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Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes

Male graduate student smilingRachel Appleby, author and seasoned EAP teacher, looks at the challenges of teaching speaking skills in an academic context. Rachel hosted a webinar on this topic on 21st November. You can view a recording of the webinar here.

Why should academic speaking be any different from regular speaking skills?

In General English contexts, students need informal discussion skills, everyday transactional skills (such as those we practise in roleplay activities), and ultimately to be able to communicate successfully. Quite often those students who have good communication skills in their first language are able to transfer them successfully to a second language.

In an academic context, these general skills are still important, but specifically, there are two key areas which require focus, namely:

  • participating in seminars
  • giving academic presentations

So what do we mean by these? Apart from regular language work, how can we help students participate? What sort of questions open up a discussion, or enable a student to delve more deeply into a topic? How can they present an argument well? What do we mean by ‘clarity’ from a speaker’s perspective? And how can we help students structure their speaking, both in terms of an overall text, as well as at sentence level?

As these are actually important in everyday conversation, then they are skills which are already accessible to the teacher; they are things that we should be able to do too!

In terms of fine-tuning what students need, we should also bear in mind the sorts of contexts they learn in. For seminars, this is raising an awareness of, and practising group discussion conventions. For presentations, students need help in planning, and then in organizing the content. And of course unless they are seasoned presenters in their own language, a lot of effective work can be done on delivery, either for giving a PowerPoint presentation, or a poster presentation. I recently spent a little time on the latter, and the results were impressive: my students were not only able to layout a poster with visual clarity, but also present it orally with a good degree of conviction. It certainly pays to work on a few nifty tips and strategies!

Academic speaking skills training gives students structure for what they want to say, as well as rationale and focus; all of which are extremely useful for effective communication in every walk of life.

For us as teachers, it’s also important to be able to ensure equal participation among our students. By first observing, and then working on techniques students can use, we can maximize their participation in seminars and help enable students not simply to join in a discussion but also to lead a discussion.

If you teach students about to study at college, or already in tertiary education, or you’d simply like to know more about these issues, then watch the webinar here!

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8 easy techniques to help learners practice clarifying their explanations

Mixed race businesswoman speaking at podiumFollowing on from her tips for teaching speaking for academic purposes at graduate level posts, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, now gives some practical suggestions and examples to apply those techniques outside of the EAP sphere.

You have probably heard your students say “I’m not sure how to explain it . . .” while speaking, as they search for ways to get their ideas across. Think of the last time your students (or maybe you) were searching for ways to clarify explanations so that the idea you were trying to convey would not only make sense to your listener, but would also stick!

In one of my previous articles, 7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at the Graduate Level: Part 2, I mentioned the importance of linking tasks that learners need to perform outside of class to in-class activities. In that post, I included an exercise that requires students to clarify a key concept using various communication strategies.

In this article, I’d like to follow that up with some brief explanations and simple examples, because the eight techniques presented here are not limited to the teaching of speaking for academic purposes. Being able to present explanations clearly, which is a key attribute of a speaker’s effectiveness in communication, is a skill that all speakers strive to develop, regardless of whether they are language learners or aspiring or practicing teaching professionals.

Researchers have established the effectiveness of various instructional strategies across disciplines, such as: using concrete examples to illustrate abstract concepts, using analogies from outside the classroom, and using personal examples (e.g., Civikly, 1992; Tobin & Fraser, 1990; van Rooyen, 1994). The following eight communication techniques are presented with the goal of helping your learners develop the ability to achieve their communication goals. Then some simple, fun application tasks that you can try are presented at the end of the article.

Warm-up questions:

Identifying Challenges and Brainstorming Techniques/Strategies

1. How do you feel about your ability to clarify your ideas or explanations when listeners have difficulty understanding you?

2. Share with your speaking partner(s) an instance in which you encountered difficulty in clarifying your meaning. What are some personal difficulties that you faced (or anticipate facing if you can’t think of an incident in the recent past) in clarifying explanations?

Eight suggested techniques:

1. Use a practical example: Provide a practical example that your listeners can relate to.

e.g. To understand what the phrase “leisure activities” means, think of activities that you enjoy during time free from school or work.

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7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at Graduate Level – Part 1

Four college students wearing graduation robesIn this series of three posts, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and Learning and Teaching Centre Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Victoria, Canada, shares her top tips for the teaching of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to English-as-an-additional-language students at the graduate level.

Anyone who follows news, feature stories, or research related to higher education in English-speaking countries will have noticed the increasing number of items related to recruitment efforts or enrolment trends of international students who speak English as an additional language (EAL). Even if you are not following the latest trends and research related to graduate EAL students, you are likely witnessing the ever-growing presence of international EAL students first-hand in your institution.

Since I first taught EAP in 1997, which led me to pursue advanced degrees in this field, I have had the good fortune to continue working with graduate EAL students at various academic institutions. Over a decade later, my passion for EAP only grows. Today, I wear my regular hat, as I carry out research related to language teaching and learning and train ELT professionals and researchers. At the same time, I still design and run courses and workshops for graduate EAL students and consider it a great privilege to work with these usually highly motivated learners. These students are eager and determined to improve their academic conversation skills, because every day, they encounter many opportunities to speak English on topics about which they have sophisticated knowledge. They also know very well that their academic conversation skills and confidence will impact their future career options.

The idea for this post series came from my recent sharing at a local conference for ELT students and professionals. The tips presented here are inter-related, and they are not meant to be rules or a be-all-and-end-all guide; they are derived from my own teaching experience and research. My hope is that this post series will prompt you to reflect on and share what has worked well for you in your own teaching/learning contexts, so that together we can continue to enrich our students’ learning journeys.

Tip 1: Conduct a needs analysis

As instructors, we often ask, “What should our learners learn?” but a quick show of hands at a recent presentation I was giving reaffirmed the fact that not many of us regularly ask what our students’ needs are from their own perspectives. In addition to the mismatch highlighted by research between learners’ and instructors’ views about areas where learners need help, my recent research further suggests that what instructors or learners consider important skills to possess may not necessarily be the ones that learners perceive that they need to develop. Whether learners’ perceptions represent their realities or not, few of us would argue with the idea that learners’ needs are sound starting points for instruction, because learners may be most receptive to guidance in areas where they perceive a need for support and development. Furthermore, because learners’ needs are context-specific, it is important for us to conduct our own needs analysis to help us prioritize and inform our teaching.

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