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Speaking in the monolingual classroom

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Group of adult students talkingMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on creating effective speaking activities for monolingual classes.

We often hear that people who have a lot in common tend to have the best conversations. But if you teach a class of learners who all have the same native language and all live in the same town ­– and maybe even work at the same company – you’ve probably noticed that this isn’t always true.

While some monolingual classrooms are vibrant, chatty places, others can be quiet and awkward. Here are a few of the main reasons why this can happen and some ways to address the problem.

“We’re all the same, so there’s nothing to talk about.”

This is a common feeling among learners in monolingual classes. Unfortunately, some teaching materials worsen this problem with questions that assume an international classroom, for example, “What’s the most popular festival in your country?”

For a speaking activity to succeed, learners need to feel that they are saying something truly interesting that their partner doesn’t already know. In monolingual classes, this means choosing, writing, or adapting speaking activities so they are local, personal, or elicit differences. For example, the ineffective question above could be changed to:

  • What do you like about the New Year holiday? What don’t you like?
  • What’s your favorite holiday? Why? Is there a holiday you dislike? Why?
  • How does your family celebrate the New Year? Do you have any unusual traditions?

“I can’t explain it in English. Why can’t I just use my own language?”

This often happens when learners feel they have something interesting to say but lack the words to express their ideas, or don’t know how to pronounce them.

Before you set up a speaking activity, make sure students have the language they need to do it successfully and – just as importantly – feel confident with the pronunciation of that language. You could start by building up a list of relevant language on the board, for example, and practicing the pronunciation. (The Vocabulary Bank in American English File Second Edition is also a great reference for students to have nearby as they speak).

Also, it’s important to pre-teach not only topic-related vocabulary but also expressions for things like deciding whose turn it is, politely disagreeing, building consensus, adding a related point, and of course, describing something when you don’t know the word for it.

“It’s embarrassing to speak English with my peers.”

All learners need to overcome their fear of mistakes in order to succeed. This fear is often greater for learners in monolingual classrooms, perhaps because their speaking partner might be their friend, neighbor, or work colleague.

It’s essential to help students get over their fears and get them talking. Remind them that the only way they will ever learn to speak with fluency is through practice. It’s like learning to drive. You need hours of practice before you can drive confidently. If students are learning English in their own country, probably the only place where they can get effective face-to-face oral practice is in the classroom.

In addition, there are things teachers can do that will lessen the fear of making mistakes in any classroom, whether it is monolingual or multicultural. Let your learners know that the main goal of speaking activities is to build fluency and confidence rather than develop accuracy. Avoid correcting mistakes during speaking exercises unless communication completely breaks down and students need help getting the conversation started again. If a number of students are making the same sort of error, you might want to address that later, after the activity is over, without saying which people made the error.

To hear more from Mike on how to get students talking in the monolingual classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

  • 26 September 2013: 12:00 BST (07:00 New York / 08:00 Brazil / 20:00 Japan)
  • 27 September 2013: 16:00 BST (11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan)

Register for the webinar now!

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

10 thoughts on “Speaking in the monolingual classroom

  1. I agree with all the points here. Living and working in Vietnam I am well aware of the perils of the monolingual classroom. This issue is further complicated by the fact the most course-books don’t take into account that their students come from a very different culture where learning styles, learner needs, teaching styles and the nature of langauge use differs greatly from those in western nations. Adaptation is probably one of the most important aspects of teaching in this situation along with understanding the learners and being sensitive to cultural norms.

    Marcus

  2. I’m signed up to your webinar and eager to hear your thoughts about this problem. In Korea there are other factors as well such as age that can really affect how people speak (or don’ t speak) to each other, even in English. I concur with Marcus’s comment and almost wonder if large publishers such as OUP should start thinking about regional editions that take these things into account.

  3. I strongly agree with you and I think this is the right way for studants to communicate with each other

    • Thanks, Abdalla! I hope you can join us at the webinar.

      • I would like to thank you for your ideas and want you to give us thoughts for teachers who works in Arabian countries and their native language is Arabic we are suffering to let our studants speak english because they dont speak english excpet in an English lessons .

  4. Hi Marcus and Mark, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! It’s so important for teachers to understand their learners’ culture. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts at the webinar!

    • Thanks Mike, Mark and Abdalla,

      Looking forward to the webinar! I’ll be sure to prepare some thoughts and questions beforehand :)

  5. Pingback: International students in middle school: Marginal or model? | Loving Language

  6. Thanks for having a thorough understanding of the problem.Looking forward to the webinar.

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