Creating a safe speaking environment for confident speaking

A student speaks confidently in front of his student group

The development of strong speaking skills is widely understood to be a key part of becoming a fluent L2 communicator. Indeed research in 2014 by Dörnyei & Kubanyiova clearly identified that students were “unlikely to take an active role in their language learning if they cannot imagine themselves as successful L2 speakers in the future.”

Yet for some learners the idea of speaking a foreign language in front of an audience in either pairs, groups or the whole class is a terrifying prospect. In a 2018 survey conducted by CUP with over 14,000 English learners, students “overwhelmingly identified that speaking in English is the most fraught, risky and, at times stressful aspect of using their second language.” Many students would rather be anonymous and quiet than make a mistake in front of their classmates.

These results are common across all language learners and clearly place additional responsibility on language teachers to respond. The creation of so-called safe speaking environments is one common action and this blog post explores the concept in further detail and gives practical tips on how educators can develop their classroom environment. Remember to also check our other blog post “helping students to overcome foreign language speaking anxiety” for additional tips.


What is a safe speaking environment?

A safe language classroom or a safe speaking environment is a learning setting where students feel comfortable, respected, and free from judgment when practicing and using a foreign language. It’s a space where learners are encouraged to speak, participate in class discussion, make mistakes, and take risks in their language learning journey without fear of criticism or embarrassment.

In a 2018 paper on the topic, Magdalena Kubanyiova provides the following definition (We’ve added the bullets to highlight each point).

A safe speaking environment or a safe learning environment:

  • “means a space that treats the people who inhabit it as a cherished resource: 

  • it engages students’ identities, future visions and hopes through the design of immersive tasks; 

  • it is responsive to students’ agency by honouring topics that are close to their worlds;

  • it takes seriously the human relationships that are central to all communication. 

  • And finally, a safe speaking environment is one where feedback whether focused on specific linguistic features or on meaning is given in the service of students’ communicative accomplishments.”


How to create a safe speaking environment?

Of course, every language classroom is different. Classrooms are inherently diverse places, populated by students from different cultures and backgrounds and with varying levels of language ability. So it’s hugely important for teachers to create a safe space in which students feel comfortable, where they have time to think about their responses and in which comments from peers (and staff) will be constructive. In a safe language class environment positive reinforcement and constructive feedback are essential for increasing students’ self-esteem and their confidence in using their target language.

Dörnyei & Kubanyiova’s research on the language classroom is clear that a key part of this relates to the dynamics of each class / group of students. Two key concepts, in particular, emerge – group cohesiveness and group norms.

  • Group cohesiveness – this refers to how students relate to each other and to the group itself or in other words how the group ‘hangs together’. Evidently, this closely correlates with productivity and engagement but it can be directed / influenced by the educator by encouraging students to work frequently together; to share personal stories and information and by offering opportunities for collaboration and competition.

  • Group norms – Usually in the classroom these will be imposed by the teacher or the school’s rules, but it can be important for students to feel that they also have chance to shape what’s acceptable and what’s not. For maximum impact, these norms should be discussed, accepted and adopted by the group. Getting it right can see classes promoting tolerance, effort and perseverance.

Building on the right group environment, an overview of the research in the space suggests that there are five key essential elements to creating a safe speaking environment.

  1. Allow adequate time and space for speaking exercises

All too often speaking exercises get squeezed for time and attention. Building conversational fluency requires regular work over a decent period of time – it doesn’t happen overnight! Ensure that your classes have protected time to work through speaking activities so that students build confidence and familiarity.

  1. Prioritise immersive speaking activities / tasks

Relieve some of the anxiety around speaking activities by making the production of spoken language the tool rather than the end result of every exercise. High-quality communicative tasks such as games, quizzes, role plays as well as collaboration / teamwork exercises (e.g group projects) can be particularly effective in this respect.

  1. Select engaging and relevant topics for conversation

Take the time to think about what topics will get your students engaged and excited. After all, if it’s a topic that’s of no interest to them, it will be a real challenge to get them talking! 2004 research from Meltzer & Hamann clearly found that engagement with speaking activities is more likely when materials connect to the learner’s experiences and background knowledge. Furthermore, personalised tasks invariably feel real and authentic helping to promote student ownership and motivation.

  1. Fostering positive peer interactions

Building on the above points about group cohesiveness and norms, there’s a major role for educators to play in creating the right environment for learning. Educators must ensure that classmates value everyone’s contribution, respect each other’s differences and encourage each other to go beyond their perceived limits.

  1. Support students with appropriate feedback on learners’ speaking

Pressure comes not only from peers but also from educators. Students will be reluctant to speak if they fear that any mistakes will be ridiculed and embarrass them. Feedback in a safe speaking environment should avoid any sense of judgement and should aim to support improvement rather than highlighting errors. In fact, why not identify words and phrases to incorporate next time instead of the mistakes? Make it about feeding forward rather than feeding back.


Why does this matter?

The benefits in creating such an environment are clear in research referenced by Kubanyiova. Work by Keck, Iberri-Shea, Tracy-Ventura, & Wa-Mbaleka, 2006 showed that students who participated in speaking tasks “significantly outperformed, in both grammar and vocabulary assessments” those who did not.

Furthermore a significant body of research has identified a wide range of additional benefits when students are engaged in conversation in the classroom. Students not only develop their conversational competence, but also:

  • become more proficient in the use of appropriate rather than just accurate language,

  • deepen their understanding of difficult concepts,

  • expand their analytic abilities,

  • push each other beyond their current individual capacities,

  • learn to play with language and take risks with it.


How can Sanako help?

Tools like Sanako Connect offer a blended teaching platform that combines the best parts of virtual classroom solutions and dedicated language teaching platforms. Connect has also been specifically designed to help language educators improve students’ speaking skills, in both asynchronous or asynchronous settings. It enables teachers to:

  • Easily divide students into pairs or small groups for conversation practice. This takes place online, so each group of students can talk simultaneously without distracting each other. 

  • Listen in or talk with different groups to assist as required. All individual conversations can be easily recorded and reviewed for feedback after the event, rather than interrupting live conversations.

  • Create and share tasks addressing specific grammar or vocabulary. These include model imitation, oral assessments, online tests, or fill-in-the-blanks exercises – all of which can be created by educators in minutes.

  • Share engaging speaking exercises using a wide variety of authentic real world materials including sound files, images, presentations, videos and other digital content.

  • Assign specific exercises to specific students to demonstrate their language fluency. Learning resources can be clearly differentiated and personalised to create individual learning experiences.

  • Provide detailed feedback via Connect’s two-track feedback functionality. Students can immediately see where improvements need to be made. They can then relisten to the original audio material and record additional attempts.

If you’d like to find out more about how Sanako’s language teaching products could help improve your students’ speaking skills, please contact us now to arrange your FREE demo!

Call to action image with a button and a product screenshot