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ELs are often called on to speak extemporaneously in content classes. They might be asked to outline a scientific process, explain a literary term, or compare two historical events. Having to speak without preparation can be stressful, even in your first language. Some students freeze; others dive in and start speaking without a plan and end up rambling. Trying to formulate thoughts and deliver them in a second language is an additional challenge.
However, your students can learn strategies to make answering impromptu questions easier. With a step-by-step plan and regular practice, you can help them gain confidence and master the skills to give clear, organized answers. Following are six tips for teaching impromptu speaking skills in your classroom.
1. Teach Hesitation Strategies
First, students need time to think, and they can buy this time with a few simple strategies. These include repeating the question or using gambits like “Let me think about that.” Students should practice this skill by itself, memorizing a few gambits and trying them out before they actually start answering impromptu questions. You can find detailed instructions for an activity on this skill here.
2. Give Students a Framework
In composition classes, students learn that thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions make it easier for readers to understand their essays.
The same is true of a short, impromptu speech. It should begin with an announcement of what will follow, then answer the question, including a few details or examples to illustrate the point—connected with transitions—and conclude in a way that makes it clear the speaker is finished.
This structure not only helps the listener understand, but it also gives the speaker a roadmap with clear starting and ending points.
For instance, a student asked to compare their first language and English might start their response with a simple statement: “There are several interesting differences between Chinese and English.” Differences might include verb tenses, politeness, and writing systems, each illustrated by an example. A final summary might be “Those are three ways in which Chinese and English are different.”
3. Start Small
The end goal might be for students to stand up and speak for over a minute in front of the class. However, students should initially work in pairs and build up to a larger audience.
It’s also good to start small time-wise. Students who are still struggling with fluency might find speaking for 30 seconds more than enough of a challenge. Have students use a timer and establish minimum and maximum lengths for their answers. While impromptus in a classroom should never be too lengthy, they might want to build up to a minute or more depending on the complexity of the question. “What’s the best way to get to this classroom from your house?” will require a much shorter answer than “How can a student at this school reduce their carbon footprint?”
4. Lower Affect
To reduce stress, begin with familiar topics and questions the students can answer easily with evidence from their own experience. That way, they can get used to using a formulaic structure and transitions without a huge cognitive load. Such simple questions might include “Do cats or dogs make better pets?” or “Why did you choose to come to this school?”
5. Add Skills One at a Time
In addition to practicing hesitation strategies before answering actual questions, you can teach one type of question at a time. For instance, you could focus on compare/contrast questions in one class and process questions in another. Each type of question will demand different introductory phrases and transition words.
Another skill to add on is gesture. Moving a hand downward to emphasize a key word or turning a hand over to show contrast can add another layer of sophistication and make the answer clearer to the listener. To practice, give students a list of 10–12 statements, such as “There are three main reasons I support this idea” or “Now, pour the next ingredient into the solution.” Ask pairs of students to brainstorm gestures for each statement and review visual answers with the whole class. The next time they practice impromptus, ask them to incorporate one or two gestures into their answer.
Also, remind students that eye contact projects confidence, even online when they are looking at the camera instead of other students. When we are thinking, we tend to look up, but as students become more comfortable with the structure and more confident in their delivery, they should focus on making eye contact consistently as they answer.
6. Practice Regularly
It’s a good idea to keep working on these skills throughout the semester in short practice sessions. One method I use is to put students in breakout groups of three to four and give each student a question to ask another group member. The question can be given on a slip of paper in person or sent by private chat online. Students should have a set amount of time to answer the question based on its complexity. Even with brief peer feedback, this exercise can be done in as little as 10 minutes.