I find that creating situations for students to speak spontaneously about a desired topic can be difficult. Additionally, even once the situation has been explained to the students, many of them lack the skill or vocabulary necessary to effectively communicate the message that they wish to convey. Additionally, many students struggle to speak without using some sort of written dialogue as a crutch. For this reason, I have developed a speaking activity that I call "fishbowl interviews." The nice thing about this activity is that it can be used for language learners at all levels, provided that there is a good interview topic, and it allows students to semi-prepare for the spontaneous speech event so they are able to feel confident when it is their turn to speak. I will give more suggestions as to the type of topics I use later in this blog post.
I generally use fishbowl interviews over a two day period. Unless the topic is extremely complicated, I usually give my students 20 minutes to work on the first day. Students know ahead of time that they may not use their question or answer sheet on day two, but they can write whatever they want on the first day to prepare for the next day. On day one, I assign the topic to students, and I assign them their partner for the day. The students then draft the interview. In my Spanish 1 and 2 class, it is not uncommon for the students to actually write out the dialogue. I encourage them to brainstorm as many questions and answers that relate to the topic as possible. In my upper level classes, the students usually brainstorm question types, vocabulary that they might need, and grammatical structures that could be useful. Students are encouraged to use the internet, dictionaries, etc. to assist them with this task. For their homework, I tell my students that they should practice both the questions and answers at least five times (obviously, some of my students will end-up practicing more and some will practice less).
So, I certainly understand that at this point, you may be thinking that this does not sound like a spontaneous or semi-spontaneous speech event at all. However, it becomes a spontaneous speech event when the students are paired at random to conduct the interviews. So, on day two, every student puts his/her name on two pieces of papers. These papers go into two tins-one marked interviewer, the other interviewee. Then, someone in the class draws two random names, one from each tin. These two people must assume their proper roles and perform the interview in front of the class (or in the center of the circle of desks). They may not use any papers or notes, and their conversation must make sense (i.e. the interviewee must actually answer the question posed by the interviewer). Every student goes twice, once as the interviewee and once as the interviewer. I will often require that students speak for a set period of time. With my advanced students, I may ask them to speak two to five minutes. I usually have my beginning students speak one to three minutes. Everyone claps and supports their classmates at the end of each interview.
I have generally felt that my goals of allowing for more spontaneous speaking opportunities that aren't overwhelming for students are attained through this activity. Additionally, it is an excellent way for students to focus on form.
Some of the topics that I use for beginning students include: personal interviews, famous person interviews, and character interviews.
Some of the topics that I use for advanced students include environmental topics, radio shows, running for student office, talking about an important political topic, and other topics that relate to our cultural studies.
What are some of your ideas for scaffolding spontaneous speech that includes more complicated topics in the language classroom?