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Speaking English Well

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Speaking English Well

We strive for a balance between the four skills in our classrooms. We employ a whole language approach, teaching and reinforcing the target language, developing new skills, and improving existing skills and abilities. Yet true mastery of the language comes down to being able to speak it. In lessons that focus on speaking, we work towards maintaining a balance between fluency (getting the words out) and accuracy (using grammar and vocabulary correctly). And although we can't dismiss the other skills, namely writing and reading, we want to construct lessons that give students ample time to orally practice the language, as well as ample time to use the language freely. Below follow four steps which can serve as a lesson model for conversational classrooms with higher-level ESL learners.

Before the four steps, though, a question must first be asked and answer: What is conversational ability?

Conversation involves the following points. Students use the language, listen to the language, process the information, and then respond to it. The purpose of the conversation affects the process, as does the place and the people involved.  Compare English spoken to open a business meeting with English used to order at a restaurant. This language then differs from what may be needed during the business meeting, or to complain about the quality of the food.

From these examples, we can infer that a good speaker uses grammar and vocabulary effectively and accurately. But it should also be noted that the context of the grammar and vocabulary adds nuance to a conversation. For example, when, why, and to whom would a speaker describe business meetings in the following manner:

Example A: Even though our weekly meeting with those R&D people can be boring, I know how important it is. Let's face it: it's a necessary evil.

Example B: Ugh! Our weekly meeting with those R&D people bores the pants off me!

Someone who speaks well would similarly understand when to use different grammar points, such as modals of probability, or the present perfect tense versus the present perfect continuous. Native speakers "just know" the language, even if we can't always give the whys and what fors of grammar or vocabulary sometimes. Lessons which involve speaking activities for upper-level learners should strive to build and reinforce what native speakers take for granted, so that decisions in language usage like the above become more regular and require less active thought.

Step 1: Allow the students to prepare for the tasks ahead with an effective warm-up. Assuming you have sixty minutes or more of class time, ten minutes at the beginning of the lesson works very well. This gives everyone in the class ample opportunity to get their English wheels turning. Adequate time translates into fewer mistakes while you're presenting and drilling the target language, so comprehension and use of the new language gets shortened.

Also consider employing an activity connected to the day's topic. Very general questions for discussion with partners or groups work well at higher levels. For example, if the lesson were going to focus on the environment, pair up students to talk about these three questions for ten minutes.

Question 1: Is global warming real? Why/not?
Question 2: How do you feel about global warming? Why?
Question 3: What will the future be like because of global warming? Please explain.

Such open-ended questions which don't require a lot of technical knowledge or vocabulary prove (relatively) easy to talk about. They provide easy entry into the topic of the day. Ranking activities encourage conversation too, as does brainstorming. Take a look at the following:

Rank it!: In pairs, rank the following five problems facing our world today: global warming; increasing numbers of nuclear weapons; water shortages; poverty; and a giant asteroid from space smashing into our planet. Be sure to discuss and support your reasons.

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Brainstorm: Brainstorm words and ideas related to global warming with a partner. Present and compare your answers to another pair of students.

Step 2: Next present the topic for discussion, target grammar, or any vocabulary selected for the lesson. The warm up should serve as a springboard into the topic. For example, write on the board any synonyms with today's key words used by the students, and then introduce the target vocab. Or if you focus on grammar, write several sentences from the warm up that will highlight the target structure. In both cases, information from the warm up gets recycled, thus providing a more efficient use of class time. The grammar or vocabulary also becomes more memorable because of the link to the initial conversations.

Step 3: After the presentation, students need to practice the new material. It's unfair to expect them to make use of the new language without adequate reinforcement. Drills work to achieve automaticity, even at higher ability levels. Tightly controlled drills with new grammar points or vocabulary lay the foundation and provide example sentences. Activities should then move into freer and freer use of the language, which will allow each student to integrate the lesson material with pre-existing language.

Consider beginning with choral drills that simply have the students listen and repeat a phrase or sentence. This practices accuracy with the language as a whole. For example, you can get students to notice prepositions, plurals, articles, or other language points which they might omit or use incorrectly. Choral drills also practice pronunciation, intonation, and stress. Drills of this sort can target specific weaknesses unique to the students' L1. Substitution and transformation drills have students substitute words or transform grammar in a sentence. With interactive drills, students interact with one another to accomplish a task using the target language. You might include a few drills like this:

Choral drills: The students listen to you and then repeat the key vocabulary words for pronunciation. Next you dictate sentences for everyone to see how the words can be used in context. Once all the sentences have been dictated, you should read the sentences once more. The class listens, then repeats together to check answers.

Substitution/Transformation Drills: You read a sentence aloud with a synonym in lieu of a key vocabulary word. The class as a whole, in groups, or in pairs supplies the correct vocab from today's list. If grammar were the focus, you can read a simple sentence aloud, with students then transforming it for today's grammar.

Interactive drills: Returning to the example topic on the environment, students interview three people about two of the worst environmental problems facing the world today. Students make use of the target language, which their partners listen for. All answers should be written down in brief notes for later discussion.

These are only a few examples. However, they highlight how students are given more control and freedom with the language with each drill set. Also note that a lesson, especially ones with higher level students, may make limited use of drills. A lesson focusing on fluency and debate may only use choral drills as a means to introduce several key phrases, such as:

I can't agree with that point because...
That's an interesting point of view. However...
You mentioned that... / You said earlier that... /  You just said that...

Step 4: You should always work towards real use of the language. Whereas the first part of the lesson focuses on accurate production of the language, it's done to then allow better practice of fluency. Activities at the end of the lesson allow students to tie the day's material with previously studied vocabulary, grammar, and any other language points, thus allowing students the opportunity to select which important elements they need for successful conversation. These activities also let upper-level learners apply strategies, use gestures and body language, and adjust their language for the intended audience or listener. (On this last point, an unscripted role play allows students to use the language for different purposes, thereby forcing students to assess the role of the listener. They must also use English appropriately.)

In lessons that focus on speaking for upper-level ESL learners, work towards incorporating these four steps: preparation, presentation, practice, and finally free use of the language. In doing so, you give the students a good balance between working on accuracy and fluency, which results in a better ability to engage in conversation... In short, to speak English well.

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