I Know Why Your Students Don’t Speak English… And What to Do About It

If students today graduate from high school or even from university without being able to “speak” English, it is simply because we are not giving them enough practice in… speaking. Ask students to give you feedback or to explain their wishes, and they will inevitably say, “More speaking in class.” So how do you manage to make students progress in the skill they lack?

Common teaching techniques dissected

First let’s take a look at common teaching techniques. We ask students to read texts or search for information on the Internet, so they learn to read and pick up passive vocabulary. We have them watch YouTube clips or other authentic films, and they improve their oral comprehension and get insight into another culture. If they do drop and drag exercises or MCQs on grammar and vocabulary, they will develop notions about language structure and meaning, and if they do book exercises or hand in compositions, they will obviously hone their writing skills. But none of these activities will help them to speak fluently or carry on a normal conversation—even at a limited level.

An illusion

It is an illusion to think that students will learn to speak and pronounce words with a decent accent by simply listening to a teacher, to classmates or even to a recording. Speaking is not learnt by observation. Speaking is the most difficult of the four skills. Reading, listening, and writing can be learnt with a teacher or on one’s own, with books or with methods. But speaking requires immediate comprehension and real-time reaction. When conversing you can’t go and look up a word or search a grammar book for the right tense or the right structure. You have to produce language instantaneously with the right vocabulary and right time indicators. And that is why you need to practice speaking as much as possible.

An analogy with sports, music or dancing

You don’t learn a sport or perfect a talent like singing or dancing by watching others perform. Such skills have to be practiced for long hours with countless repetitions of the same gestures, the same notes, and the same movements until you reach perfection—or at least an acceptable level. The same holds true for learning a foreign language. If the teacher (real or virtual) doesn’t give you personally the opportunity to pronounce words, sentences, whole paragraphs and be corrected when needed, then you will always have the complex of the person who can’t speak English.

A French Nobel Prize winner speaks about communication

Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, the French Nobel Prize winner for physics in 1991, believed that the single most valuable skill to be learned in school is that of giving a ten-minute oral summary of a project or report using a couple of slides in front of an audience that is both tired and in a hurry to be off. If that is vital in one’s own native language, let me say that it is equally important to be able to do it in a foreign language, be it English or some other tongue. And I wish to add that students should be able to give this oral report without making too many mistakes, since we should honor the foreign languages we speak. Moreover, students should be able to answer short questions put to them by members of this “impatient-to-be-off” audience.

The big question

So getting back to the question, “What should we do?” I think we need above all to change the way we teach and the way we plan our courses. Instead of preparing class activities for students to “do”, we should focus mainly on activities where they will be “speaking” as much as possible. I will give concrete examples but first a few observations.

A young Swedish girl

We all seem to agree on the importance of becoming operational in English. Yet I hear time and time again, people telling me sadly that they just never learned how to “speak” that foreign tongue. Well, that is not entirely true. In Northern Europe, especially in the Scandinavian countries and in Holland, most people speak English—at least enough to converse with foreigners. Why are they doing so much better than students in Southern Europe? I spoke recently with a young Swedish girl, who takes care of the elderly through a social center, and I complimented her on her English. Of course, I asked her how she managed to get to such a high level—she hadn’t had an opportunity to go to university. She replied with a smile, “Well, I learned a lot on my own, and there’s television to help us.” Yes, all foreign programs on television in Scandinavian countries are broadcast in the original version with subtitles. Young people from a very tender age are constantly “exposed” to English—through cartoons, sitcoms and popular reality shows, to name just a few. During news programs all politicians and other newsmakers speak their own language and subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen. English becomes part of everyday life and not some difficult, unappealing class you have to go to twice a week. In many countries of the world, leaders have understood the importance of this direct contact with other languages that television can offer us.

English considered an intrusion

Some countries, where English is considered an "intrusion", prefer getting rid of exposure to foreign languages on television through dubbing. That is the case in France where lobbyists “defend French” and seem to think that one loses command of a native tongue, if exposed to a foreign language. This is ludicrous, because in actual fact people, who speak English as a second language, are less prone to using foreign words when speaking their own language. And when they do use foreign words they use the correct foreign pronunciation with the correct meaning and not some strange Frenglish—incomprehensible to an English speaker!

The Internet as instructor

But today, whether we have English on television or not, we have the Internet. Hopefully young people everywhere are training their ears and learning to understand both written and oral English—on their own. That is why teachers should center their work on real communication and not just keeping their learners busy. Giving students assignments to do in class, such as completing a facts sheet about a particular topic or issue may keep them busy and quiet in front of their computers. But that is precisely the problem: they’ll be quiet because copying and pasting lines from the Web into a facts sheet will not force them to speak or inspire them to do so.
I say investing money in computer centers is fine, but let’s use these facilities for “speaking” purposes and not just for comprehension, quizzes or writing, which can be practiced at home in order to prepare for the class.

