Mike 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)