"Red Light! Green Light!" Teaching Students How to Give Peer-Feedback During Speaking Activities

Teaching speaking sounds easy until you actually try it. Some of the myriad issues that inevitably pop up are:


Which dialect should the instructor teach? Most people will instinctively say “their own” but what if an American teacher is teaching a room full of students preparing to study in the UK? Should the American instructor really teach “sidewalk” instead of “footpath?” How about “crosswalk” instead of “zebra crossing?”


Of course you want your students to use “real English,” but how do you teach slang? Similar to dialect, whose slang do you teach? What about cursing?

EAP, IELTS, Listening, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring
Should I send myself to the principal’s office?

Classroom Management

A highly motivated, multilingual, intermediate to advanced class can speak in English for a very, very long time without using their L1 (unless they want to code switch but that is a topic for another time).

What about a monolingual class of beginners? How do you “make” them speak in English? What about young learners or teens? Should you punish people for using their L1?

EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring
But if I can already speak English, why am I here?

And what about large classes?

Providing Feedback

Giving precise, actionable feedback to a group of this size

EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring

is relatively easy.

What about this size?

EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring

Thankfully, I’ve never had to teach a class as large as the one pictured above, but I have taught classes of up to forty and have met people who led discussion classes of 80!

Monitoring so as to have something useful to provide during whole class feedback can be a nearly Herculean task in these larger classes. Additionally, Research has shown that students need to improve their ability to notice in order to improve their language proficiency. This idea really is just common sense: if you can’t recognize a sound or a structure, how are you going to produce it?  So how can an instructor provide the feedback students need so as to improve their language and have the students improve their noticing at the same time? Deputize the learners!

Red Light! Green Light!

 EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring

Red Light! Green Light is incredibly simple: when students do a speaking activity in either pairs or groups, one of them is going to play the role of a stoplight/traffic cop -the “stoplight” student holds up a green card as long as no one makes mistake and their partner/everyone in their group keeps talking.

However, as soon as their partner/someone in their group makes a mistake, the “stoplight” student holds up a red card and waits for the perpatrator to self-correct. If the offending student truly does not know what mistake they made or can’t correct self-correct, the stoplight student (or their group) can provide them with hints (scaffolding) so as to facilitate self-correction. Once the speaking activity is completed, learners switch roles.

A Few Important Notes

First, just as a teacher cannot, and should not, provide feedback on every mistake made by a learner, neither should their classmates. It is crucial to explain to the students that they should only hold up the red card if their classmate made a mistake with the lesson’s target language! If learners try to provide feedback outside of these parameters, the activity will devolve into chaos.

Second, some students are more gregarious than others and will be more willing to stop their classmates. One of the ways to encourage the shyer students to participate in this activity is to model the activity with a shyer student in the place.

Third, not everyone has access to construction paper, a laminator, or fancy signs like the ones below.

 EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT

The good news is you don’t need them; all the students need is their hands: hand up means “stop” hand down means “go.” Students can use a book, a pencil or just about any object in their pencilcase.

Finally, and most frustratingly from a teacher’s standpoint, is when one student insistently tells their classmate they have made a mistake when, in fact, they haven’t. While their isn’t a 100% foolproof way to avoid this situation, their are a couple of things you can do to mitigate it:

  1. Do precise controlled practice in attempt to solidify the target language.
  2. Leave a reference to the target language on the board/student’s desks so they can refer to it in case a dispute arises.
  3. Have students write down any disputes they have during the activity. That way, they can skip the debate and ask for clarification during the whole class feedback section of the lesson.
  4. Last but not least, monitor effectively.

Final Thoughts

As I stated in my last post, avoid like the plague the desire to throw in the towel if a new activity doesn’t work optimally the first time you try. This activity might not work that well the first time depending on your students’ educational background as well as the culture of your school. But as all teachers know, the only way to avoid burnout is to try new things. In the words of Art Williams,

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy – I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”
Happy Teaching!

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