The way we teach languages: the case for a more speaking-centered approach

Illustration image referring to communication skills and speaking

Learning and speaking a foreign language is a fruitful, rewarding, and useful activity. It probably is the ultimate 21st-century skill. In several educational systems, however, language teaching is entrusted to ineffective methods which, in the long run, may prevent students from fully exploiting the cultural, social, and economic value of learning a second language. What seems to be missing from traditional teaching methods is the appropriate development of speaking skills that are needed in real life communication.


The established tradition: rote learning. What is it and why should we go past it?

For many students, learning a second language begins and ends with the study of the grammar text and the reading of the second language’s literature handbook. Although language learning is a creative activity par excellence, up to this day schools around the world opt for a rote learning approach to foreign language education.

Rote learning is the process of memorizing new information through constant repetition. The premise on which rote learning is based is that memorization helps the student quickly retrieve key information on a given topic. Although memorization is an important cognitive process within language learning, the rote learning approach has several limitations for the growth of students learning a foreign language. Let us consider two of them. 

The first limit affects the student’s educational outcomes. Indeed, the rote learning approach allows the student to assimilate a large number of notions. However, it does not stimulate the transfer of knowledge from a familiar context to a new situation

When it comes to language learning the obstacle is quite evident and it is often reflected in situations where students are unable to use the memorized grammar rule in a real, everyday life context. To put it differently, memorization does not easily translate into real-life applications. Consequently, such an approach has a detrimental effect on the development of active mastery of the language.

The limits of rote learning are well known to language teachers who, in fact, often remember how active production is essential to ensure effective learning of the second language. However, this type of approach does not get the attention it deserves within the school language education curriculum. Therefore, its implementation often depends on the goodwill and ability of individual language teachers.

On the other hand, the second limitation concerns the student’s overall cultural development. In the rote learning approach, foreign language acquisition becomes an almost exclusively artificial and short-term process built on remembering and retrieving information.

As a result, the rote learning approach ends up overshadowing other aspects that the study of a foreign language can stimulate, such as identity development and the ability to understand and interact with cultures different from one’s own.

As has been noted, these elements should be fully integrated into the aims of foreign language study at school. But for this to be possible, a paradigm shift in language teaching methods would be necessary. 


The importance of a speaking-centered approach to language education 

Speaking a foreign language is complicated, requires patience and appropriate contexts. Training speaking skills can be frustrating and it is no coincidence that it is a type of activity that can cause great inconvenience to students. However, there is no way around it. For students to use a foreign language as a means for understanding and communicating complex realities, it is necessary to implement a more speaking-centered approach to language teaching.

Over the last ten years, different studies have argued that a communicative speaking approach should get more space within the school curriculum. As observed by a Cambridge paper, by failing to include proper speaking skills-training activities, school curricula are at risk of being ineffective.

As the paper significantly pointed out:

“Without opportunities to re-use and interconnect the language they have studied, learners’ knowledge about language may never become the ability to use it”.

Placing speaking skills more at the center of the curriculum would be instrumental for students to reach a comprehensive acquisition of a foreign language.

From a strictly educational point of view, the development of speaking skills allows students to use the foreign language as a tool to interpret ideas and express their thoughts both individually and in relation to others. In this way, language education would really become instrumental in developing students’ cognitive abilities, as well as to strengthen their social and cultural competences.

Additionally, from a functionalist point of view speaking skills are necessary to use the foreign language as an instrument for professional growth and affirmation. As multilingualism has become an asset to succeed in the job market, several studies have argued that adequate speaking training should be provided by schools to set pupils on the right path for their future careers. 

As noted already in 1983 by scholars Gillian Brown and George Yulespeaking is the skill that the students will be judged upon in most real-life situations”. This statement has not stopped being true, although today the school curriculum still struggles to give the right space to speaking skills and discourse strategies. 


How Sanako Connect can increase students’ speaking and pronunciation skills?

Integrating conversation-based activities can be complicated for several reasons. First, teachers are required to respect the objectives of nationally established school curricula. In several countries, programs prioritize the study of grammar and literature. There is therefore a problem with time management dictated by the design of school curricula.

Besides, speaking-related tasks may encounter resistance from students. Students may be reluctant to speak for various reasons such as shyness, fear of making mistakes, objective difficulty in composing sentences (i.e. the aforementioned difficulty of transferring theoretical knowledge in practical contexts). 

This creates a dog-chasing-its-tail-situation in the language classroom: the fewer students practice speaking, the less they will want to talk; the less they want to talk, the more difficult will the development of speaking skills become.

Language teaching and learning technology tools such as Sanako Connect provides a useful tool to get around these obstacles, allowing easy integration of speaking-based tasks into everyday classroom life. Sanako Connect is a cloud-based language lab software for teaching in the classroom or remotely. One of the main objectives of Connect is to maximize the time students spend practicing fluency-based speaking tasks

Particularly useful features are the recording functions that are designed especially for language teaching and learning. With Sanako Connect, language instructors can create oral language assessments and exercises in minutes and allow students to work on those tasks in real-time or leave the session open for continuous self-study.

In this way, Sanako Connect provides students with a personalized space in which to practice speaking skills at their own pace, balancing accuracy, complexity, and fluency. Connect thus removes some of the obstacles that might arise while practicing speaking tasks in the traditional classroom: the embarrassment of speaking in front of a crowd, and the fear of making mistakes. 

Screenshot showing an example oral assessment in Sanako Connect


However, Connect recognizes that developing interaction between students is also instrumental to acquire more confidence in speaking. This is why Connects provides role-playing activities that engage learners in live spontaneous communicative spoken tasks.

Screenshot showing live video and audio communications in Sanako Connect


Through Connect it is also possible to create flexible and highly-personalized learning paths, which the teacher can easily monitor. The possibility of using Connect in class or remotely allows allocating time to each activity in a more efficient way. 

For example, if the teacher believes that in class the activities should be devoted to practicing grammar or studying literature, it is still possible to plan speaking-skills-related exercises through Connect. Students would be able to perform them remotely while the teacher would easily review the tasks submitted online. In this way, teachers can use Connect to better organize time and management of tasks, making speaking-based activities an integral part of the learning experience. 

It is time for schools to give greater importance to the role of spoken interaction in the language learning process. The technology developed by Sanako is a great way to develop a new approach to foreign language teaching methodology that emphasizes a more speaking-centered approach. 


Contact us for more information and to book your free online demo to see Sanako Connect in action.

Book demo image for Sanako Connect