The first thing to keep in mind is that when we are helping our language students learn to speak English, we are not actually teaching them to speak. Unless they are infants, they already know how to do that. What we are really helping them with falls into three categories:
1. improving fluency (speaking smoothly)
2. improving pronunciation (saying words properly)
3. improving enunciation (Saying words/phrases clearly – I think this includes word and sentence intonation)
Speaking is about using our mouth and vocal cords to make sounds that people understand as language. It certainly involves other elements like grammar and vocabulary, but they aren’t the core of it.
Fluency comes from practice – plain and simple. However it needs to be practice that involves extended use of the language and use of extended sentences. You can not build fluency by repeating single words or short phrases. Fluency at its heart relates to being able to speak for longer periods of time in a smooth way. Broadly speaking, here are a few things that can help build fluency:
1. speeches or presentations
2. group discussions
3. role plays
4. negotiations and debates
5. interviews and meetings
6. chatting in small groups
Pronunciation is the ability to say words properly with the correct sounds in the correct places. This is a skill that can take a VERY long to develop, but with consistent work and practice, it can be done. There are two keys to proper pronunciation 1) tons of native speaker input and 2) tons of speaking by the learner with native speakers. However, practice and lessons that target specific trouble areas can make a huge difference in a student’s ability to deal with issues in pronunciation.
1. working on specific vowels
2. working on trouble consonants (e.g. th for French speakers)
3. working on understanding movement and location of mouth and tongue when making sounds.
Enunciation is speaking clearly – perhaps better understood by its opposite which is mumbling or slurring words. Enunciation is a very important aspect of speaking in that poor enunciation can make someone almost impossible to understand. Again improvements in enunciation come from exposure to native speakers, and plenty of natural practice. Of course focused work targeting problem areas can help a great deal as well. Things that can be done to help with enunciation include:
1. focused work on trouble word combinations
2. working on reductions (want to –> wanna)
3. working on sentence level stress points
4. working on word level stress points (e.g. differences between noun/verb forms of same word record/record)
5. working on sentence level intonation patterns
As you may have noticed I haven’t provided any specific lesson ideas on how to teach speaking. There are literally hundreds of different activities that you can use in myraid different situations. There isn’t one right way, or even one right sequence. Just be sure to give your students plenty of time for talking freely, supplement this with targeted exercises and practice, and actively encourage your students to listen to and speak with as many native speakers as they possibly can on a regular basis.
Language learners need to recognize that speaking involves three areas of knowledge:
• Mechanics (pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary): Using the right words in the right order with the correct pronunciation
• Functions (transaction and interaction): Knowing when clarity of message is essential (transaction/information exchange) and when precise understanding is not required (interaction/relationship building)
• Social and cultural rules and norms (turn-taking, rate of speech, length of pauses between speakers, relative roles of participants): Understanding how to take into account who is speaking to whom, in what circumstances, about what, and for what reason.
In the communicative model of language teaching, instructors help their students develop this body of knowledge by providing authentic practice that prepares students for real-life communication situations. They help their students develop the ability to produce grammatically correct, logically connected sentences that are appropriate to specific contexts, and to do so using acceptable (that is, comprehensible) pronunciation.
Goals and Techniques for Teaching Speaking
The goal of teaching speaking skills is communicative efficiency. Learners should be able to make themselves understood, using their current proficiency to the fullest. They should try to avoid confusion in the message due to faulty pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, and to observe the social and cultural rules that apply in each communication situation.
To help students develop communicative efficiency in speaking, instructors can use a balanced activities approach that combines language input, structured output, and communicative output.
Language input comes in the form of teacher talk, listening activities, reading passages, and the language heard and read outside of class. It gives learners the material they need to begin producing language themselves.
Language input may be content oriented or form oriented.
• Content-oriented input focuses on information, whether it is a simple weather report or an extended lecture on an academic topic. Content-oriented input may also include descriptions of learning strategies and examples of their use.
• Form-oriented input focuses on ways of using the language: guidance from the teacher or another source on vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar (linguistic competence); appropriate things to say in specific contexts (discourse competence); expectations for rate of speech, pause length, turn-taking, and other social aspects of language use (sociolinguistic competence); and explicit instruction in phrases to use to ask for clarification and repair miscommunication (strategic competence).
In the presentation part of a lesson, an instructor combines content-oriented and form-oriented input. The amount of input that is actually provided in the target language depends on students’ listening proficiency and also on the situation. For students at lower levels, or in situations where a quick explanation on a grammar topic is needed, an explanation in English may be more appropriate than one in the target language.
For more on input, see Guidelines for Instruction.
Structured output focuses on correct form. In structured output, students may have options for responses, but all of the options require them to use the specific form or structure that the teacher has just introduced.
Structured output is designed to make learners comfortable producing specific language items recently introduced, sometimes in combination with previously learned items. Instructors often use structured output exercises as a transition between the presentation stage and the practice stage of a lesson plan. textbook exercises also often make good structured output practice activities.
In communicative output, the learners’ main purpose is to complete a task, such as obtaining information, developing a travel plan, or creating a video. To complete the task, they may use the language that the instructor has just presented, but they also may draw on any other vocabulary, grammar, and communication strategies that they know. In communicative output activities, the criterion of success is whether the learner gets the message across. Accuracy is not a consideration unless the lack of it interferes with the message.
In everyday communication, spoken exchanges take place because there is some sort of information gap between the participants. Communicative output activities involve a similar real information gap. In order to complete the task, students must reduce or eliminate the information gap. In these activities, language is a tool, not an end in itself.
In a balanced activities approach, the teacher uses a variety of activities from these different categories of input and output. Learners at all proficiency levels, including beginners, benefit from this variety; it is more motivating, and it is also more likely to result in effective language learning.
Strategies for Developing Speaking Skills
Students often think that the ability to speak a language is the product of language learning, but speaking is also a crucial part of the language learning process. Effective instructors teach students speaking strategies — using minimal responses, recognizing scripts, and using language to talk about language — that they can use to help themselves expand their knowledge of the language and their confidence in using it. These instructors help students learn to speak so that the students can use speaking to learn.
1. Using minimal responses
Language learners who lack confidence in their ability to participate successfully in oral interaction often listen in silence while others do the talking. One way to encourage such learners to begin to participate is to help them build up a stock of minimal responses that they can use in different types of exchanges. Such responses can be especially useful for beginners.
Minimal responses are predictable, often idiomatic phrases that conversation participants use to indicate understanding, agreement, doubt, and other responses to what another speaker is saying. Having a stock of such responses enables a learner to focus on what the other participant is saying, without having to simultaneously plan a response.
2. Recognizing scripts
Some communication situations are associated with a predictable set of spoken exchanges — a script. Greetings, apologies, compliments, invitations, and other functions that are influenced by social and cultural norms often follow patterns or scripts. So do the transactional exchanges involved in activities such as obtaining.
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