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Bubbling under – Helping ideas surface in speaking classes

students talking speaking smiling in classroomEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. In this article he looks at ways to create the right environment for effective speaking classes and offers some practical advice to manage them, ahead of his webinar on the subject on 12th and 13th July.

When they go well, speaking activities can bring life, laughter and energy to the language classroom, providing a real sense that the language is being put to use in an enjoyable and authentic way. When they go badly, however, speaking activities can be immensely frustrating – and not only for the students. Have you ever set up a speaking task with confidence, only to find it fizzle out before it even begins? Are you familiar with the experience of scanning the faces of your silent students, trying to read the thoughts they are struggling to put into words? Have you ever wished you could find a way to help them express all the thoughts and ideas that are clearly bubbling under the surface?

Helping students find the confidence

With teenage students, the first thing to be aware of is that difficulties with speaking are very often exacerbated by inhibitions that they have about themselves as learners – and as members of the group. Speaking is an inherently ‘social’ skill: everything that is said is heard – and judged – by the teacher and the rest of the class, making already self-conscious teens reluctant to put themselves in a position where they can lose face in front of their peers. Putting students at ease and providing a supportive atmosphere in the classroom is essential if speaking activities are going to work.

Responding to seemingly simple prompts often requires a lot of confidence on the part of the student. Think about questions such as “What’s your favourite pop group?” or “What did you get for your birthday?” Giving an answer requires not only marshalling language but also sharing private information which might cause others in the class to sneer or laugh. It’s hardly surprising that these kinds of questions often produce only mumbled, one-word answers. In order to avoid such situations, we need to think hard about the kinds of questions we ask and be sensitive to the potential difficulty of certain topic areas. A simple tweak to the question is often enough. The same teenagers who hate talking about things they like often love talking about things they hate. Try asking “What’s the worst song on YouTube?” instead of “What’s your favourite pop group?” and watch the hands go up.

Creating space and time for language and ideas to emerge

The feeling that they are being ‘put on the spot’ is another factor that can make speaking activities challenging for students. Unless they are given adequate time to think and prepare, it’s unreasonable to expect a typical student to be able to give a spontaneous, extended answer to a spoken question. For short answers, one simple idea is to give students the chance to ‘speak, pass, or nominate.’  Those who do not wish to speak can instead choose to ‘pass’ – in which case we move on to someone else, or ‘nominate’ – in which case they can bring a classmate with a good idea into the discussion.

How can students best make use of the time they are given to prepare a spoken answer? Well, it depends on whether they are stuck for language or ideas. If it’s language they need, having access to appropriate reference materials and task models can make a big difference. They might just be stuck for ideas, though.  ­­At intermediate level and above, it is surprising how often students say “I wouldn’t know what to say about this in my mother language, let alone English.” That’s when collaborative, pre-speaking planning and brainstorming activities can help.

Managing speaking activities

Once they have the confidence, the language and the ideas, it should be much easier for students to tackle speaking tasks effectively. There’s still a lot that can go wrong at the production stage, though. From a classroom management point of view, it’s important to remember that good speaking requires good listening. Unless there is an attentive and sympathetic audience for a speaker, s/he will see no reason to take the task seriously. That’s why we need to set up speaking tasks in such a way that they include a focused listening element. One simple way to provide this focus for listening is to give students the option of not telling the truth in speaking tasks: it then becomes the job of their partner to listen and decide whether they were lying or not. When our students speak in class, we should also strive to pay attention ourselves, to really listen. Too often I catch myself ‘waiting’ rather than listening.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to join in the discussion and learn some practical ideas for the classroom, join me for the webinar.


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Does pronunciation matter?

shutterstock_297003296Robin Walker is a freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer. He has been in ELT for over 30 years, and regularly collaborates with Oxford University Press and Trinity College London. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar ‘Pronunciation Matters’, on December 6th and 7th.

At first glance it would seem that it is not really possible to question the idea that pronunciation matters. How can you learn a language without learning its pronunciation? Who will understand you if your pronunciation is poor? And will you understand them? Yes, the case for teaching pronunciation seems pretty solid, but the reality in classrooms around the world is often very different. Time and time again, when I give talks and workshops on pronunciation, teachers confess to me that what I’ve said has been enlightening, but that sadly they don’t have time for pronunciation in a syllabus that is already busting at the seams. It’s logical, then, that if they are short of time something will have to give, and pronunciation is an obvious choice, especially with courses that focus more on written than on spoken English.

Teachers say they don’t have time to teach pronunciation in their syllabus.

But can we really push pronunciation out to the margins of ELT like this? Surely it does matter. The connection between pronunciation and speaking, for example, is immediately apparent to anyone who has started learning a new language. But pronunciation is also about listening; it is not enough to recognise a word in writing, because if you don’t know how it’s pronounced you won’t recognise it when listening to someone using the word. Spanish learners of English can fail to recognise the word ‘average’ even though it is spelt the same way in both languages. This is because they are expecting a four-syllable word and so fail to make sense of the correct, two-syllable pronunciation.

Pronunciation is also an issue for listening because of the way that words that are pronounced one way when said in isolation can sound quite different when they are part of a sequence. My own students kept using ‘Festival’ to start their essays. I couldn’t work out why and until they explained that it was the way I started any instructions I gave them in class. It wasn’t, of course. What I’d been saying was ‘First of all’ but because of their poor pronunciation they completely misheard what I was saying.

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Vocabulary, too, has a pronunciation element if we want to use a new word when speaking, and there are many examples of the connection between pronunciation and grammar. A rising tone at the end of an affirmative sentence, for example, turns it into a question to the ears of the listener. Thus:

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Speaking, listening,  vocabulary – yes. But writing?

Less obvious, admittedly, is the link between pronunciation and writing, and it was clear to me for a long time, and to all of my colleagues, that pronunciation and reading are simply not connected. Or at least that is what I thought until I heard Michael Swan and Catherine Walter speak at the 2008 IATEFL conference in Exeter. Their session was about the problems learners face when reading in English. Poor pronunciation, Catherine explained, often lies undetected behind the poor reading skills of many students. If we want them to get better at reading, she proposed, help them to improve their pronunciation.

I listened to this concluding remark in amazement. Suddenly everything fitted into place. Pronunciation does matter. And rather than being marginal to the core elements of ELT, it lies at the very heart of teaching English. Grammar, vocabulary, speaking, listening, writing and reading – what holds them all together, what is common to them all, and what is central to ELT, is the very same pronunciation that got pushed out onto the margins some time in the mid-80s.

Pronunciation is the glue that holds everything else in teaching together.

How this is, how pronunciation operates as the glue that holds everything else in teaching English together, I’ll explain in my webinar in December. I’ll also look at goals for learners, because if the goal in the past was to sound like a native speaker, the situation today, with English being used the world over as a lingua franca, is not so simple. I’ll be looking at priorities for our learners’ pronunciation, too, because if there isn’t much time to fit everything in, we need to focus on what matters most.

So if you accept that pronunciation matters, and you want to find out more about what matters in pronunciation, join me in December, and we’ll put pronunciation in its proper place at the heart of ELT.

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A Framework for Communicative Speaking

shutterstock_297003296Tony Prince is a NILE trainer and has been Programme Manager for Presessional and Insessional courses at the University of East Anglia. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar, A Framework for Communicative Speaking, and discuss clear communicative speaking for ELLs. 

Opening digression – Problems and solutions

Often what we see as a problem in the environment, actually has its roots in ourselves.

‘I keep getting interrupted when I’m trying to work.’

Well maybe that’s because you’re afraid to say no when someone asks you for help, or to challenge an ‘urgent’ email that threatens to take hours out of your planned schedule.

Before you protest – explaining how ‘I really don’t understand your context’ – recognise that the beauty of you being the problem (and by you I mean we, including me), is that you are the solution as well.

You may not have control of your options, but you do have the power to choose. There is always a choice, no matter how limited.

To the point – Taking control

What does this have to do with Speaking?

Frequently when students express frustration with their speaking, they frame it as a problem with the environment.

‘People don’t give me time to think.’

‘My classmates don’t let me speak, they just talk.’

Some re-frame this as a problem with themselves:

‘I can’t think quickly enough.’

‘I don’t feel good interrupting other people.’

