Unit 5: Speaking across the Curriculum


The ability to communicate fluently in English is useful for more than just social purposes or public speaking. In Commonwealth countries, English is still the most common language in higher education — it is definitely the language in which most students complete their higher education. Students should therefore practise using English for academic purposes right from school level. In this unit, we will introduce a few important academic skills that your students will need to use in English; for example, being able to narrate an event or define, describe and illustrate their points. These skills include the ability to use subject-specific words and sentences, narrate points and ideas logically and interestingly, use discourse markers effectively to help the listener navigate through the discourse (for example, story, definition, explanation, argument). Along with accuracy of language, therefore, academic English requires fluency in formulating ideas and presenting them effectively. In this unit, we will present some activities that should help you improve your students’ spoken English for academic purposes.

Unit outcomes

By the end of this unit, you will be able to:


  • help your students understand the value of speaking for a purpose;

  • engage your students in academic tasks that improve their speaking skills;

  • make your students aware of the language of definition, narration, illustration and description; and

  • give your students opportunities to integrate their reading skills with their speaking and listening skills.



Ice breaker:

An introductory activity used to put people who have just met at ease with one another. The term comes from the metaphor to break the ice, which means to relieve tension in a situation by making people relax. An ice breaker is a popular activity for academic situations such as classrooms, seminars, workshops and conferences. It usually involves having people introduce themselves and others in interesting — and often fun — ways.

Teacher support information

To help students become more articulate — that is, express themselves appropriately in English — we have to give them opportunities in the class to share their thoughts and ideas with their peers. This will help make them less self-conscious, and will give them practice in preparing to speak before a more formal audience. The peer speaking activities, however, have to have a real purpose, because, as teachers, our aim is to teach our students to speak spontaneously, and not simply read out dialogues. In the class, therefore, we can give them academic tasks that involve sharing ideas to list points, giving reasons for their viewpoint on something, describing something, etc. — tasks that will make them focus on the information to be shared rather than on their (inappropriate) language skills. Such tasks are called information–gap tasks, and their purpose is to develop fluency and confidence. Once students have become more self-confident, they can be made to focus on pronunciation and grammatical accuracy. These strategies help develop students’ academic skills across the curriculum, as they learn to use subject–specific language, and express themselves grammatically.

Case study

Case study

When Daniel Ntini, a JSS English teacher, joined Community Secondary School, Keffi, recently, he found his students serious about their studies and conscientious about following his instructions. Individually, they responded to him with warmth and respect, which made him feel happy in their company. However, he noticed that they kept to their own sets of friends, and rarely spoke to other classmates. They were self-conscious and shy, and did not make any new classmates feel comfortable. As a result, they were unable to work together in the class, preferring to study by themselves.

Daniel recalled his own English teacher Mrs Hannah Yusuf’s class when he was a student at Hampos International School. He remembered how students never wanted to miss Mrs Yusuf’s classes because not even the weakest student was ever bored in her class. Her classroom exercises always involved doing something funny with a classmate, or simply stretching or walking around the classroom. These short exercises, which she called ice breakers, lasted for only three or four minutes, but she used them to make sure that everyone worked with everyone else, and that no one was bored, uninterested or shy.

Daniel felt the issue in his own classroom could also be resolved by an ice breaker. In his next class, he gave his students a task: in turns, each student had to share with the class three things the person sitting next to them does every morning, and three things they do in the evening. This activity forced the students to talk amongst themselves and share personal information. After it was over, the students seemed much happier and relaxed. Seizing the moment, Daniel introduced textual activities for students to do in pairs and small groups. They began to discuss lessons, read and answer questions together, solve problems themselves before bringing them to the teacher’s notice and share information. The class gradually became more animated and responsive, and the attendance level went up. By the end of the first term, Daniel saw that these peer interactions had helped them approach their exams in a more relaxed manner, and their performance improved too.

Daniel’s colleagues also noticed these improvements, and many colleagues began to incorporate his strategies in their own subject classes. Daniel felt happy that he had managed to make his students more sociable in the classroom.

