How can I help my learners become effective communicators?
Communication is one of the ‘soft skills’ that is becoming increasingly valued in the workplace, and as such, is an important area of focus for English language teachers. Being an effective communicator isn’t just about speaking fluently or accurately, it includes important skills such as active listening, use of appropriate language, understanding nuance and context and being able to express opinions clearly and confidently in both speaking and writing.
Encouraging students to participate in active listening will help them not only to understand what is being communicated to them, but also to ask relevant questions when there is ambiguity.
Providing a variety of different tasks including authentic listening tasks is a good way to encourage active listening. This could be using podcasts for example, or watching video clips or authentic news reports, either in the classroom or at home. Listening in the real world is often far more challenging than any coursebook activity, and it is important to help learners develop different listening sub-skills. Top-down listening skills involve learners using their knowledge of context to gain a better understanding of what is being said. For example, getting students to listen to an authentic conversation and trying to recognise the relationship between the speakers, the general topic and what the outcome of the conversation is. Bottom-down listening skills involve students listening for more specific information like facts, or figures, and they can practice these by listening to more factual audio texts - for example a lecture, or news programme.
Active listening involves asking questions too. You could tell your students an anecdote with some unexpected twists, and instruct them to ask questions about anything that isn’t clear. Then you can use comprehension questions to see if they have understood the story, or ask them to summarise the main points of what they’ve heard.
Active listening can be challenging with lower-level students, who will often be more focused on formulating their next sentence than really listening to what is being said to them. It’s important to give them opportunities to practice listening. Again, play them a recording and ask them to summarise what they have heard. They can work in pairs or groups to pool their ideas. A dictogloss is a great activity for doing this, and really tests learners’ active listening skills.
It’s important that learners understand what is appropriate in different contexts. Formal English tends to be very indirect, and often the use of imperatives (common in many other languages) sounds quite rude or even aggressive in English. Give students practice using this kind of language, and comparing how different structures sound in English. Asking students to listen to or write short dialogues of everyday situations using different registers - for example, ordering a drink in a cafe using just imperatives, and then the same dialogue using indirect questions - they can compare the two, and notice what effect the different language has on the interaction. It’s also important to give learners opportunities to practice different types of writing tasks that require different levels of formality (informal e-mails, more academic discursive essays, narratives etc,) with a focus on clarity of expression. Focusing on structure and use of linking words can help ensure that students’ messages are coherent and clearly expressed.
Effective communicators are good at presenting their ideas. For many students, presentations can be a daunting prospect, but you can give even the least confident low-level learners practice in presentation skills. Remember presentations don’t have to be done in front of a large group or last very long- you can ask students to present something to a partner in a short 2 minute classroom activity. They can choose their own topic which can be as simple as they like (for example “My town”), but encourage them to focus on making sure they introduce their topic, make three clear points, and include a brief concluding statement. You can also introduce them to simple presentation techniques such as using appropriate linking words, or the rule of three. Give them some preparation time. The idea is that learners can organise their ideas clearly and that they also grow in confidence speaking in this more structured way.
Pronunciation / intonation
Including a focus on pronunciation, and particularly on word stress and intonation can also help learners communicate their ideas more effectively when speaking. As English is a stress-timed language, using word stress appropriately can greatly facilitate (or not!) communication. You can highlight how word stress works in English by reading out sentences and asking students to tell you how many words you have just said. Hopefully learners will notice that words that carry meaning (nouns, adjectives, verbs) tend to be stressed, whereas more grammatical words (articles, auxiliary verbs, pronouns) tend to be unstressed. Changing word stress in a sentence can change the meaning of what they are saying - for example “I thought YOU [stressed] were cooking dinner tonight” has a different meaning to “I thought you [unstressed] were cooking dinner tonight”.
Self reflection and self awareness
Along with empathy, self-reflection and a certain level of self- awareness are key skills in effective communication. Get learners used to reflecting on their own skills, evaluating what they have done well and what they need to work on, and offer opportunities for peer-feedback. As the teacher you need to model this and ensure that learners know how to do this sensitively, which in itself is a great communication skill. Offer students the opportunity to take part in debates, encouraging them to use active listening, offer calm rebuttals and question other perspectives. Helping learners to express and defend ideas calmly will help them in both their academic and work lives, and make them more confident, persuasive communicators.
Offering the students the opportunity to work together on collaborative tasks will also help them to support each other and listen to other’s perspectives. In group classes, try to make sure you mix up the groups often so that students get plenty of practice working with different people.
As teachers we should try to include some of these techniques into our classes, so that students don’t just speak English, but really know how to communicate effectively in different situations.
Cath McLellan has been teaching English for around twenty years, mostly in Spain, but with short stays in Italy, Hong Kong and Japan. She is a coordinator on TeachingEnglish, has written materials for the Premier Skills English website, Learn English Print, as well as editing and writing articles on language and UK culture for the British Council Spain blog. In her free time she likes reading, cooking and getting out of the city for long walks.
This is a great height to attain and flexibly possible