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June 19, 2003 - Lida Baker: Encouraging English Learners to Talk in Class, Part 1 - 2003-06-20

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": June 19, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- encouraging English learners to talk in class.

RS: We asked English teacher Lida Baker in Los Angeles how she gets conversation started among her students. The most important thing, she says, is that students must feel comfortable enough to talk.

BAKER: " ... where it's OK for them to take the risk of making a mistake, and nobody's going to laugh at them and nobody is going to criticize them. So the first thing that the teacher needs to do, from the very first day of the term, is to try to create a classroom atmosphere where students feel relaxed and unthreatened. And the way to do that, of course, is to give students lots of praise and lots of rewards for the efforts that they make, to not view errors in language as evidence that the student is lazy or stupid. The first and most important thing in getting students to talk is the atmosphere that the teacher is able to establish in the classroom."

RS: "And then, from there, you have to have something to talk about."

BAKER: "Yeah. And it's definitely helpful if what the students are given to talk about is interesting. It should be appropriate to their age level, their level in school, what they're interested in, what is relevant to them. You know, what's the most important thing to kids in the sixth or seventh or eighth grade?"

AA: "The opposite gender. (laughter)"

BAKER: "Yeah, and their friends. A smart teacher is going to capitalize on the things that are important to her students and bring those into the classroom as topics for discussion. So students have to have something interesting to talk about. Now, beyond that, they have to have the tools for talking about that interesting topic. They have to have the vocabulary, they have to have the grammar. OK, for example, if they're talking about things they like to do in their free time, they have to know how to talk about the things they like. They need the language for saying 'I like,' 'I enjoy,' 'it's fun' -- you know, expressions of that sort, what we call functional language."

RS: "Lida, let me ask you a question right here: What would be a good ice-breaker -- you walk into school on the first day, it's a conversation class, and nobody is talking."

AA: "Nobody is conversing. What would you do to start a conversation?"

BAKER: "Well, there are lots of techniques that you can use. Let me just tell you one activity that I like to use a lot. It's called 'find someone who....' This is one of the classics of the English language classroom. You make up a list of items pertaining to the students in the class, and then the students have to get up and mix around and find someone who matches each item on the list. So let me give you some examples: Find someone who has more than ten dollars in their wallet. Find someone who has an international driver's license. Find someone who didn't eat breakfast this morning. Find someone who has flown in a helicopter."

RS: "So they have to ask questions."

BAKER: "Right! And there are several advantages to an activity like this. First of all, well, from a teacher's point of view, you can modify it and use it at any level, from zero all the way up to the most proficient, any age group. It's a very flexible activity from the teacher's point of view. From the student's point of view, it has the advantage of the fact that everybody is standing up and moving around.

"Movement -- if students are not restrained to having to sit in their seats, they're going to naturally loosen up. Something about sitting in seats, especially if they're being required to sit in rows, is very intimidating, is very classroom-like. So if you can design an activity that doesn't have that aura of 'classroom,' the regimentation, then the students are going to be more comfortable about doing it. In this 'find someone who...' activity, they're up and out of their seats, they're moving, which naturally helps them to relax. They have the opportunity to communicate with one another, but it's a very unexposed kind of activity. Nobody has to speak in front of the whole group, you see."

RS: "It's informal."

BAKER: "They're talking one-on-one. It's informal, exactly. So the activity is finite, it has a purpose, it's fun, the students are up and moving around, and it's non-threatening. And, it helps them to learn each other's names. Because when they find someone who has flown in a helicopter, what they have to do on their handout is write the name of the person that has done that."

AA: Lida Baker writes English textbooks, when she's not teaching her own students in the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. Next time she'll talk about how to get shy students to speak up.

RS: And that's all for Wordmaster. Our e-mail address is, and our Web site is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.