Teaching Students to Speak Correct English

In my articles and workshops I speak a lot about how to get your students to participate actively in ESL class. But actually my main concern is how to get them to make correct sentences and not just how to get them talking. I believe it is our duty as teachers to make sure our students are not made fun of or even humiliated later on because of difficulties with the English language. We may find their mistakes amusing, but such language errors can cost a student an exam, a contract or a job in a firm he has applied to.

What they need to learn

Today we hear a lot about activities or games that will create a convivial atmosphere in the classroom and thus promote speech production. The emphasis is always on the theme or debate question that will suddenly make all our students participate orally without hesitation. What is the ideal lesson plan or the perfect computer link? Teachers are searching for “fun" exercises that will provide an enjoyable atmosphere. But what is the aim of our teaching? Is it to foster friendliness and amusement through entertainment? Or isn’t it rather to teach learners something they actually need to learn?

Michel Swam and brain surgery

Michel Swam in a recent lecture at the TESOL France annual colloquium in Paris (November 7th and 8th, 2008) asked a pertinent question. If we are about to have brain surgery, what is it we expect from the person slicing into our brains? Do we wonder whether he had an enjoyable course at medical school where the ambiance in the class was friendly and everyone enjoyed himself? Or do we want to know what he learned about surgery that he can apply right away to our brain? Well, the answer is obvious. We expect engineers to be able to build planes that won’t crash. We expect doctors to cure us or at least put us on the mend. We expect lawyers to defend our rights with thorough knowledge of the laws of the land. So why don’t we expect English teachers to teach us to speak correctly?

Student passiveness

When preparing classes I have always thought about ways to have students get as much “individual speaking time” as possible while producing sentences that are not only comprehensible but which also respect basic rules for grammar and vocabulary usage. I seldom look for the “perfect” discussion topic or the "ideal" questions, because I believe student passiveness is not due so much to lack of interest in the subject but rather to a fierce lack of linguistic tools to express themselves on the topic at hand or on any other topic for that matter. Our goal then is above all to provide those much needed language tools.

Learning language

To learn grammar and vocabulary students have to learn "language". Get them to memorize texts. This may sound very old fashioned, but it works! Have them do a short listening comprehension cloze exercise. Then have them memorize it and in class recite it to their partner, not to the whole class—that can be embarrassing and appear silly—but just to a friend, insisting on the right rhythm and intonation. Have them memorize poems of their choice that they find in books or on the Web. Make sure these poems rhyme. That should be the main requirement, since retaining expressions over a long period is easier with words that rhyme . Give students translations to “learn”, going from their native tongue into English. These can be dialogs, for instance. To test themselves in class, have the students do pair work. Print the translations with on one side of the paper the version in the students’ native language and on the other side the English version. The students will hold the paper up in front of them, each person viewing either the text to be translated or on the other side the English translation. They take turns being the interpreter. And as they will have more or less memorized the translation, they will be able to do it well—with the text in their native language helping them to remember.

Exercises as pair work

Another way to make sure students are speaking a lot and at the same time speaking correctly is to have them do and correct exercises as pair work. In that case the teacher lends one key to each pair of students. The students will alternate taking the role of the “teacher”. Since the student-teacher has a key with the correct answers, he will be able to check his partner’s oral work and guide him if he is wrong. This can be done for instance, with numbers. If the student-teacher has a key with numbers "written out in letters” as they are said, he can dictate them to his partner and then have his partner read them off. You do not have to go around the class and ask each student to read a number out loud. They can all be doing this exercise at the same time. And I can assure you that the student working "as the teacher" will be concentrating just as hard as the student, who is his partner. Many grammar and vocabulary exercises can be adapted to effective pair work by writing clear keys that will give the student-teacher enough useful information to act as a “real teacher”. Students sometimes object to pair work, because they want to be corrected by the teacher. They don’t trust other students. But with the right keys and the right work method, a weak student can help someone who is more comfortable with English or even someone at a much more advanced level.

Guided free-speaking activities

Teachers may say that it is a pity to do only exercises with keys and not have free-speaking activities. I suggest they have “guided” free-speaking activities. For instance, if you organize debates with groups of three, you can give out a list of the expressions the students are supposed to use when debating. They will tick off the expressions as they use them in the debates. Or you can have them lead "round tables" or give "thank you speeches" after oral presentations by their classmates. The secret is to give them lists of expressions they are supposed to use to begin their sentences with. Often students don’t speak, because they don’t know how to start their sentences. You may think this sounds artificial and fear that the students might make fun of these imposed expressions in the mouths of their classmates. But it is quite the opposite that happens. By repeating or listening to these expressions, the students learn them. They are pleased to be able to understand what classmates are saying and to make themselves understood perfectly.

More on intensive pair work and numerous ready-to-go exercises and activities in Marianne’s book The QualityTime-ESL Digital Resource Book.The price is only €29 for more than 1,500 files!

You can also go to the Interviews with Marianne.

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