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Warming Up the Gears: 7 Fun, Field-Tested Vocal Exercises

Woman massaging her facial musclesGetting students speaking is one of the toughest challenges a language teacher can face. In this article, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, introduces some vocal exercises you can use with your students to help get them speaking.

Does anxiety seem to prevent your students from participating in class, from enjoying practicing speaking with their peers, or from doing oral reports individually or as a group?

In one my previous posts on helping learners to minimize anxiety in speaking, I included a tip for “warming up the ‘gears’.” For any ELT practitioners who wish to experiment with ways to help students feel more at ease in speaking, this post shares a set of vocal exercises to warm up learners’ “gears” that I have learned through researching and voice training, used in my teaching of English-as-an-additional-language learners, and shared with practitioners through workshops.

These vocal exercises are enjoyable ways for learners to learn how to loosen their facial muscles before speaking, to develop a thick skin, and to enhance the vocal image that is critical to speaking.

1. Articulate Clearly

Minimize lazy tongue.

Step 1: Ask learners to work in pairs and take turns practicing saying the following common tongue twisters or any fun tongue twisters you use in your teaching.

  • How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
  • She sells seashells by the seashore.
  • When you write copy you have the right to copyright the copy you write, if the copy is right.
  • You’ve no need to light a night light on a light night like tonight, For a night light’s a slight light, and tonight’s a night that’s light. When a night’s light, like tonight’s light, it is really not quite right to light night lights with their slight lights on a light night like tonight.

Step 2: Gradually increase the speed of delivery, but one must say each tongue twister accurately before increasing the speed.

Step 3: After the pair work, ask for individual volunteers to practice saying the tongue twisters to the class. Increase the speed of delivery with each turn. Each learner must attain accuracy and speed before moving on to the next volunteer. While each learner practices saying the tongue twister, the rest of the class could hit the table to create a rhythm that will help the learner deliver the tongue twister following the beats.

2. Control the Breath

Minimize breathlessness.

Breathing is fundamental to speaking. This exercise helps release tension and slows the heart rate during speaking.

Man with a party hat and whistleStep 1: Try to say the entire alphabet, using only one breath (A → B → C → … → Y → Z).

Step 2: Ask students to stand up and say the alphabet in a manner that conveys excitement about sharing each letter with their peers. Encourage learners to make proper eye contact with each person in the room while saying the alphabet. Beyond lengthening the breath, convey the message that, if learners are not enthusiastic about what they want to say, they cannot expect others to be enthusiastic.

Step 3: Reduce the rate of delivery or lengthen the duration of uttering each letter in the alphabet.

A great way to recycle the task is to give each learner a party noise maker or a blower that enables the instructor to see when each learner runs out of air. It is also a fun way to switch up the exercise.

3. Vary the Pitch

Eliminate a monotone or an overly high-pitched voice in order to engage listeners and convey authority. I usually begin by speaking like a robot or playing a clip of a monotonic speaker before introducing the exercise.

Step 1: Say the words by going down the musical scale: low-low-low-low-low-low

Step 2: Say the words by going up the musical scale: high-high-high-high-­high-high

Step 3: Switch up the exercise by mixing low and high as each student takes a turn to practice. You will surely encounter some students who cannot tell the difference between the pitch of each word with its accompanied note, and these students usually get big cheers when they are able to accomplish varying the pitch through this exercise.

4. Vary the Speed

Embrace variety in pace to convey the relative importance or urgency of one’s message. Refer to Dlugan’s Six Minutes blog for more information about the average speaking rate.

  • Try speaking at a slow pace and time yourself (e.g. 140 and fewer words/min.)
  • Try speaking at a medium pace and time yourself (e.g. 141-­‐180 words/min.)
  • Try speaking at a quick pace and time yourself (e.g. 181 and more words/min.)

5. Vary the Volume

Raise learners’ awareness of the need to adjust the volume to the situation and the setting. Learn to project the voice and be aware of how a speaker may be perceived as speaking too softly or too loudly.

Step 1: Say the following words with the intended volume as indicated.

soft → very soft → loud → medium → very loud → soft → extremely loud

Step 2: Ask each student to stand at the very far corner of the room where the lesson is taking place and to self-introduce in order to receive the group’s feedback on the volume. This works especially well if doing it in a lecture hall, as most learners will quickly realize that they need to speak up and project their voice.

6. Vary the Stress and Use Pauses

Use appropriate stresses and pauses to clarify meaning and create impact. Using pauses effectively can help one to gather thoughts; give the listener time to breath and to reflect on what was just heard; and signal transition, create impact, and draw in the listener.

Ask the students about where the stress and pause should be placed in the following examples:

  • Don’t exit Excel
  • Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country (JFK)
  • Action needs to take place now not later
    This is an appropriate time for action
    We need to act, period
  • Success is never final failure is never fatal it is courage that counts (Winston Churchill)

7. Vary the Tone

Change the emotional register of one’s voice. If one’s tone conveys interest and enthusiasm, the listener will pay more attention to the message. Use Shakespeare’s sonnets to practice infusing emotion in what one is saying.

