Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Teaching Speaking

You learned how to speak when you were pretty young, so chances are you don’t remember how you did it. We don’t remember learning to speak English, so how are we supposed to teach it? When working with English language learners, or ELL students, this can be a challenge. Speaking is a pretty important part of learning, but it’s not something we’re often trained on how to teach. We learn to teach children to read and write with the assumption they can already speak. With ELL students, we have to teach all of these skills simultaneously. So, how do we teach students speaking skills? Well, let’s talk about it.


When we are talking about spoken language proficiency, we’re actually talking about two different forms of language acquisition and use. For a long time, people treated speaking simply as speaking and couldn’t understand why students seemed to be fine in some situations, while struggling in others. Then, in 1979, Canadian researcher Jim Cummins coined a few terms that helped educators understand the different ways that students acquire and use language.

Let’s start with basic interpersonal communicative skills, or BICS. BICS are skills required for basic fluent communication in social settings. Basically, when students engage on the playground, cafeteria, or a coffee shop after school, they are using BICS. Another term for this is conversational language. Researchers estimate that fully acquiring BICS takes roughly one to three years.

So, BICS are the language skills used in social contexts. The other aspect of language acquisition needed by students is cognitive academic language proficiency, or CALP. CALP skills are those needed to use language abstractly and as a tool for learning. Now, at first, your question may be whether or not social language and academic language are really that different. You’re using the same language, right?

Actually, these are pretty distinct. Academic speaking, or using language to process complex and abstract concepts, requires different cognitive function than conversational speaking. This explains why students who may seem to do just fine talking with classmates over lunch are unable to fully express their ideas in the classroom. According to most researchers, developing full CALP skills requires five to seven years for students who are mostly literate in their native language, and seven to ten years for students without any pre-existing literacy.

Teaching ELL Students

As educators, it’s important that we understand the differences between BICS and CALP skills because it impacts how we teach our students to speak English. So, where do we begin? Well, since students are more naturally inclined towards learning BICS, this is a great place to start. Early speaking skills with ELL students should be focused on BICS, learning the skills for social communication.

The goal is to eventually work up to CALP fluency, but by starting with social communication, we build up confidence and comfort with language before introducing more abstract concepts. There are a few basic guidelines for teaching English as a spoken language. For one, avoid overcorrecting. It’s tempting to correct students for making basic grammatical mistakes, but you actually want to avoid this early on. Let the student become familiar with the sounds and uses of words and sentences first.

Another general guideline is that teaching spoken language should be diverse, because we use language for a diverse range of activities. The wider range of activities you can bring in, the more experience your student has using language in various settings. So, what are some good techniques to use?

Well, you can start with structured activities. Have students read a script, be it in a play or a conversation, or a song. Then, once the student is comfortable, have students select their own adjectives to use, rather than those in the script, to make the dialogue more personal. Memorization exercises, like songs and rhymes, are also great for building up familiarity with sounds and words within a spoken language.

As one last guideline, balance listening and speaking. People don’t always realize it, but listening is a big part of verbal communication. Give students plenty of chances to listen to a language and then interact with it. By balancing both listening and speaking skills, students learn to think about the ways that people around them use language.

Lesson Summary

When working with English language learners, or ELL students, educators have to teach literacy and speaking skills simultaneously, and that can be difficult since students use spoken language in various ways. First are BICS, basic interpersonal communicative skills, or skills required for basic fluent communication in social settings. BICS are used for conversational speaking, which requires different cognitive function than academic speaking.

Those skills are called cognitive academic language proficiency, or CALP, and are those needed to use language abstractly and as a tool for learning. It can take students between five and ten years to fully develop CALP skills, but only one to three in order to develop BICS. So, teaching speaking skills should start with BICS and work up to CALP skills.

To teach a spoken language, avoid overcorrection. Mistakes will happen, but letting the student become comfortable with speaking is more important than correcting grammar. Also, learning should be diverse, and the educator should balance listening and speaking. You may not remember learning to speak English, but that sure doesn’t mean you can’t teach it.

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