How to teach speaking using a discovery approach

How to teach speaking using a discovery approach

This article is about how to teach speaking. First we will identify some characteristics of spoken language. Then, we will see how it is taught using a discovery approach where students notice salient patterns and try to make sense of them and how these patterns have to be practiced to attain automaticity and self regulation. The approach described in this article is largely adapted from Thornbury (2005) “How to teach speaking


Speaking is one of the four language skills, the others being reading, writing and listening. It is referred to as a productive skill. According to Chaney (1998), speaking is “the process of building and sharing meaning through the use of verbal and non-verbal symbols, in a variety of contexts” (Chaney, 1998, p. 13).

Characteristics of speaking


  • is interactive;
  • requires the ability to cooperate in the management of speaking turns;
  • takes place in real time with little time for planning;
  • requires the capacity to marshal a store of memorized lexical chunks;
  • involves linguistic, socio-linguistic and pragmatic knowledge.

To teach speaking teachers need to take into consideration the knowledge required for fluent speaking and the skills needed to automate this knowledge. In addition to this, teachers should be aware that learning occurs in low anxiety environment.

Teaching Speaking

Teaching Speaking

Decisions should be taken about the following:

  • Which approach?
  • Which materials?
  • What to focus on?
  • What kind of activities?
  • How to assess speaking performance?

Teaching speaking approaches

There are different approaches to teach speaking:

  1. The traditional Present, Practice and Produce (PPP) approach.
  2. The Test, Teach, Test (TTT) approach based on the task based instruction.
  3. The discovery approach, based on awareness raising, appropriation, and automaticity.

This article focuses on the discovery approach to language teaching which is also called the Observe Hypothesize and Experiment approach. This approach encourages learners to use an inductive reasoning to notice and discover recurrent patterns or rules. The role of the teacher is to guide and provide examples of a language item and help them find the rules themselves. The speaking lesson goes through three stages:

Awareness Raising

  1. Awareness raising (other-regulated – assisted/scaffolded)
  2. Appropriation (other-regulated – assisted/scaffolded)
  3. Automaticity (self-regulated – unassisted)

Awareness raising

The teacher starts by raising learners’ awareness. The starting point should be a recorded spoken text: a conversation. The choice of the conversation is of paramount importance. Should one opt for an authentic or an artificial conversation?

Which materials?

Let’s look at an example of an authentic material reported by Scott Thornbury (2005):

Authentic conversation

Speaker 1: I went in and bought some stupid things this morning in boots, twenty five p, [laugh] for twenty five p you could be a s silly as want to, couldn’t you? Silly aren’t they? Oh what fun! Silly green nonsense. Children bead earrings.
Speaker 2: You got green?
Speaker 1: I’ve got green jumper which I wear in winter.
Speaker 2: Yeah, that’s fine.
Speaker 1:
So I thought I would. I’m – am very fond of my green jumper. silly green earrings to go with it.
Speaker 2:
Why not?
Speaker 1:
It’s a laugh. There was another lady there looking through all the stuff where I was and she said to me ‘isn’t it fun?’ [laugh] and I said ‘yes, only twenty five p, [laugh]. Absurd!

Now here is the same conversation but rearranged (fabricated/artificial) to fit pedagogical aims.

Fabricated conversation

Speaker 1: What nice earring!
Speaker 2:I bought them this morning.
Speaker 1: Where did you buy them?
Speaker 2: I bought them in boots
Speaker 1:
How much did they cost?
Speaker 2:
Only twenty five p.
Speaker 1:
What a bargain!
Speaker 2: I am going to wear them with my green jumper.
Speaker 1: What a good idea!

Comparison between the two scripts

  • Clearly, the first script is authentic, but it is difficult to understand as it contains too many features of spoken language that may hinder comprehension.
  • The second script is very easy to understand, but it looks a far remove from naturally occurring speech.

A compromise

Speaker 1: What nice earring!
Speaker 2: Do you like them? Silly, aren’t they? Silly green nonsense. I bough them in Boots this morning. Twenty five p.
Speaker 1: What a bargain! Have you got something green that goes with them?
Speaker 2: I’ve got green jumper which I wear in winter.So I thought I’d get some silly green earrings to go with it.
Speaker 1: What fun!
Speaker 2:
I know. It’s a laugh. Only twenty five p.

The conversation above is a brushed up version of the authentic script.  Although it includes many features of spoken language, it does not sacrifice its pedagogical utility.

Stages of awareness raising

Using recorded and transcripts like the third one above learners are invited:

Awareness Raising

Awareness Raising

  1. to pay attention,
  2. notice consciously to register the occurrences of some event ,
  3. and understand a general rule, principle or pattern

Learners will have to do tasks such as:

listening and reading, identifying, matching, classifying, connecting, filling the gap, comparing and contrasting, noticing the difference etc.

Speaking Awareness Raising-activities

Speaking Awareness Raising-activities

These tasks are meant to raise learner’s consciousness about salient patterns in preferably well-chosen recorded materials.


The focus should be on spoken features such as organization, socio-cultural rules, topic shift, performance effects, communication strategies, speech acts, discourse markers, spoken grammar, vocabulary, lexical chunks, stress and intonation or noticing a gap.

Focus in speaking activities

Focus in speaking activities

Going back to the conversation above, one would opt for features of spoken grammar such as:

  • Exclamation
  • Tag questions
  • Intonation


Appropriation is the second stage in a speaking lesson. Scott Thornbury (2005: 63) states that appropriation is the “act of taking over the ownership of something.” In line with social constructivism, this stage is other regulated. Through collaborative work and interaction, appropriation aims at self-regulation by the end of this stage. Instead of controlled practice Scott Thornbury suggests practiced control activities:

“Practiced control [as opposed to controlled practice], on the other hand, involves demonstrating control of a skill where the possibility of making mistakes is ever-present, but where support is always at hand” Scott Thornbury (2005: 63)

Examples of the activities suggested are drilling, chants, memorizing scripts, task repetition, writing, reading aloud, and communicative tasks.

This practiced control attempts to foster the spoken language features highlighted at the awareness-raising stage. These features can be some discourse markers, lexical chunks, stress, intonation…


After the appropriation stage, learners reach a level where they have to use the language with minimum intervention on the part of the teacher. Autonomy is thus the result of “the increased automaticity of the learner’s language production”. In fact, the skill to automatize the more mechanical features of a task contributes to freeing attention for higher-level activities. According to Scott Thornbury, the following features characterize autonomy activities:

  • Productivity
  • Purposefulness
  • Interactivity
  • Challenge
  • Safety
  • Authenticity

The autonomy stage includes activities such as presentations and talks, stories, jokes, and anecdotes, drama, role play, simulations, discussions, debates, conversation and chat. This stage is meant to give free vent for learners to use the language to carry out a task.


To sum up, speaking is a very important skill for EFL learners and teaching it necessitates being acquainted with the different characteristics of the spoken language. It also requires the knowledge of what learners need in order to develop their speaking fluency. It is very important for teachers to devise appropriate communication classroom activities and find ways to involve learners in an anxiety-free learning environment. Lesson plans should vary the modes of interaction and activities to cater for learners’ learning styles and preferences. It should be framed within a learner-centered approach where the teacher is just a guide on the side and where learners work collaboratively to notice and discover regular patterns in spoken language. The aim is to appropriate and automatize these patterns in well-devised communicative activities.


Chaney, A. L. and Burk, T. L. (1998) Teaching Oral Communication in Grades K-8, Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Thornbury, S. (2005). How to teach speaking. Harlow, England: Longman.

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2 Responses

  1. Alex says:

    Many thanks for the article, Mohammed! You put forward some interesting points. I’d certainly agree that there needs to be a greater focus on helping learners improve their spoken fluency and confidence – both inside and outside the classroom. In a recent post for my own teaching blog I put together a long list of 50 tips to help learners improve their spoken fluency through greater immersion and everyday contact with English. If you’re interested, you can take a look here:

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