education systems where language education revolves around textbooks and grammar drills. This strategy allows lower-level students to reinforce (maybe 4 or 5 or more times) grammatical patterns and vocabulary learnt in class, allowing them to be use their learnt language in context. By talking to numerous partners, more meaning is given to speaking activity, particular in the beginning stages when language will be repetitive, as each communication will have new and non-predictable responses. Students with a wider range of language in their repertoire are able to extend themselves.
To ensure students are able to cope with the challenge of this task, it is important that they are equipped with a set of skills to bridge the gap between what they know, and what they don’t, between what they want to say, and what they can. Speed chat works well when complemented with explicit teaching of, and opportunities to use and practise, language learning strategies.
Providing students opportunities to pair with native speakers would provide an extra level to this strategy, especially when considering that pairing learners from the same language background may lead to repetition of the same common errors. As a native speaker teacher I sometimes put myself in the mix of students. If you have access to teacher assistants or exchange students they may be able to provide a highly valuable addition.
Another great thing about ‘speed chat’ is that it is not intensive for teachers, but it is highly engaging for students, and is an informative tool to assess communication skills (both formatively and summatively). Once the activity starts, I generally walk around the class listening out for common grammatical errors, misused vocabulary, or problems with negotiating meaning. I can address these in a subsequent lesson, but do not interrupt the students’ speaking for error correction. Real language, even between native speakers, is messy. Stops and starts and misunderstandings are all part of the deal, and the desire for perfection, and the fear of making an error, is a huge obstacle for many second language learners. Our role as teachers during this activity is to encourage students to take risks, to use any means necessary to make meaning (except revert to L1), and to continue and practise the act communicating.
How to implement ‘speed chat’ in your classroom
Depending on the level of your students, present a topic to students. You may like to include a list of questions for lower level students, and slowly decrease the level of dependency students have on the stimulus. Even in higher level classes I supply students several ‘starter questions’ to get them going. Any form of stimulus can work including single words, images, a problems can be posed to elicit advice, or opinions can be presented for debate.
There are several ways to organise your classroom, but basically any space can be adapted. In classrooms with some empty space, I like students to bring their chairs and make two rows facing each other (as per my photo), but the activity will work if students are at desks too – as long as they can face a partner. At the end of a round students all move one space clockwise. If you continue in this way, all students will be able to talk to up to half of the class. If you have a large class and don’t want to do too many rotations, then this technique will suit you. For smaller classes, I like everyone to talk to everyone else. In that case, I have all students rotate one space clockwise, except one person who will remain static. This will ensure everyone gets to talk to everyone else.
With every communicative activity there is a concern that students will revert to their mother tongue without direct supervision. I generally haven’t found that the case, particularly as I start with simple topics that are of interest to students (music, the weekend, etc). However, I do like to get in early and make an example of a student at the other end of the room who I hear speaking the L1, ‘I’m a teacher, I hear everything!’, which usually gets a laugh but also keeps students on their toes.
I find that playing music in the classroom works well, not only to provide a more relaxed atmosphere, but it seems to help students to overcome any fear of being overheard, although the music is never so loud that I can’t discreetly listen in to the conversations. Pop music in the L2 works well, even if it does drive the teacher mad!
Give it a try!
I’ve had a lot of fun with speed chat during the past semester in several oral communication courses. In one class of non-English majors, who were extremely reserved, I had to give the students a direct prompt to begin, so I said ‘say hello to your partner’, and the class in unison said ‘say hello!’. They realised their mistake and had a good laugh at themselves, and the tension in the class truly melted away. Over the 15 weeks the students doubled the length of their weekly speaking time. I encourage you try this strategy in your classroom if you haven’t already, and share your thoughts and ideas.
To get you started I’ve attached free Power Point templates for speed chat for English and Japanese that can be used and adapted to suit your teaching. If you translate the slides into another language, please share it back and I’ll post it here for other teachers.
OVER TO YOU …
*Have you tried a speed-chat style communication activity?
*What tips do you have for managing classes during speed-chats?
*What other activities do you have for promoting communication in the target language?
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