But few have the insight to see themselves as the cause and the solution:

‘I need to find ways to give myself extra time to think. I wonder what phrases I could use? Should I use gesture more? Maybe it’s my expression. Perhaps I need to make it more clear that I’m thinking.’

‘What is it about me that finds it so uncomfortable to interrupt others. Are there any methods that I could use which would feel easier for me?’

Most frequently, in conversations with students about issues they’re having with their studies, I have to try and get them to understand themselves better: to take more control over what they do and how they do it.

Me: ‘It seems to me, watching the conversations, that you’re happier listening. You don’t show any signs of frustration. You sit back from what’s being said.’

Student: ‘Really?’

Me: ‘That’s how it seems.’

Student: ‘Oh. So what should I do?’

Me: ‘Well why do you think you do that?’

Student: ‘I don’t know.’

Me: ‘Well I’d say that’s what you need to find out.’

Or with a lower level student

Me: ‘You watch people speak.’

Student: ‘Yes?’

Me: ‘Why?’

Student: ‘I think slow.’

Me: ‘Why no sound?’

Student: ‘Sound?’

Me: ‘Next time, watch other people. Listen! Tell me what sound. Also think. Why no sound you?’

This is a difficult approach – for both teachers and students to take. But one of the ‘Elephants in the room’ when it comes to communicative teaching, is that what we are encouraging is intensely personal. The issues that students have with communication are often rooted in their own character. Yet much though we may know our students as individuals few teachers are willing to ask students to reflect more about what it is about themselves that is preventing them from communicating, and to suggest that such reflection is at the heart of improvement.

The webinar

You may be wondering – finally – what this has to do with the webinar that I’m going to be conducting – ‘A Framework for Communicative Speaking’.

During this webinar I’m not going to be suggesting that teachers become psychologists, or even coaches – that’s for another blog post, and webinar.

The objective here is to set out a framework that can provide students with more choice in how carry out the speaking tasks in class. The framework organizes functional language around Bloom’s taxonomy, allowing students (and teachers) to vary the cognitive demands of the speaking they do.

The intention is to provide a resource that encourages student reflection on their speaking problems by providing them with more choice as to how they (and the teacher) structure a speaking task.

Reflection + choice (on how to respond to reflection) = improvement.

If you’d like to attend this free webinar with Tony, please click on the register button below.

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IELTS Speaking Practice Part 1: Grammatical range and Fluency

 

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Louis Rogers is a freelance author and senior academic tutor at the University of Reading.  He has worked in a number of countries and taught in various contexts ranging from young learners to Academic English. Louis is co-author of Oxford EAP B1+, Foundation IELTS Masterclass, Proficiency Masterclass and Intermediate and Upper Intermediate Skills for Business Studies. 

Part 1 of the IELTS speaking test contains numerous topics and questions designed so that students can demonstrate the key skills assessed of Fluency and coherence, Pronunciation, Lexical resource and Grammatical range and accuracy. This article and lesson idea focuses on the key areas of fluency and grammatical range and accuracy.

To gain marks in grammar students need to focus not only on being accurate but also on using a range of structures. Being very accurate, but using only a limited range of structures will not help students to reach a high mark. In part 1 of the test the questions often prompt students to use certain structures. For example, many of the questions prompt students’ likes and dislikes for different points in time:

1 What subject would you like to study?

2 What was your favourite subject at primary school?

3 What do you like about the place where you study?

These questions all naturally elicit the gerund and infinitive form to talk about likes and dislikes. Practising and knowing these forms can help students to use this structure accurately with a range of topics. Working on extending responses from a simple answer of ‘I liked learning about History’ also lends itself to practising one of the key areas judged in the fluency category. It also gives you a chance to work on the grammatical accuracy of students in the extended responses they produce.

Fluency is assessed in a combination of ways. The speed of speech – this does not mean the faster the better but rather encouraging students to focus on speaking at a steady to fast speed with little hesitation and few pauses. The length of answer is also marked in this category – reminding students that this is their chance to show their ability in speaking. Simply answering the questions in one or two words is not enough.  Students need regular practice with a range of topics on extending their answers.

The activities/lesson here and accompanying game focuses on practising discussing likes and dislikes using the gerund and infinitive and using a good grammatical range to extend responses. The lesson ideally continues from Foundation IELTS Masterclass Unit 1 Speaking; however, it can be used in any IELTS lesson that is practising for part 1.

