Addressing context with Hymes’s SPEAKING model

Marissa K. Wood

It is no doubt that role plays, conversation snippets, and dialogues in the foreign language classroom help to develop a learner’s communicative competence. Beyond the tier of Chomsky’s linguistic competence, students learn about appropriateness through practicing language in a staged scenario. Communicative competence is about “knowing not only the language code but also what to say to whom, and how to say it appropriately in any given situation. Further, it involves […] social and cultural knowledge” (Saville-Troike, 2003, p.18).
Dell Hymes, the originator of this concept, viewed language (i.e., discourse) similarly to that of many language teachers: it is not as much about what you know, but about how you use it. What good is knowing the conjugations of 200 verbs in three tenses if the moment in conversation comes and you cannot use it correctly? And why bother rote learning a stockpile of vocabulary, only to lose the word at the tip of your tongue during speech? For these reasons, context is an important metalinguistic aspect of language education that should be addressed when staged interactions take place.
One way to comprehensively engage with context and make sure students are working towards their communicative competence is to use Hymes’s SPEAKING model. Once students are familiar with the components in the acronym (discussed in the next paragraph), application of the model can be implemented in a variety of ways: group discussion, pair work, or individual task.
Components: (Adapted from Jones, 2012, pp. 66-67) S – setting: the time and place, as well as physical circumstances and ‘cultural’ situation; P – participants: those people present in the conversation, as well as audiences, bystanders, or overhearers; E – ends: the “purpose, goals, and outcomes of the event” which can be different for the various participants; A – act sequence: the structure of the conversation as it unfolds, i.e., the order of utterances and different behaviors; K – key: “the overall ‘tone’ or mood of the speech event”; I – instrumentalities: the “media through which meaning is made” such as whispering, shouting, singing, or writing a message; N – norms: “common sets of understandings that participants bring to events about what is appropriate behavior” G – genre: the ‘type’ of speech event, such as a conversation, debate, or argument
As context sets the tone of the speech event, the model is best used as a pre-activity to the role-play or dialogue.
Speech events and the SPEAKING model: When using the SPEAKING model, the unit of analysis is a speech event. A speech event can be defined as the “activities, or aspects of activities, that are directly governed by rules or norms for the use of speech” (Hymes, 1974, p.52). Examples of a speech event could be a conversation at school, a debate with a friend, or an argument with a sibling. Hymes urges that these are not to be confused with speech acts (smallest parts of communication such as a joke or a comment) and speech situation (the overarching environment that communication is taking place in, e.g., a party or ceremony).
In order for language students to appropriately use this sociolinguistic tool for analysis, they must consider the nature and stance of its perspective. As Jones (2012) highlights, the SPEAKING model components make up “a set of guidelines an analyst can use in attempting to find out what aspects of context are important and relevant from the point of view of participants” (p. 65). Therefore, it is notable that not all components will carry the same weight to the various participants at a given time. Additionally, not all elements of the SPEAKING model will be equally influential in the speech event at hand.
The components of the SPEAKING model cannot stand alone; they rely on and influence the others, regardless of their importance to the participants. Assessing the “linkages” between the components could serve as an additional metalinguistic task, surely sharpening the understanding of the speech event as a whole.
As students determine the aspects for each component (either in the target language or English), they will deepen their knowledge of the speech event taking place. As an added challenge, students could complete the model in preparation to write their own dialogues, perhaps compelling them to be more precise in crafting a realistic conversation. Understanding and identifying the SPEAKING model components will help students gain communicative competence in the target language, thus stimulating them to be more proficient language users.


Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An
Ethnographic approach. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jones, R. H. (2012). Discourse Analysis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Saville-Troike, M. (2003). Communicative Competence. In The Ethnography
of Communication.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Winter 2018. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s