Friday, May 22, 2009

Teaching Speaking

written by Dr Kalyani Samantray
Reader in English, S B W College, Cuttack Orissa, India

Yemen Times

Among people in general, there is a stupendous amount of interest to be able to speak in English, and to speak well. It is chiefly this interest which leads parents to send their children to ‘English medium’ schools for education. Parents are most satisfied if their children could communicate in English orally. Proficiency in other language skills, such as reading and writing, does not seem to be so much their concern. Among the student population, there is a clear line of social distinction distinguishing the group which cannot speak effective English as lower in status and the group which can. Though the first group is very large, the students of this group lack self-respect, and though quite intelligent, they despise themselves and look up to the English speaking student community as their role model.

In a climate so clement for being able to speak well in English, where the motivation for learning this skill is the learner’s and parents’, why has not the curriculum delivered the goods? After years of learning English in school and college our learners are miserable failures when it comes to express a few simple facts in English orally.

One most obvious reason behind this is that speaking skill has never been included to be taught in the curriculum of state schools and colleges. The framers of the syllabus are always under a notion that if learners could read and write in English, somehow they would manage to speak in the language. There are also many other facts behind failure in oral communication.

A comparison of skills-development in mother tongue (MT) and the skills-development framework in the English curriculum in our schools and colleges would demonstrate to some extent the major reasons behind our learners’ ineffectual oral skills.

From the time a baby is born, she remains in an MT ‘immersion situation’. MT surrounds her all her waking hours. Two important factors accompany this situation:

a) There is no demand on the child to produce the language, and

b) There is no ‘grading’ of the language produced by people in the presence of the child.

The child gets to hear the MT in its natural, unalloyed form. The elder siblings and adults use the normal conversational variety of the MT that they usually use without simplification, and without grading (from the so called simple to difficult as happens in the English as a foreign language teaching curriculum). The child incubates in this kind of natural language situation for about nine to ten months before she is ready for her first meaningful utterances. One can well imagine the quantity and the quality of listening that has happened to the child before she starts to speak. After about three years of speaking, the child is initiated into reading the orthography in MT, and a little later into writing.

A clear picture of the natural order in skills-development emerges from the above description: a child to be able to learn a language well listens to the language first for a considerable period of time; then speaks in the language only when she is ready. After that come reading and writing in that order. This is the Natural Order of language learning because this happens naturally to every child learning her MT which may be any language of the world.

What happens in a second language, i.e. English, learning situation? Most children learn English at school. Before that, whatever English they might have learnt is only at the level of some words, and only those words which have been accepted into the MT, e.g., table, pen, torch and so on. The first skill that they start learning at school is writing; writing the letters of the alphabet. Then comes reading. All through, the focus in our school and college curriculum remains fixed on these two skills. Listening and speaking skills constitute just the incidental and peripheral aspects in learning English.

In learning the language, the Natural Order of skills-development gets exactly reversed. The learner starts with the most complex skill of writing. Reading happens after that. If any ‘speaking’ happens at this stage, then that is in the form of repeating words after the teacher. Learners then learn to give set answers to set questions and read a text aloud. Even though many would like to believe that these are learning to speak English, these are by no means ‘speaking’ in a language. Speaking is natural unedited conversation. There is never any provision in our curriculum for such speaking skills as would help our learners to confront real life situations such as a job interview or an interpersonal communication.

Let us examine how the little that is done in developing the speaking skill is handled in the curriculum. The aspects that mark an effective speaker are her fluency and accuracy. In the Natural Order of skills-development in a language, fluency in speaking is primary and accuracy comes much later. No parent would rebuke a child for incorrect production in the MT. That she is at all uttering a few words or fragmented utterances in whatever manner is a matter of delight for everyone. For example, an Oriya child says:

paata kaai

Paraphrased into proper syntax and phonology of Oriya, the utterance would take the following shape:

bhaata khaaibi (I want to have rice.)

But nobody minds the errors in production let alone ever think of correction. After several stages of interlanguage and self-correction, the child arrives at the proper grammar of the language. In this effort, she is entirely supported by the language situation and parental encouragement. The natural course is thus through fluency to accuracy.

On the other hand, teaching the speaking skill in English is fraught with correction and discouragement right from the early stages of learning English. A child is forced to ‘speak’, read aloud and answer questions, before any listening in proper measure in English has happened. Moreover, the child is forced by the teacher to speak correctly. There is an absolute intolerance of the so-called learner errors in speech. The curriculum does not permit for a learner’s stages in interlanguage. A teacher never cares for a child who speaks at all in English. A teacher’s concern seems to be to see that if a child says something in English, his primary job is to find and correct mistakes, and see to it that the child always speaks in complete sentences. Such untimely and unwarranted attention on accuracy at the early stage has boomerang effects on fluency. It is like putting the cart before the horse. The child achieves neither accuracy nor fluency in the long run.

Does this situation pertain to real life? Slips, errors backtracking and editing are prominent even in adult natural conversation as much as fragmented utterances. Listeners make ample allowances for all these and much more even when listening to speakers speaking in their MT. Teachers of English, on the contrary, are intolerant and impatient of even minor digressions by the learners from the formal speech patterns. As a consequence, learners choose not to speak in English.

No skill ever develops without adequate practice; and mistakes form an integral part of skill-development. No one, for example, has learnt cycling by reading a book on how to ride a bicycle. One has to ride a bicycle (that is practice) and fall down (that is making mistakes) several times in order to get the skill of cycling. This is true for getting any skill: practice and errors leading to skills-acquisition.

The scope of this article is too limited to permit a detailed description of the subtler aspects of what should comprise in a syllabus in its ‘speaking’ component and how teaching and testing should be handled in an English classroom in an incremental manner. This article only attempts to put forth the major problems that beset teaching speaking. How to overcome these problems and many others in a curriculum is a larger issue for further discussion.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an EFL Teacher Trainer, Intellectual Development Specialist, author and speaker. He has written ESP, foreign language learning, English language teaching texts and hundreds of articles used in more than 100 countries. Get your FREE E-book, “If you Want to Teach English Abroad, Here's What You Need to Know" by requesting the title at: Need a blogger or copywriter to promote your school, institution, service or business or an experienced writer and vibrant SEO content for your website, blog or newsletter? Then E-mail me for further information.


Bipinpatsani blog post said...

It is quite useful to EFL teachers and learners as well.

Bipinpatsani blog post said...

It is quite useful to EFL teachers and learners as well.