Points to ponder

  1. Do you have shy and withdrawn students in your class? Are your students self-conscious when they meet someone for the first time? What steps have you taken to make them more self-confident and fluent?

  2. Do you think picking out the shy students and making them answer questions in the class is a good way of developing self-confidence and fluency? Why or why not?


Activity 1: Practising narrative skills: Story and event

Activity 1

An important academic activity that students are regularly made to do in class is retelling a passage from a lesson in their own words, or relating an event described in the textbook to their own experience. We expect students to be able to explain some part of the lesson because we want to check how much they have understood. To be able to retell a story or an event is part of the ability to narrate; that is, to talk about something logically, in chronological order and in an interesting manner.

This activity should help you familiarise your students with the skills required to present a narrative in an interesting manner. These skills include the ability to rephrase words and ideas and present them in chronological order, and to use discourse markers of listing, introducing and summarising. This activity is meant to improve students’ spoken English for academic purposes, so it will also involve the ability to read and understand a passage.

Put the students in small groups and give them the passage in Resource 1a to read. Then play the audio files of the narratives on the passage (Resource 1b) or read it aloud. Explain that they will hear someone retelling the events in the passage, and that this task is called narrating, and the content of what the speaker is saying is called a narrative. In their groups, the students should listen carefully to the two narratives and decide which one better represents the passage, and why. You will notice that the second version is the better one. The discussion that follows should include aspects of a good narrative:

  • The information is clearly presented.

  • The text is rephrased; that is, the narrative is not simply a repetition of the author’s words.

  • The appropriate vocabulary is used to retell the story as well as comment on it (e.g., short and touching story…, inspired by her uncle… there was a big hurdle…, etc.).

  • There is a clear beginning, middle and end.

  • The information is presented chronologically.

  • The information is compressed so that only the important parts are narrated.

  • Discourse markers are used to make the listener easily understand the passage (e.g., but, also, even, however, interestingly).

Once the students are familiar with the features of a good narrative, separate them into pairs and give them another passage, like the one in Resource 1c. Have each pair prepare a narrative on it. One member of each pair should then present the narrative, and the others will comment on its clarity. This activity will give the students practice in giving narrations. To test how much they have learned, select a passage from a textbook from another subject (History, Science, etc.) and ask the students to narrate the events described. Announce that the class will vote for the best narrative by grading each one.


Activity 2: Reporting in the classroom

Activity 2

At the JSS level, asking students to report what someone has just said, to explain in their own words what their teacher has discussed, or to simply repeat for understanding are common classroom activities. As teachers, we do this to test our students’ comprehension, their attention span or simply their ability to speak in an articulate manner. The ability to explain and report someone else’s words is a complex language skill that involves several language operations such as using appropriate grammar (reported speech), relating ideas in the correct order, reporting the facts accurately and so on. This ability has relevance beyond the JSS classroom, and is useful both across the curriculum and through life.

This activity should help you teach your students how to report fluently and appropriately. It should familiarise them with the important aspects of reporting, so that they develop the confidence to use this speaking skill with ease.

In the first step, show the students a short video clip of an event, with the sound muted. You can use any clip that is interesting and easy for the students to follow — from a film, a documentary, a TV clip, a home video and so on — or the video clip in Resource 2a. The video should contain a conversation in simple English, which students will have to report on. First, play the video scene twice in succession, then turn it off and ask the students to describe what they saw. After they have finished, describe it yourself and ask your students to pay attention to what you say. Remember to include in your description the sequence of events, and the important details. Explain to the class that this task was about giving a description of something they saw. Remind them that description involves listing the objects seen and narrating the events in the correct sequence. It also involves describing the emotions expressed by the people, if there are any.

Now play the video with sound twice again, and ask the students to report in their own words what the people in the video are saying. Then report it yourself, as you did the first time, and ask the students, working in pairs, to note down the differences they heard between the description and the report. Try to elicit the important aspects of reporting (see Resource 2b for some useful information on the language of reporting). After the discussion, put the students in groups and give them a passage containing a conversation from one of their course books, preferably their English textbook. Using the points given in Resource 2b, they should discuss how to report on it. You could also show them a video similar to the one in Resource 2a for the activity. Let one member of each group present the report. Let the class decide on the best report and why they voted for it. Gradually introduce passages from other subjects and have your students practise reporting on what they read. This skill will not only make them more articulate, it will also help them remember their lessons better.


