ESL Development 5: How can I speak up when I don’t speak English that much?

One recent Google search that reached my website was, "how can I speak up when I not speak english that much" (sic). I believe this inquiry by a frustrated language learner speaks for itself. Very often we teachers ask, "Why on earth aren’t my students talking more?" We think we are doing our utmost bringing in fascinating articles, thought-provoking video clips, humorous trailers, useful audio recordings and even popular song videos—and yet our audience sits silently or even worse devotes time (in secret) to texting or FBing on their cell phones. (FBing means "going on Facebook"). These students only seem to get interested if it is time to do some clicking on a computer, while our concern is to get them to speak up and not just be passive spectators to their teachers’ futile attempts at arousing their interest. So what should we do to get them speaking?

Quality teacher talk vs language skills

Experts tell us we must give our students "quality teacher talk", but isn’t that just hammering yet another big nail of guilt into our already guilty brains. And the teacher trainers go on to say we have to be even more clever and ask absolutely the best and most intelligent questions to "guide" the students through a pertinent analysis of the text or video at hand! Not only do we have to train our students in critical thinking and teach them how to fend for themselves in this very competitive society—we’re also supposed to teach them what is morally right or wrong in our world! Now that is a very big task, and personally I think it should be the aim of education as a whole and not something a language teacher is responsible for on his/her own. We can help in this development but it is not our role. Our role is to teach language skills. Do we ask math or physics teachers to train students to have moral values? Teachers will probably inculcate such values by example, by being the people they are, but they are above all supposed to "teach" their subject. Moreover, I believe we shouldn’t be pretentious and claim we are experts in economics, business, science and so on, when we lack real competence or at times have less experience in those domains than our students. We can interest our students in a great number of topics and make them aware of important issues, but we should above all improve their foreign language skills—and that is a difficult task in itself.

Stressing speaking skills is not downgrading a teacher

I know many teachers and above all teacher trainers will object to this and say, "You are downgrading English teachers! You claim they know next to nothing. You think they should stick to the only fields they are competent in, i.e. grammar and pronunciation, and are not good teachers!" But that is not my position. I am just saying students won’t speak up—as long as they haven’t received enough speech "training". We mustn’t neglect this essential part of a language course simply because we think teaching critical thinking, culture, or professional competence is more important. Language skills particularly speaking skills are extremely important, and moreover they are difficult to come by even in our age of Web 2.0, countless iPhone Apps and endless buzz-making videos. We need teachers who are good at making students actually produce oral language during class-time. And teachers should be able to motivate students to substantial work outside of class to hone their skills. It takes many hours of hard labor to reach a good level, yet language courses are often limited to 20 or 30 hours a year.

Learning grammar and vocabulary

Another frequent topic in teacher training involves "student initiated learning". The idea is for students to learn on their own. I agree students enjoy choosing the topics they are going to discuss or the materials they want to work on, but students can feel extremely frustrated in the beginning (and even after several years), if they don’t know the basics well enough to read fairly fluently and speak making complete and comprehensible sentences. So they need help in understanding the logic of the new language structures they are studying—in other words grammar. And they need to know the exact meanings of new words in their native language and not just have a vague notion of cognition. It is essential for students to acquire references and signposts. Furthermore, they need to learn different techniques for memorizing vocabulary. It is certainly not enough to tell students to look up the words they don’t know. Such vocabulary searches are time-consuming and can easily be done by the teacher, who will include effective acquisition exercises in assignments to be done outside of class.

Training language competence vs the communicative approach

I have seen during my career that once students are competent in producing oral language, the whole situation in the classroom changes. They become active agents in their own learning and initiate speaking whatever the subject the teacher or a fellow student brings up. So it is extremely important to carry on this training until the students become competent enough and even later on. By being competent I mean speaking without making too many grammar or pronunciation mistakes in order to be understood by as many people as possible.

Respect for the language they are learning

Students should learn to show respect for the new language they are mastering. This is mainly for their own sake, so they will not feel embarrassed, humiliated or simply neglected and cut off from their interlocutors. Yet I am surprised to see at most teacher conventions today ’grammar’ and even more so ’grammar drills’ are frowned upon and considered totally taboo subjects. The communicative approach is everywhere—as though just by being in touch with a foreign language students will acquire it without the slightest effort. But students today are not progressing much faster than they used to. They may be better at reading English and navigating the Web, but I don’t hear most teachers say, "my students speak fluently, they come in and initiate conversation immediately, they ask pertinent questions and write fault-free compositions." No, I hear the same old stories of passive, silent, uninterested students.

Avoid "education zapping"

So what should we do? I have always believed that quality is preferable to quantity. It is far better for students to learn 200 correct expressions every year, actually be able to use them in real time conversation, and never forget them than to be exposed to 2,000 or more structures, vocabulary items, or facts about culture geography or politics and retain next to nothing. I think we should avoid "education zapping" by which I mean going from one supposedly interesting topic, video, activity to the next without a definite plan and without any real objectives. And why not let the students pick themselves what they wish to speak about? Why not let them lead the class? They can do so if you teach them the language they need, and very often the best way to do this is through reference to their native tongue. This does not mean speaking L1 in the classroom instead of English. No, the class should be entirely in English, but make use of all possible tools for language acquisition for students to use on their own including explanations in the native language and linear translation exercises. Then they will soon become competent and in class they will be participating actively and "speaking" all the time!

Best wishes,

Marianne Raynaud

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