Getting a student to speak English
A question that English teachers have been asking for years is “How do I get the students to speak as much as possible inside and outside the classroom?”. There is no one way that works for all teachers all of the time. There is no one way that works for any individual teacher all of the time. There are only various approaches which work to varying degrees with various students or groups. The person who discovers one magic method that works all of the time will become famous.
Although there is no sure way to get students to speak there are a number of options that can be considered which will improve the chances of the students speaking more. Like all significant problems the best approach is to consider the issue in manageable pieces. Experience has shown that younger students compartmentalize their experience in interaction with a teacher into 2 distinct zones. Inside the classroom there is more structure and a greater need for technically-correct answers. This, of course means more frequent correction of mistakes which can lead to shyer students being afraid to try to speak for fear of being wrong or being laughed at by their peers. It also interrupts the flow of speech. Outside the classroom the teacher can interact with small groups. Also, there is more latitude for error in the minds of students and a teacher can use this more relaxed atmosphere to encourage conversation practice with little correction of grammar or vocabulary except in the occasional and subtle way of “echo-correction”. Students who become increasingly comfortable outside the classroom can usually be coaxed into more speech inside. The obvious answer is for teachers to make themselves available outside before class for 10 to 15 minutes.
Inside the classroom a number of options and tools can be utilized. Two factors come into play. The motivation for speaking English – that is the ‘Why?’ and, the mechanics – that is the ‘How?’. If a student can’t see any practical relevance they have no reason to want to speak English. It is useful to periodically reiterate the advantages of speaking English such as travel, foreign friends and a good job that pays well. Students are competitive by nature. Winning at an activity either individually in the case of extraverts or, as part of a team in the case of shyer students, can break down inhibitions against attempting speech in front of their peers. As a general rule most students have a greater arsenal of vocabulary than they do grammar rules but in a contest which involves a team speaking the longest sentence and thus winning, the students will strive to piece together as much of their vocabulary as possible thus forcing them to make maximum use of whatever grammar they can recall. As an aid to this it is useful for the teacher to put some sentence starters on the blackboard thus giving a lead for students. For example: “On the weekend I……………”. This can often be followed by “Why?” or “How often?”. Higher level students will often come back with “And you?”.
It is important for a teacher to retain a list of their students’ current interests. Even the shyest boy can be dragged into conversation, albeit limited, when he is told that his favourite NBA player is not as good as the teacher’s favourite. With girls romantic movies such as ‘Titanic’ can elicit speech.
Another thing a teacher should watch for is the way students like to learn. Most students are tactile learners and tend to like to hold realia. For example, if a western dinner setting is being discussed it is necessary to write as well as say the words for the utensils but it is more important to have knives, forks and spoons for the students to examine.
When encouraging speaking, an oral English teacher has to be ready to drop a subject or activity if it is not engaging the students. This is a freedom not enjoyed by the teacher that must get across the mechanics of grammar and vocabulary and is restricted by the curriculum. Furthermore, an activity or approach that is successful with class A it might not necessarily work with class B. Likewise, what works on Tuesday morning might not work Friday afternoon. The methods to encourage speaking must be tailored.
A teacher’s enthusiasm can be infectious when promoting speaking. Also, plenty of compliments go a long way toward making the student feel like a star. Everyone wants to be a star. This successful feeling can only be incurred in the same way in future – that is by speaking. In other words it can be self-perpetuating.
Most English teachers know the communicative approach and the rule that the teacher should speak 20% of the time and the student 80%. They are also familiar with methods that are time-proven such as games, songs, drama activities, student pair interviews, surveys, role-plays and presentations. It is, however, easy to get into a routine of using just one or two activities and miss an alternative that might work. The teacher must vary them and accept that on occasion one will not work. Another variation that has merit is to have a student act as the teacher for a particular activity. Interestingly, this often works well with weaker students who enjoy the chance to shine – to be a star.
When questioning students to elicit English it is worthwhile having the students respond with a question of their own. This allows for engagement of their curiosity as well as making them feel on an even footing with the teacher. Also, students are less intimidated when confronted at eye level rather than craning their necks to look up at a much taller individual who is standing. This can be accomplished by crouching next to the desks of students when speaking and listening to them. This will prove slightly more effective than having students stand as it fosters a more relaxed atmosphere.
Put up plenty of English material around the classroom. Use photos, magazine articles, newspapers, etc. to excite students and stimulate questions. Ensure that, where possible, the material is current and relevant. For example use plenty of sports materials during the Olympics or other international games.
Finally, to paraphrase a famous American president, a teacher must accept that he or she can get some of the students to speak all of the time and all of the students to speak some of the time but seldom can get all of the students to speak all of the time. Students will speak but the teacher’s challenge is to determine the elusive trigger that encourages them to do so.