Activity 3: Defining with illustrations

Activity 3

While studying subjects other than English, such as Science, Environmental Studies or Geography, students regularly need to learn and define concepts using subject specific vocabulary and illustrations. This academic exercise is relevant not just at the school level, but also at higher levels. Giving a definition requires conceptual knowledge; that is, knowledge of the topic, familiarity with the words and phrases related to the topic and grammatical accuracy. Students frequently complain of understanding concepts but being unable to explain or express themselves in an articulate manner, especially in front of their teacher and classmates. This might be because they do not have practice in organising the information in their mind before speaking, or are unable to connect ideas logically.

This activity will give your students opportunities to practise giving appropriate definitions. It should make them aware of the importance of understanding how to present an idea logically and to illustrate it with examples.

To prepare them for the activity, show them some definitions for a discussion on what constitutes a good definition. You could choose some concepts from their course books or use the list in Resource 3, in which the students have to match a set of concepts in Column 1 with the definitions given in Column 2. The definitions in Resource 3 have been taken from JSS Chemistry, Biology, Politics and History textbooks. After they have completed the exercise, discuss how good definitions contain the following information:

  1. The category to which the object/concept belongs.

  2. The use made of it.

  3. Other relevant information.

  4. Examples and illustrations of the object/concept.

Selecting any one of the given definitions, illustrate each point above. For example, in the definition of tissue, the category mentioned is A group of similar or dissimilar cells; the use is to perform a particular function; related information is which are held together by some intercellular substance produced by the cells themselves; and the examples given are parenchyma, collenchyma and chlorenchyma. Now ask the students to categorise the other definitions in a similar manner. This will familiarise them with the language of definitions.

For practice in giving a definition, put up one or two terms on the board and ask the class to define them appropriately. Prompt them to remember the points mentioned above. After some practice, put the students in small groups and ask them to define the following terms:

A screwdriver, a barometer, a pair of forceps, equinox, a tsunami, gross domestic product (GDP), dictatorship, reserved forest.

Allow them to refer to a dictionary or their textbooks, but tell them to remember that their definitions should contain the points mentioned above. For more practice, select a few students randomly and give them a few object/concept names to define with illustrations. Ask the class to grade each definition, and later have a discussion on which definitions were good and why. Conclude the activity by telling the students to practise using the skill of appropriate definition when they learn other subjects.

Unit summary


The unit explored the different ways in which students can communicate effectively for academic purposes, and how they can use such skills across the curriculum. The unit tried to help you familiarise your students with the appropriate language of narratives, descriptions, reports and definitions. It exposed students to recordings of actual situations so that they could learn to practise their speaking skills in natural contexts. The activities described here are relevant to other subjects and could be used by the English teacher in collaboration with other subject teachers.



  • Do you think the activities suggested in this unit adequately address the particular needs of your students?

  • Did the activities help improve your students’ speaking in the class?

  • Were the activities enjoyed by all the students, or were some of the activities easy for students while some others were difficult? How did you handle this?



  • Identify three other oral English skills that your students need to develop for study purposes. Then make one activity for each skill on the lines of the ones suggested here. Record the students’ responses and play them back for discussion. Try to note down the areas of improvement.


Resource 1a: Narrative passage: Zainab’s dream

Resource 1a

Every time a plane flew across in the sky, Zainab Yakasai was reminded of her uncle. Zainab’s favourite uncle, Wing Commander Musa Yakasai, had worked as a pilot for many years until he retired three years ago. Although there were very few female pilots, Zainab was hoping to be one of them. She was excited about taking a plane off the ground like a bird, and visiting different cities without having to pay for the tickets. Most of all, she just loved the pilot’s smart uniform, and the salary and respect that pilots got. They also had a very responsible job: they were in charge of the lives of all the passengers and crew members aboard the plane. But Zainab’s father did not think a girl should be a pilot. He spoke like most old men did — about her future husband not liking it, about taking care of her children and even about a possible plane crash. He was also worried about what people would say if they saw his daughter dressed like a man.