Portrait of ShakespeareShall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18)

These vocal exercises are fun, enjoyable ways for learners to learn how to loosen their mouth muscles before speaking, to develop a thick skin, and to enhance the vocal image that is critical to speaking. Have your learners bring their funny bones and sense of adventure to your “warming up the ‘gears’” segment. Integrate the segment at the beginning of a speaking class at least a few times, switch up the exercises by incorporating some of the suggestions offered here, and be prepared for plenty of great fun and laughter!


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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 helping learners minimize anxiety in speaking

Man with hand over his mouthIn this post, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, looks at anxiety, an important affective factor in second-language learning.

“Picture your audience naked!” “Focus on listening, not on thinking about how you are going to respond!” “Take a few deep breaths!” “Just relax!” — Many students will tell you that these methods don’t work or that they are easier to recommend than to do!

As we know, some people are predisposed to feeling anxious about things (called trait anxiety), while others experience state anxiety in relation to some particular events or situations. Many learners may experience anxiety because of their perceived inability to adequately express their thoughts, or because they are afraid of being judged negatively or not being socially accepted. Anxiety, according to various researchers, can be debilitative (or some call it “harmful”) or facilitative (some call it “helpful”). The latter kind, as the term suggests, can benefit speaking performance, as indicated by numerous research studies (see Brown, 2007).

In this post, I’d like to share some strategies for dealing with state anxiety, which might occur, for example, when performing a speaking task in class or in real-life situations. This kind of anxiety might prevent students from enjoying practicing with peers, doing oral reports in class, or engaging in conversations with other English speakers (Woodrow, 2006). If you have students who seem to need some help in overcoming the kind of anxiety that does not require professional intervention, then you might consider sharing these strategies with them.

  1. Allow for planning, preparation, and practice time. Continue reading


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7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at Graduate Level – Part 3

Three graduate students smilingIn the final post in this guest series, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, gives us the final three of her seven tips for teaching academic speaking to graduate EAL students. If you missed the first four, catch up on tips 1 and 2 and tips 3 and 4.

This final post wraps up my top seven tips for teaching academic speaking to graduate EAL students.

Tip 5: Expand learners’ linguistic and strategic repertoires

Graduate EAL students need to participate in academic conversations at advanced levels, and, as such, confidence-building tasks that build on, experiment with, and expand their linguistic and strategic repertoires in class provide them with a glimpse of what they can try when participating in a range of predictable academic interactions, such as the ones listed in Tip 3. The first step is to encourage students to focus on getting their ideas or meaning across and feeling comfortable in using whatever language they already know. Their well-intended high expectations about achieving accuracy and their fear of being negatively evaluated naturally make many graduate EAL learners hesitant about expressing their thoughts and prone to undervaluing or overlooking the richness of their ideas and contributions to the dialogue.

Take dealing with questions and answers, which I discussed in my previous post as an example. After exploring the hidden assumptions regarding one’s approach to answering questions and facing the challenging situations associated with handling Q & A (e.g., multi questions, long-winded questions, off-the-subject questions, “don’t know” questions, hostile questions), request that students consider both strategies and language that they can employ when handling such situations. For handling “don’t know” questions, for example, not only will this exploration help learners become more comfortable saying “I don’t know” or more confident about sharing what they do know that is relevant to the question at hand; learners will also generate strategies and language that they can use to confidently deal with those questions. For example:

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7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at Graduate Level – Part 2

Two female students in graduation robesFollowing on from her first post, which explored the importance of conducting a needs analysis and building a supportive learning environment, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, shares her next two top tips for teaching conversation skills to EAL learners.

In my previous post, I shared the first two tips, which serve as the foundation for teaching academic conversation skills to graduate EAL students. Many instructors wonder how to promote the transferability of skills that students use in class to outside-the-classroom, real-life contexts. In this post, I will move on to my list’s next two tips, which help promote the transfer of learning and skill development.

Tip 3: Link tasks to real-world activities

One key way to make learning meaningful and relevant in the classroom is to link pedagogical tasks to what learners will be doing outside the classroom. For graduate EAL students, participation in academic dialogues typically involves or will involve the following settings:

  • interpersonal one-on-one communications;
  • small group interactions;
  • seminars or class discussions;
  • departmental presentations;
  • teaching in the classroom; and
  • conference presentations and beyond (e.g., job talks, teaching demonstrations, and interviews).

Linking tasks that learners need to perform in those typical settings to class activities not only motivates learning because of the tasks’ perceived relevance and practicality; it also promotes the transfer of the language and strategies learned in the classroom to post-class, real-life contexts. For example, a task that involves meeting with a student during office hours to discuss a grade provides an opportunity for learners to experiment with ways to deal with this common scenario. Another example is involving learners when clarifying a key concept, something that graduate EAL students often must do in their roles as teaching assistants, as participants in departmental meetings, or as speakers at conferences. Such a task first of all provides the speaker an opportunity to practice providing explanations through the use of techniques such as the following:

  • stating a definition in formal and lay person’s terms;
  • using practical examples that listeners can relate to;
  • linking a concept to the speaker’s personal experience;
  • using an analogy with some concept that the listeners already know;
  • providing comparison and contrast;
  • referencing a word’s origin; and
  • offering visual illustrations of a term.

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