Speaking, listening comprehension and understanding are parts of the same process.

A wise, very experienced German colleague once told me that while it may be relatively easy to teach students how to build all the types of questions, it is infinitely more difficult to teach them how to understand all the types of answers they may get. This wisdom stayed with me. We teach speaking skills step-by-step, using texts, audios, pictures. Students read a text and compose comments, listen to dialogues and make up their own, look at pictures and describe them. These are all staples, our daily props. We encourage them to produce full sentences, not just Yes-No answers. Eventually they begin speaking fluently; some of them even manage to do it without many mistakes. However the ability to express oneself in a foreign language does not necessarily include the ability to understand oral speech. How do I know? I can say what I need in French and German, for instance. When I get back a stretch of normal-speed conversation, I often get only a few words, and have to ask people to repeat it much slower. Recently I had a wonderful opportunity to share some linguistic experiences with several Europeans who came to my town for a visit. It turned out that they had the same problems, though the languages concerned were different. Contrary to my previous idea that it rather depended on the age of language users age turned out not to be a factor. Some people find it quite easy to adapt while others stumble.

* Step 1 in teaching speaking is probably the sounds, “simple phonetics”, to quote Professor Higgins. When a student consistently says, “I sink ze sing ees”, they may not recognize the authentic sounds and may have trouble understanding a simple utterance like “I think the thing is”. In such a case we need to demonstrate the sounds many times, as well as to explain why it is important to pronounce them correctly.

* Repetition. We say a sentence clearly and slowly at first and have our students reproduce it. Naturally we should be certain that we teachers pronounce everything correctly or at least close to the authentic speech. A mistake may stay with students practically forever after an oral drill when they chorus after their teacher; it never occurs to them to check it afterwards.

* Once your students can connect a few words into a sentence have them talk to each other, help them understand that English is now their own instrument of communication. Here is one golden rule which never failed me: I train all my students to speak only English whenever they see me. It works so well that I am greeted in English even when I take a walk or go to the beach. Lots of my former students are now adults, yet they remember this one rule.

* Assessing speaking skills, same as any other skills, depends on the short-term and long-term goals of your course. In the beginning we encourage our class to talk; we may mark their mistakes and find various ways of dealing with them, but not interrupt them if they are actually building up a conversation or a dialogue. When preparing for any kind of examination we usually have a set of regulations and follow them. In one case we assess the skill per se and work out the ways to develop it; in the other case, when the rules and regulations are determined by the curriculum and/or the educational authorities, we follow the instructions.

* Using authentic textbooks, audios and videos is much better than using home-grown ones. Today anything and everything may be found on the web. Check any news or reference page, any educational site, any online newspaper and magazine versions. One may read, listen and learn. This accessibility also shows us that modern English is extremely diverse; in fact many textbooks now include all kinds of accents into their audios. The big questions are, what is to be considered authentic and which variant do we teach? We certainly cannot teach all the accents one may hear simply walking along a street in London for instance.

* Learner-oriented approach is very important today. My experience shows that Listening Comprehension is skill # 1 now. We may give students of any age and level any amounts of examples, any number of models to imitate; we can teach them to express some simple ideas. However if they do not understand what is said to them all our efforts to establish communication patterns may be in vain.

* No I don’t have all the answers. I believe we may rely on the written text since no matter what the author’s pronunciation may be the written version is the same (but for the cases where a regional or national dialect is depicted). In all my years of teaching that almost mythical variant, the RP (Received Pronunciation) never failed me. I have never yet been misunderstood by native speakers of English, be they British, American, Australian, Canadian and so on. What is equally important: I have never yet failed to understand anybody who uses English as a vehicle of communication, be they native speakers or people from other countries. This leads me to believe that this kind of classical English is all-inclusive. It is the basis, the foundation, the golden standard.

* I share with my students of all ages, levels and nationalities my own experiences, and try to teach them how to pronounce the foreign sounds well, how to understand spoken English and in essence how to communicate. The more authentic materials we use the better. When I was a school child my own teacher of English would bring in visitors from other countries, especially from Great Britain and the USA, to our class so that we could get first-hand experience and try out our speaking skills. I would habitually do the same for my own students later. Usually professionals from any sphere of life would agree to visit a school and help out the children who wish to learn how to speak English well.

Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments