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The Skills Balance in ESL

January 30, 2006

Dear Bloggers,

The relative importance of the four language skills has been on my mind. One group of teachers I have spoken to recently told me how difficult it is to persuade their students to speak while another group couldn’t get their classes to write.

From a teacher’s point of view the importance of these skills is obvious but what is the students’ perspective? I want to use this blog to talk about speaking and the next one to discuss writing. The reasons for students being reluctant to talk are various . . .

. . . Teachers need to ask themselves if this is a cultural issue. Perhaps the students are used to seeing the classroom as an environment in which they passively absorb knowledge and do not participate. Or, it could be an issue of saving face. If they are not confident about their ability to speak correctly they may not wish to expose their errors in from of the teacher or their peers. It might even be that want to learn for the purposes of being able to read and understand or listen and understand rather than participate in real communication. Teachers need to try to understand what the reasons are for their own group. This means understanding local culture and discovering from the students what priority they give to speaking: simply ask them to rank the four skills in order of importance. If they really don’t want to learn how to talk, then respect their choice and concentrate on the skills they value. If there are external forces, such as exams, that go against their choice, explain this so that they know why they are being asked to speak.

Armed with understanding of the students’ perspective, teachers can plan their strategy. It’s a good idea to start with speaking as a collective activity so that individuals do not feel exposed. Do lots of old-fashioned choral drilling. This will help them develop a more mechanical response to key questions. Dialogue practice can be done by dividing the class in two halves and drilling separate responses.

If you have access to a language laboratory or if students have individual record and payback machines, get them to speak and record and listen to their own answers. Let them assess their own progress and only intervene if asked for help. Once they are comfortable with choral drilling and self-recording you could try moving on to pairwork. Make it clear with each exercise why you want them to speak.

By taking an approach that respects their cultural norms and their personal concerns, you should be able to win their trust and gradually introduce them to speaking as a normal part of the work program.


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  1. jane Says:

    Well, I teach all lower-level students, so while they all read, write, listen and speak, they do all of these things in small amounts. They are all very willing to write (it's less embarassing for them when they make mistakes) - my problem is getting them to communicate orally... I'm working on it, but that's a story for another day...

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