Diary submitted by Katie J., Madrid
How to teach speaking to a confident learner?
Of the four language skills, it seems to be speaking with which learners experience the most difficulty. A common refrain within many of my classes has been a student’s stammered apology, “my speaking is very bad.” What is the best way, therefore, in which to increase students’ verbal fluency? Furthermore, how can a learner support this with an improvement in their pronunciation, accent and intonation?
Many studies have found that verbal abilities are often “debilitated” by learner anxiety (Elaine Philips, 1992). Many of my students who have struggled to engage in and maintain conversations have been noticeably nervous, often due to it being their first class or due to a lack of confidence in their English.
Nonetheless, although many studies focus exclusively on the relationship between anxiety and speaking capacity, what can be done with confident learners? One of my students who has asked for help with his speaking is certainly not low in self-esteem; having studied English for 15 years, his fluency and confidence are more than proficient. Nonetheless, in his intonation and pronunciation he experiences particular difficulty and, thus, requires more nuanced tactics to improve.
The primary problem, it seems, is that he has had few encounters with native teachers. As such, he has struggled to adopt the more rhythmic iambic pentamer often used by native speakers, using a more monotonous accent which at times hinders his clarity.
In addition to this, his phonetic comprehension is still rooted in Spanish pronunciation, a fact that enforces Agudo’s (2017) argument: “listening to [a native speaker] will result in good pronunciation and listening to [a non-native speaker] will result in poor pronunciation”. For instance, he often pronounces ‘ʌ’ as a more Spanish ‘u’ and still prefaces ‘s’ with an ‘e’ sound.
In regards to these more specific phonetic errors, we have used tongue-twisters to great effect, helping to consolidate the correct pronunciation of the sound. Alongside this, asking him to read aloud while listening to a rhythm that somewhat imitates iambic pentameter is gradually improving his intonation, helping to form a more native cadence.
Although such exercises are gradually improving the technical aspects of his speaking, his proficiency in English does mean that a bit of ‘unpicking’ must be undertaken. As there is generally a lack of research surrounding more confident speakers, EFL teachers must be prepared for these cases with an extensive supply of verbal activities to aid.
- De Dios Martinez Agudo, Juan, Native and Non-Native Teachers in English Language Classrooms: Professional Challenges and Teacher Education (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017)
- Philips, Elaine, ‘The Effects on Language Anxiety on Students’ Oral Test Performance and Attitude’, The Modern Language Journal 76.1 (Spring, 1992) http://www.jstor.org/stable/329894?read-now=1#page_scan_tab_contents, accessed 19 March 2018