You can either follow the stages in the lesson plan here or simply add the game to any lesson in which you have taught this grammatical structure.

This article first appeared in the April edition of Teaching Adults newsletter. To find out more about the newsletter and subscribe, click here.


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#IATEFL – Improving pronunciation: helping students get ‘more value’ from their English

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Jenny Dance, who runs a language school in Bristol, tells us why pronunciation training is so important for her students and what led her to find a system that would allow them to practice more effectively. This blog post previews her talk at IATEFL this year, ‘Getting more value from your students’ English by improving pronunciation’.

Many students work hard to learn English vocabulary, and to develop accuracy in their usage and grammar – but when it comes to using the language orally, in real-life situations, they find a lack of understanding of pronunciation has a big impact on their capacity to communicate. To help students get the full value from the English they’ve spent time learning, they need the assistance of dedicated teachers, and engaging, effective pronunciation training tools.

‘Sound-scapes’ and making pronunciation visual

Making pronunciation visual – as well as aural – can make a huge difference in students ‘getting it’, and being motivated to improve. The Say It app can be used in the classroom to demonstrate the ‘sound-scape’ of English quickly and intuitively. Students enjoy recording themselves: they are motivated by the app to achieve a good stress-indicator match and a soundwave shape similar to the model. This video is a good example of how Say It works to support both the student and teacher in making improvements in pronunciation. It demonstrates, in particular, the power of giving students access to immediate feedback on their pronunciation (a topic researched by the psychologist James L McClelland in a study from 2002, at Carnegie Mellon University).

Stress placement

Understanding the stress placement in a word is another simple way to improve clarity in speaking. In my experience, students are often shocked to learn that misplaced stress can render their English virtually incomprehensible to native listeners. Recently, a Spanish cameraman student of mine told me he’d filmed the ‘rePLACE’ at a Real Madrid game. I assumed he didn’t know the right word, and that he’d meant the substitution; but in fact he had used the correct word, ‘REplays’, with the wrong stress placement. He had stressed the wrong syllable, and even in context, I had misunderstood.

Last week, I used Say It in the classroom to help students who were struggling to understand the difference between the pronunciation of the double-o spellings in ‘understOOd’ and ‘spOOn’. I had been patiently drilling and modelling the sounds, giving them rhyme examples and demonstrating the different mouth positions of /ʊ/ and /uː/.

As soon as I put the Say It app on the table, the students (one Chinese, one Spanish) could see, hear and touch the words on the screen. They immediately understood the difference between the double-o spelling/pronunciation in the two words. Using the app empowered them as learners; they had full control of the analysis on screen, and it demystified a point which had previously been difficult for them to grasp. The objective feedback the Say It app provided gave them more insight, and allowed them to focus on the sound and structure of the words, rather than the spelling.

If you think Say It could work with your own students, here are two suggestions for ways you could use it in the classroom.

Activity 1: ‘Where’s the stress?’

  1. Teacher puts 4 multi-syllable words on the board, and invites students to put markers where they think the primary and secondary stresses are.
  2. Students check, practise and improve their pronunciation using Say It.

Activity 2: ‘Student to student challenge’

  1. Tell students at the start of the class that they will be able to challenge their classmates to pronounce two words from the lesson as the final activity of the session.
  2. They should keep notes in the margin of a few words they think would be tricky for their classmates to pronounce.
  3. At the end of the class, student A says: ‘I challenge you to pronounce this word (written on a piece of paper)’.
  4. Student B looks the word up in Say It, recording themselves before listening to the model, and see how close they get before having the chance to analyse the sound and improve.

Jenny Dance will be giving a talk at IATEFL 2016 in Birmingham, on Thu 14-Apr, 11.00-11.30, in Hall 11a. The Say It: Pronunciation from Oxford app is available to download on iTunes – there also will be a discount of up to 40% from 13-22 April.

 

References

Teaching the /r/–/l/ Discrimination to Japanese Adults: Behavioral and Neural Aspects. James L. McClelland, Julie A. Fiez and Bruce D. McCandliss in Physiology & Behavior, Vol. 77, Nos. 4–5, pages 657–662; December 2002.