Suggested strategies

Coming back to the question, “What should we be doing in class?” I will say the answer is simple. When preparing a class, you should ask, “How much time will the students actually be speaking?” and “What activities will make them speak the most?” Below I offer you some bullet points with suggestions. Some may seem difficult to implement, but if teachers work in teams it is definitely easier to produce the materials and to get the students to adapt the strategies you propose and benefit from them.

For everyone—even if you have no language lab or computer room

  • When you get to a new theme, start from an audio recording instead of a text. (Prefer “audio” to “video”, as students can take notes more easily and also tend to concentrate more on what is being said when they are not “distracted” by images.)
  • Eliminate the “ping-pong game” where the teacher asks all the questions, and the students answer one at a time. In this situation the teacher speaks at least half the time and the students share the remaining minutes—reducing individual student speaking time drastically.
  • It is better to give out sheets with the questions and have the students ask each these questions in pairs, while the teacher walks around and corrects, explains or improves pronunciation. (If the questions are on a text the students have prepared at home, the answers are often obvious.)
  • Give written grammar and vocabulary exercises for students to do at home so that class time can be devoted to speaking.
  • Include explanations and exercises using the students’ native language. Often students see or hear words that they recognize, but they don’t know the exact meaning of these words. By doing written exercises at home they will increase their active vocabulary.
  • Whenever possible have the students “teach each other” from keys, information sheets, or prepared exercises.
  • Intervene as little as possible in front of the whole class except for giving instructions, i.e. avoid monopolizing speaking time.
  • When you have the students correct homework, put students in pairs and give out one key to each pair. Let the students take turns playing the role of “teacher”, switching halfway through the correcting. You will see that the homework will be corrected three times faster.
  • To make sure students do the homework, provide assignment pages indicating due dates well in advance.
  • Assign homework that is easy to correct, i.e. with only one possible answer, and make sure answer keys look exactly like the student exercise pages. There will be less confusion, and you will have plenty of time to answer questions individually or prepare audio-visual equipment for a coming activity.
  • Insist that the students speak only English in class. But to help them provide lists of appropriate classroom phrases. These can be printed on the back cover of booklets to make access easier.
  • Have students often prepare short (one to two minute) presentations and have them present several times to different small groups in the class. This way they will give their presentations several times and one out of two or three students will be presenting simultaneously.
  • Prefer shorter to longer student presentations, and make these guided presentations with required structures and vocabulary.
  • If students give longer, more formal presentations, be sure most students have a role to play and are not simply relegated to being a passive audience. They can introduce the speakers, participate in the workshop, thank the speakers and/or take notes in view of an oral exam on the presentations made by classmates.
  • Have students learn texts, dialogues, poems, or their own corrected compositions by heart, and have them recite to a partner (not in front of the whole class).
  • If students have written compositions and you have corrected them, get the students to retype the compositions (indicating the corrections in bold) and bring them to class. Get mileage out of these compositions by having the students explain orally what they wrote and what correct formulation they are now using to avoid previous mistakes.
  • If you have no language lab, try to get the school to purchase some iPods or at least provide you with you a laptop and some good loudspeakers.
  • Assign listening activities on the Internet. There is a multitude of excellent podcasts like Breaking News English. Ask students to write 100-word summaries, which—once corrected—they will present orally to rotating groups of students.
  • Give oral tests as often as written tests and be sure to give high coefficients to oral tests. If you have a lab administering oral tests is easy, since the students can all be working on a lab program (with their headsets on), as you interrogate one student at a time.

For teachers with language labs or computer rooms

  • If you have access to an audio lab, book as many hours as possible.
  • If you have access to a multi-media lab, be sure to get headsets equipped with amplifiers plugged into the computers.
  • Read QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book to get lots of audio files and ideas for oral lab work: oral comprehensions, oral drills, speaking translation exercises, open-end dialogues, number or abstract dictations.
  • Adopt “tutorials” for your lab program. With a lab, you will be able to have the students give individual presentations (on a topic of their choice) to you in a one-to-one session. This will change totally the motivation of the students and the atmosphere of the class.

Happy students and happy teachers

In conclusion, let me say that with a core curriculum (adapted by a team of teachers) including an intensive lab program with listening comprehension, and free speaking plus tutorials, numerous short oral presentations, memorization, reciting, oral linear translating, a challenging list of exercises as homework and intensive pair work… your students will progress rapidly and above all be able to “speak” English. You will see smiles on their faces and enthusiasm in their eyes. They will be proud of their new skills, and you will be a happy teacher.

To get worksheets with keys, listening comprehension files with accompanying exercises, assignments and a muktitude of oral activities purchase Marianne’s book on a DVD QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book .

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