Getting Your Students to Speak Only English

When I was first appointed to the university, I applied the rules of teacher training that I had been taught prior to working in French high schools. That training took place during the year following the CAPES, a French national competitive exam for teachers. The procedure we were supposed to adopt for each and every class was very complex and boring for both teachers and students alike. But that was the way we were supposed to teach in the high schools (lycées), and it was the method the inspector required whenever there was an unannounced inspection.

The ping-pong game

So when I started teaching at an engineering school I had only been working with this method. I did have lots of other ideas, but I relied mainly on what I call the ping-pong game whereby the teacher asks well-formulated questions, and the students answer one after another raising their hands to show they have something to say. But I encountered two serious problems. First, students were often chatting, and I had to stop and ask them to kindly to refrain from talking in French and to join the class. They might be quiet for a few minutes, and then it was back to more chatting. This was a real strain on my nerves. Second there was the problem of the silence. Often I would ask a question and no one would raise a hand. I would have to repeat the question and again wait for an answer. The impending silence felt very frustrating. Then something happened that changed the whole way I teach.

Relinquishing control over my students

First, I realized that I would have to give speaking tasks to all the students all the time. I would have to stop being the conductor of an orchestra—in other words leading the show all the time. In order to make them more autonomous in their learning I had to relinquish some of this control over my students. Obviously, with the ping-pong game I was not really leading them but rather making them even more reluctant to speak up. The solution I found to solve the problem was intensive pair work. This meant that for most activities the students would be in groups of two (the best solution for correcting exercises) or in groups of three (for debates or discussions). From the beginning this worked extremely well for the correction of exercises done outside of class. I would give a key to each pair of students, and one of them would be the teacher while the other would be the student and read off his/her answers.

Very quickly they were all speaking English!

It took a few minutes in the beginning to get the students to understand the procedure, but very soon they were all speaking—and in English! With time I perfected the method explaining that the “student-teacher” should never ever show the key to the “student”. He should instead explain or spell or find some way orally to lead the “student” to the correct answer. I said the “student-teacher” should be encouraging and even give compliments when the “student” answered correctly. I said the “student-teacher” could scold the “student”, if the answer was blatantly wrong. I gave out sheets with both encouraging words and reprimands in English for the students to choose from. Both the keys and the sheet of suggested comments were in plastic sleeves, so they had to be returned to me when the exercise was over. Of course the students would change roles, when they had corrected the work of the first student, and then go through the work of the second student.

No more silences and lots of laughter

The change in the ambiance of the class was tremendous—and from day 1. The students would all speak English all the time—mainly because they all had things to say or to read aloud. There were no silences at all. In fact the students were often laughing. Yes, they would laugh at their mistakes, and they didn’t feel embarrassed. I quickly realized that it took far less time to correct an exercise this way. In fact the students could correct two or three exercises in a row. When they finished with one key, they would beckon me and ask for the next one. Another advantage concerned questions. Very often students are reluctant to ask questions in front of the whole class. They are worried about showing they don’t know something. With my new method they would ask numerous questions. I would go to the pair of students needing help, and I just had to deal with them and not with the entire class at the same time. The others would not be listening. They would be busy with their work. It is true the students would often ask simple questions—the type they would never have dared ask in class. And they would feel reassured when I didn’t say their question was stupid but instead gave them a short, clear answer. They would even say “thank you”!

The 75% rule

When the students were not correcting exercises, I would have them do activities where each person had a role—debates, discussions, interviews, seminars lent themselves to this kind of total participation by all the students all the time. My goal when preparing activities—for both myself and my team of teachers—quickly became the 75% rule, in other words all the students should be speaking or listening attentively for forty-five minutes during each hour. And this was actually happening.

My colleagues loved it!

My colleagues—all vacataires (supply teachers) with full-time jobs elsewhere—loved the method, and said to me, “This is great, Marianne. We hardly have to do anything at all! It’s perfect.” One of them suggested I photocopy the keys in different colors so that it would be easier to collect them during class. We kept the keys in binders—a different binder for each session—and we were all very careful about putting the keys back in the right order for the next teacher. We published an assignment page in the booklets we gave the students. This page stipulated the homework for each session. We would all respect this assignment page, and thus we could all use the binders corresponding to each session. If there happened to be a mistake—often the students would find the typing mistakes themselves—we would congratulate the student(s) and then place the corrected version in a tray for me, the head of department, to use to produce a new set of keys. Intensive pair work not only helped the students improve their speaking skills but also bought the teachers closer and made it easy to decide on new activities as team.

Never did I have to scold the students

What was wonderful was that I never ever had to tell someone to stop speaking French in class. Even when the quickest students had finished, instead of reverting to French, they would test themselves on the corrected exercises. That was what we encouraged them to do. It might happen at the beginning of a first year course that a student hadn’t done his homework. If he had a legitimate excuse, he would explain it to me. If he didn’t, then we all used the same technique. With a smile we would say, “Well, today you will have to be the "teacher" all the time, which isn’t very nice for your partner. But I am sure you will never forget to do the exercises again!” Sure enough at the next session the student in question had done all his work, and we remembered to congratulate him.

Tutorials or one-to-one sessions

The second technique that worked amazingly well was the tutorials or one-to-one sessions. During one out of the two hours per week the students would be in lab, and while the others were working on the lab program, we would take one student at a time. The latter would give a fifteen-minute presentation alone with the teacher. The students liked this activity so much that as a result the other students would work quietly during an hour to let the two or three students scheduled for their tutorials do their presentations. The lab was like a library with everyone working silently or just speaking softly. The students would even show up on time for the English class so that the “tutorial” performers would get all the time they needed.

Final word

In conclusion let me say that the last twenty years of my career were wonderful. I never had any more discipline problems and my colleagues and I were all well respected by the students. Classes became moments not only of learning but also harmony, laughter, and well-being—all this thanks to intensive pair work and tutorials.

Marianne Raynaud is a former professor at INPG in Grenoble, who is now retired. She was head of the language department in two different engineering schools during her 24-year career at the French university INPG. And she helped set up language programs at other schools as well. She has written “QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book” which is available on her Web site www.qualitytime-esl.com. Marianne, who has conducted numerous workshops for TESOL in France and abroad, produces two series of podcasts on iTunes Better Speaking Skills and Your English. Both series offer drills for ESL/EFL learners. Marianne is the coordinator of TESOL-France Grenoble.

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