What is speaking?

elt speaking Aug 13, 2021

by Dr Jeremy Koay


Let’s start by observing the following scenario. A student asks her teacher to repeat his instructions. The student said: Excuse me, Mr Li. Can you repeat again? The teacher responded: You shouldn’t use again after repeat. Not only does this response promote the idea that speaking is about producing grammatical sentences orally, but it may also result in learner anxiety.

In terms of communicative goals, the teacher’s response failed to address the student’s question. Repeating his instructions would have been a more appropriate response.


An important but commonly neglected aspect of speaking is topic familiarity. How can you participate in a group discussion if you have limited knowledge of the discussion topic?

Another important aspect of speaking is communicative goals (e.g., seeking clarification, making promises, expressing disagreement), in other words, what you do with what you say. Achieving these goals effectively involves having an awareness of cultural norms and institutional expectations. For example, how you disagree with your friends is different from how you disagree with your employer – due to power imbalance.

Affective aspects such as confidence, self-esteem and anxiety influence a speaker’s performance. Because spoken language usually involves having an audience, making errors publicly can result in ‘losing face’ (Kang, 2002).


As topic familiarity allows learners to contribute in a speaking activity, topic selection should be a priority. Teachers can have learners select from a list of speaking topics or have learners themselves develop it. Another effective way is using pre-speaking activities. Such activities can include reading articles, watching video clips or listening to lectures related to a selected topic.

Because language use is contextual, teaching different rules for all situations becomes necessary. As this is an impossible task, learners should be taught to analyse the ‘rules of the game’ (Basturkmen, 2002). Examples of classroom activities for this purpose include identifying discourse markers in a particular speech genre and comparing how ideas are presented in different contexts.

Finally, as the affective side of learners is crucial in speaking (Kang, 2002), teachers should give respectful and constructive feedback.


Basturkmen, H. (2002). Learner observation of, and reflection on, spoken discourse: An approach for teaching academic speaking. TESOL Journal, 11(2), 26-30.

Kang, S. (2002). Factors to consider: Developing Adult EFL students’ speaking abilities. In J.C. Richards & W.A. Renandya (Eds.), Methodology in language teaching: An anthology of current practice (pp. 204-211). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

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