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Teaching Speaking Skills

Of the four language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), I have had the most practice teaching or, better put, developing students speaking skills. However it hasn't been until recently that I've had a difficult time implementing a solid course on speaking skills alone.

Background in Japan
My first full-time ESL job was teaching conversational English in one of the biggest private English schools in Japan. The school's primary goal was to develop their "customers'" ability to hold and initiate conversation in English. Its secondary goal was to review and practice English grammar. Most adult students in the program sincerely wanted to develop their conversation skills, but many of them were more comfortable learning grammar without conversation. My goal was to have them use the grammar they were comfortable with in a conversation that they were not comfortable with. After a little over a year, I became quite good at this using the school's method with a little twist of my own approach.

At this Japanese school, I was praised for keeping my teacher-talking time low. The school's goal was to have students speaking 2/3 of the time, and I almost always managed to do this. The remaining 1/3 should only be devoted to guiding students and modeling the language. Many instructors were tempted to elaborate on either guiding or modeling, but then precious student-talking time would be cut. I realize that many teachers feel the need to speak more in order to help more, but in this context, it really wasn't the case.

I received the most praise from novice-level students, and I believe it had to do with my patience. I allowed them as much time to create their own sentences. In our field, this is often called "wait time." It is a bit controversial because wait time causes silent gaps, which makes many native speakers uneasy. But for most of my Japanese students, they were comfortable with these silent periods. Learning to grow comfortable in silence was a key for me to become a better teacher in Japan and to understand Japanese culture as well.

Background as a teacher trainer

In Korea, our teacher training program emphasized developing oral proficiency in all classes, methodology, second language acquisition, and intercultural communication, to show the evidence that practice makes perfect in a group of give-and-take techniques called "classroom interactions." This teaching approach made me a better speaking instructor for larger classes. My average class size in Japan was 3, but in Korea it was between 20 and 25.

When using classroom interactions, I developed a teaching mantra that for every minute or second that I spoke, the students had to speak just as much. This changed the teacher-student talking time ratio to 50/50. I was teaching ESL methodology content in this format, so students developed a knowledge base of teaching and a skills base of speaking and listening. This is the formula to that program's success.

I continued this teaching approach when presenting workshops and teaching demonstrations in Russia. I surprised that the older English teachers in Russia have encountered the same techniques. Some of them learned classroom interactions from my mentor in Korea, which surprised and delighted me even more.

Background as an ESL instructor in the United States
One of the classes that I have taught in Wisconsin for the past two years was a speaking course for novice-high speakers. I thought this would be the easiest class to teach because of my background. For one reason, I had the most success with this level in Japan. For another, I spent the last four years mastering my ability to conduct classroom interactions as the average class size has been around 15.

This has been the only class that I've encountered the most problems every semester. I will reflect on these problems point-by-point in chronological order.

#1 - Multicultural class: This would be my first time teaching students from various cultures in one class. However this was never a problem in my first 3 semesters. It became more-or-less of a problem in the 4th semester because the cultural groups were evenly distributed, and this may be one reason that kept the students from getting along with each other.

#2 - No content: In Japan, the content was dictated by one page of a book each day, and I had a different group of students each day. In Korea and Russia, the content was teaching methodology. In this program, there was no content. And it was the students who should be speaking, not necessarily me. Before the first semester, I had to think of what the students would talk about. Content from their listening and reading classes? Their lives? Everyday things?

I asked my supervisor what the content was for the previous instructor. I was told that most speaking classes in our program were to develop public speaking ability. So in my first semester, I had students give group presentations that moved up in cognitive difficulty according to Bloom's taxonomy. Although students were satisfied with my first semester, my teacher-talking time was way too high in most classes as I was modeling how to give certain presentations that required no questions and answers.

So I developed the second semester around cooperative learning activities. In this semester, my teacher-talking time was at its lowest in any other semester or class I taught in the program. Students developed their speaking skills so quickly that I nearly lost control of them near the end of the course. Of all the semesters, this speaking class received the most student complaints. The biggest were not enough individual presentations and not enough individual feedback.