So Zainab went to speak to Uncle Musa. He was excited about her ambition and impressed by her courage. But he told her a secret — at first he himself had been very nervous about being a pilot. The training at the flying school for pilots was not at all easy. Some boys left, and he himself had almost given up. But he was also determined to be able to fly planes and earn the attractive salary experienced pilots got. So he had studied very hard and had remained committed. Eventually he completed his training as a pilot and passed with flying colours. During his long career, he had flown planes to London, New York, Karachi, Brisbane and many other cities. Mr Yakasai encouraged Zainab to think positively and not let other people stop her from fulfilling her dream. He promised to help her in every possible way.


Resource 1b: A narrative passage

Resource 1b


Version A: Transcript

This is uh… a short story called “Zainab’s Dream.” In the story, in the story describes … the story about a young girl Zainab. She wanted to be a pilot. Zainab’s favourite uncle Wing Commander, Mr. Musa Yakasai was retired. He was a pilot. He flew planes for many years. After that. ..no,… actually Zainab’s father was dead against her. Zainab loved the pilot’s smart uniform, and the salary and respect that pilots got. But her father thought what will people think of my daughter? She will dress like a man. She will have a husband, children and she will die in a plane crash. But Zainab wanted to fly a plane to var… different countries without paying for the tickets. A pilot had a very responsible job: they were in charge of the lives of all the passengers and the air hostesses on the plane.

So Zainab went to speak to Musa Yakasai. But he told her a secret — at first he did not want to become a pilot because the training for pilots was not easy at all. He was… Umm… he was excited about her ambition and impressed by her courage. And in the training, some boys left, but he did not give up because he wanted to get the attractive salary of pilots. So he had studied very hard and,… and he had completed his training as a pilot and passed with flying colours. During his long career, he had flown planes to London, New York, um… New York… Ka-ra-chi, Brisbane and many other cities. He promised to help her in every possible way. Mr Yakasai told Zainab to think positively and not listen to anyone. He will help her in every possible way.

Version B: Transcript

This passage narrates a short and touching story called “Zainab’s Dream” about a young girl Zainab’s ambition to become an airline pilot when she grew up. Every time an airplane flew overhead, she longed to be up there. Inspired by her uncle who was himself a Wing Commander, Zainab dreamt of going off to different places without having to pay for it, wearing the smart pilot’s uniform, getting a good salary and respect from everyone. She also realised being a pilot was a great responsibility, as the lives of all the passengers and crew depended on the pilot.

But there was a big hurdle in Zainab’s path — her father was completely against her decision to become a pilot. He was worried about what people would say when they saw his daughter dressed in a man’s clothes. He even tried to frighten her by telling her she would have problems with her future husband and children, and might even face a plane crash.

Zainab was, however, a determined girl, and all her father’s tactics could not break her resolve. Unhappy at her father’s words, Zainab visited her uncle, Wing Commander Musa Yakasai, and shared her dream. Interestingly, Uncle Musa reacted in the exact opposite way than her father. Instead of telling her what problems lay ahead, he appreciated her resolve, and was impressed by the young girl’s determination. He encouraged her to pursue her dream, and shared a secret with her — as a beginner, he was also scared, especially since a pilot’s training was not easy.



Resource files

See in the enclosed DVD an audio recording of the activity:

  • Scripts\Module2\Unit5\Activity1\Resource1b\Audio\Zainab’s_Dream_vA.mp3

  • Scripts\Module2\Unit5\Activity1\Resource1b\Audio\Zainab’s_Dream_vB.mp3


Resource 1c: A narrative passage: Rikki-Tikki Tavi (adapted)

Resource 1c

Rikki-Tikki Tavi was a brave mongoose who was adopted by a very kind family after he was rescued from a flooded drain by their ten-year-old son. The family fed him meat, bananas and boiled eggs, and tried everything to make him healthy and strong again. Now, mongooses are wild creatures, but the child became so fond of the mongoose that he begged his parents to let him keep it. At first the child’s mother was alarmed at the idea, because she felt the mongoose would hurt her son. But her husband noticed that the mongoose was very well behaved, and seemed to have become fast friends with their son. So it happened that the mongoose began to live with the family.

