Speaking activities often rely on pairing students up with the same speaking partner. This might result in boring, predictable, and demotivating speaking practice. In order to mix things up and expose students to a variety of speaking partners, I propose a speaking activity which I called Speed Discussions as its format resembles Speed Dating. Speed Discussions is a very dynamic activity and guarantees plenty of student talking time. It is a great idea for larger groups but might also be adapted for smaller classes.
Decide on the seating before the lesson. You might arrange the desks in a horseshoe or a single row with chairs on both sides of each table. This way students will be facing each other while they discuss each topic.
Let your students take their seats and tell them they are about to discuss X different topics with X different classmates. The number of topics depends on the class size. I prepared 6 different topics which is perfect for a group of 12. Be ready to step in in case not everybody in class has a speaking partner or arrange for a 3-person group (two students who don’t switch places sit together, waiting for a new speaking partner).
Each discussion will last approximately 5 minutes. After this time, on your signal, one row of students (specify clearly which!) will move over one chair to their right to switch speaking partners and discuss next topic from the list.
Before the discussion begins, your students need to write down their opinion on each topic on a scale of 0 (totally disagree) to 5 (totally agree). They should write down the name of each of their speaking partners and their opinion about the topic before they start discussing it. If they have differing opinions, they might try to persuade their partner and change their mind. At the end of each discussion they should write down the Result (have they managed to change their partner’s mind? Did they both agree with each other to begin with and just exchanged similar opinions?)
After all the topics have been discussed, see whether your students stuck to their guns or were flexible in changing their opinions. Ask individual students to recap one discussion they had and report on its final result. It is a good way to find out which topics proved to be more controversial than others.
Don’t forget to listen to your students’ English while they are discussing and be able to offer some particular feedback (common mistakes, false friends, examples of good grammar or vocabulary).
I have been quite lucky teaching groups of eager and talkative students who don’t shy away from expressing their opinions and interacting with their classmates. Or so I have thought until I realized that even though each group I teach is different, the dynamic is pretty much the same: students keep doing all speaking activities with the same partners and with each lesson they have less and less to talk about. This resulted in lazy speaking, relying on their partner too much, getting away with “I don’t know, it depends” and general apathy during speaking practice which could potentially be the most interesting and engaging part of the class.
Speed Discussions were meant as a remedy to this near comatose state some of my groups were nearing and it worked like a charm. The choice of topics was actually secondary to the fast-paced, dynamic setup of the activity. Moving around the room, meeting a new partner, hearing a new voice (yes!) – these were all factors behind this really simple activity being successful. I got quite a lof of feedback from the students right after the class and it was overwhelmingly positive. I was thinking to myself “Why haven’t I done this earlier, it’s always been right there under my nose!”
I observed my students closely not so much to listen to what they were saying (grammar, vocab, etc.) but to see how they were interacting with each other. It was interesting to see usually quiet students liven up when they had to talk to a new speaking partner and they contributed more than what I remembered of them from their usual pairwork. I learned never to underestimate the power of shaking up the routine and its incredible effect on students’ (and my!) morale and performance.