I focused on giving and receiving feedback for the third semester as that was the weakest area in the first two. I also focused on role-plays as I was getting ready to do some preliminary research for my PhD. During the first half of the class, students were split into groups to perform various themed role-plays. During the second half of the class, students worked together in a television news program simulation. Students enjoyed and praised the first half, but didn't enjoy the second half as much as I also challenged their speaking skills by pronouncing complex sentences correctly.

Even though students were satisfied with the role-plays in the third semester, I believe I didn't prepare them with enough background knowledge to put on a realistic role-play. So for the fourth semester, I dedicated more time to preparing the students from group role-plays based on three themes. After each group role-play, students then had to present a speech on their own using PowerPoint. Personally, I thought this to be the most successful of the four semesters in obtaining my objectives of building confidence and fluency. However the timing of the course seemed to negatively affect their outcomes. Many students complained about how early the class was and some noted that the pronunciation difficulties varied widely among the first languages in the class.

#3 - Skills are not integrated: The class is officially labeled as "speaking and listening," but there is another class dedicated towards developing listening skills for the same level of students. Of course, students have to listen to each other while they are speaking. This fact was emphasized most in the first and third semesters, when the feedback was best. From this, I realize that I need to incorporate more structured student-student interaction than previous semesters.

When speaking is not integrated with reading or writing, I find it more difficult to give and assess homework. The most common speaking homework in our program is to interview native speakers around campus, which can be easily faked, and to require students to record their speech on tape recorders or recording software. As authenticity is my always one of my goals, I prefer students to speak in situations where there is body language and instant feedback. Of course, interviewing native speakers works best. But then I would like to hear from the native speakers as well, and recruiting that many volunteers or teaching assistants can be very difficult, time-consuming, and/or expensive.

With little or no content and difficulty with assessing speaking in authentic contexts, the speaking class comes down to two components: improving pronunciation and practicing presentations. I've covered presentations, but pronunciation is the next problem.

#4 - Pronunciation: I can teach pronunciation, but I dislike teaching pronunciation, especially when it's isolated from the context. Not only that, the issue of linguistic imperialism comes up. Using a CD or other recorded form, students usually get a very contrived California/middle America pronunciation. Using myself, they get a slightly different reduced Midwestern accent. I prefer my students to be exposed to various forms of English accents and dialects, and I don't want them to be afraid of their own accent. My class is not an accent reduction course.

That said, students love to practice improving their pronunciation. And I get great feedback when I teach pronunciation when isolated from the context. This is my internal conflict, choosing between appeasing the students or sticking to my principles and the research that I've read. Put another way, should I meet the students' emotional needs or linguistic needs? Whenever I come across a choice like this, the teacher trainer in me answers, "Both."

I can only stand teaching about a week's worth of pronunciation in isolation. After this time, a few students catch on that the listen-and-repeat type of practice isn't really helping them in the long term. This doesn't mean I stop teaching pronunciation. It's just that I stop teaching it isolated from context. To sum up, teaching pronunciation frustrates me the most as an ESL instructor. It's not my forte.

A Successful Formula?
After completing four semesters of teaching speaking to novice-high speakers of English, I've developed a plan for the next time I have the opportunity.

On a daily basis, I will have a few students give informal speeches to the class. Their classmates must ask them questions with follow-up questions. Humor will be encouraged. After this activity, I will give feedback on pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary with instruction if needed. I believe this follows the task-based instruction formula well.

On a biweekly basis, I will have students give formal speeches with visual aids. Their classmates will also ask questions, but they must be well thought out and seriously academic. I would also give feedback but based more on appropriateness and organization.

This is just the framework of a such a lesson. Once I know the program's requirements and each student's needs, I will flesh it out. I hope I will be able to implement this one day soon.

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