Now Rikki-Tikki Tavi, like all mongooses, was restless from the tip of his nose to the end of his bushy tail, and he liked to draw everyone’s attention by announcing his presence with a loud “Rick-tick-tikki-tikki-tav!” And this is how he got the name Rikki-tikki Tavi. Like all well-bred mongooses, Rikki-Tikki Tavi was always very curious to find out as much about his environment as possible “because it was there.” So every morning and evening he made a round of the grounds of the bungalow, especially the parts of the vast garden that were overgrown with weeds.

One day, while playing in the family garden, he heard the tailor-bird Darzee and his wife crying over one of their babies which had fallen out of the nest and had been eaten by a cobra. Rikki-Tikki Tavi’s tail bristled with anger when he heard this, and he determined to protect his family and friends against the evil cobra. He had always hated snakes, anyway. That night, taking his daily watchman’s round of the garden, Rikki-Tikki Tavi overheard two cobras planning to kill the tailor-bird’s family. Rikki-Tikki Tavi knew that he could not let this happen, and he had to kill them first. From then on, he kept a close watch over their movements.

The next day, Rikki-Tikki Tavi hid behind the large mango tree where the tailorbirds had their nest, and waited for the cobra. When the evil snake began slithering up to the nest, Rikki-Tikki Tavi pounced on the cobra. There was a terrible fight, in which he got bruises all over his furry body, but in the end, Rikki-Tikki Tavi managed to kill Nag, the cobra.


Resource 2a: Reporting on an event (video)

Resource 2a

A hospital scene

The scene: a busy hospital foyer, with receptionists, doctors, nurses and attendants milling around. The camera zooms in to two people rushing in, looking anxious and flustered, a young woman and an older man, possibly her father. In a rush, the woman bends over the counter to catch the attention of the busy receptionist who is on the phone. Without waiting for the girl to hang up the phone, the young woman demands to know where her husband is. She speaks all at once, mumbling something about a car accident. Her father tries to calm her down, and in a more composed manner, politely asks the girl at the counter for information about Peter Obama, his son-in-law. He explains that they have come over from Kaduna, after receiving a phone call from the police about the car accident. The receptionist is sympathetic and kind, and informs them that Mr Obama is in very good hands. She confirms that he has been in an accident — his car was hit by a speeding truck — but because he was brought in immediately, the surgeons have managed to attend to his injuries. He is now in surgery for some injuries to his ribs. She gently reassures them that the hospital's best surgeon is with Mr Obama, and they should try to relax and sit in the lounge until there is more news. The young woman loses her composure and starts crying softly. Her father comforts her, thanks the receptionist and leads his daughter to one of the vacant chairs in the lounge.

Woman: Where’s my husband? Where’s my husband? Please, where’s my husband? Accident, the car accident, where’s my husband?

Man: Calm down. Calm down.

Receptionist: Madam.

Woman: Please, where’s my husband?

Receptionist: Madam.

Man: Calm down, calm down. Excuse me, Ms.

Receptionist: Yes.

Man: We have come from Kaduna. We received a phone call from the police about a car accident. It was involving my son-in-law, Peter Obama. Can you tell us something about him?

Receptionist: Mr Obama is being operated on for some injuries to his ribs and the best surgeon is taking care of him. You don’t have to worry. So relax and have seat a in the lounge.

Man: Thank you, Ms, thank you. Thank you very much.

Receptionist: You are welcome.




Resource files


See in the enclosed DVD a video recording of the activity:

  • Scripts\Module2\Unit5\Activity2\Resource2a\Video\Hospital_scene.mp4

  • Scripts\Module2\Unit5\Activity2\Resource2a\video\Hospital_scene_muted.mp4


Resource 2b: Guidelines on the language of reporting

Resource 2b

When we report on some event or scene we need to remember that we are helping our listeners see the event or scene through our eyes. A good report is one that is objective; that is, it relates the factual details accurately without adding the reporter’s comments. Here are some characteristics of a good report:

  1. A report contains both description and narrative. The reporter has to give the listener the physical details of the situation (description) and then either the gist or the details of the communication that took place between the people present (narrative).

  2. The description should contain the nouns identifying the objects, and descriptive adjectives that accurately tell us the dimensions and quality of the objects such as their size, shape and volume, and their placement (their relative distance from each other). For instance, in a hospital scene, we would use phrases such as a crowded corridor, a line of counters behind the reception area, a busy receptionist on the phone, patients on noisy stretchers, the operating theatre, blood report, a large announcement board, speakers for paging the emergency doctor.

  3. There should be discourse markers signalling the sequence of events: first, then, immediately after, suddenly, finally.

  4. To narrate the conversation exchanges, a report should use reported speech. Grammatically, this contains:

    1. reporting verbs such as said, asked, requested, ordered, replied, shot back, cried, usually modified by adverbs — She said angrily…, He whispered softly…, They screamed in frustration…, She retorted quickly…

    2. third-person pronouns to refer to the speaker’s words — instead of, He said, “How do I know?” use He replied that he did not know.

    3. the pronoun that: She replied that…, He answered that…, etc.

    4. changes of verb tense: present tense changes to past, past to past perfect, etc. — instead of She said, “Robin gave it to me” use She said that Robin had given it to her.

    5. connectives in interrogatives — instead of Did you know about this? use She asked whether/if he had known about that.

    6. inverted word order in interrogatives — instead of Can she do it? use If she could do it.

  5. A report should contain authentic details — that is, only what can be verified — and not the reporter’s own additions, modifications or deletions. It should not contain any personal comments like The Chief Guest’s speech was very boring: he spoke on discipline for ages.

  6. The events in a report should be narrated in the correct chronological order, or the listener may lose the “thread” or direction of the event.

Resource 3: Matching definitions (worksheet)

Resource 3

In the table below, Column 1 contains the names of some concepts that you study in various subjects, and Column 2 lists their definitions. Discuss these with a partner and match the concepts to their definitions.


Column 1: Terms

Column 2: Definitions


Fixed capital

A process in which original constituents undergo change to form a new substance or compound with entirely changed properties. For example, when coal is burnt, carbon combines with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide.


Military coup

An instrument used in the laboratory to observe living or dead things that cannot otherwise be seen by the naked eye or a hand-held lens.



A group of similar or dissimilar cells that are held together by some intercellular substance produced by the cells themselves, and that perform a particular function. For example, parenchyma, collenchymas, chlorenchyma.



Tools, machines and buildings that can be used in the production of goods over a period of years. For example, generators, warehouses, computers, shredding machines.


Shifting cultivation

Income below 1 (one) dollar a day; and showing the proportion of people living under poverty in different countries.



A form of government in which the rulers consist of elected representatives of citizens; that is, they are elected by the citizens themselves.


Chemical change

A situation in which the armed forces of a country (especially the Army) forcibly take over the administration of a country, usually by arresting the leaders of government.


International poverty line

A system of farming in which parts of a forest are cut and burnt in rotation to plant crops, so that seeds can be in the ashes after the first monsoon rain. For example, chitemene or tavy.



A way of life in which communities rear cattle, camels, goats, sheep and other animals for a living, and sell milk, meat, animal skin, meat and other products obtained from animals for their livelihood.

Teacher question and answer


Question: How can I ensure that students actually use the skills they learned in this unit — for example, defining, narrating or reporting — across the curriculum?

Answer: It would be a good idea to discuss this with your colleagues who teach other subjects, and decide on a system of monitoring the students’ performance. Since these skills will also help students in later life, it might also be a good idea to involve both students and their guardians in monitoring the former’s application of the skills they have learned. This will ensure that students take it seriously, and you will be free of the additional burden of keeping track of students’ oral performance in other subjects. You could also encourage them to use these skills in the English class so that they become more confident about using them in other classes.