Unit eight - Questions/Discussion
A participant asked for advice on what to do if she couldn't understand what an ESL student said to her. My response:
"You may fail to understand a student's statement or question for four main reasons:
If you can identify the cause of your incomprehension as 1-2 above, you could pinpoint the problem to the student and ask for clarification. In the case of problems 3-4 you could ask for a repetition of what the student said.
- the grammar is incorrect
- the wrong words have been used
- a word or words have been wrongly pronounced
- the intonation is non-standard.
Of course, this may not work and at some point requests for clarification or repetition may become embarrassing. This embarrassment need not be overwhelming, however, if you show an encouraging attitude to the student and convey to him or her your awareness of the fact that mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, etc. are a normal part of the language learning process.
Some more concrete strategies that you might wish to employ in such circumstances include:
- asking students to write down what they said, or parts of it;
- asking students to show you in the dictionary the word (in the mother tongue) that they want to use - you can then look at the English equivalent
- asking a native-speaking peer to interpret for you (it's a good idea to make sure that both students concerned are happy for this to happen)
- asking students to see you after the lesson when you have more time to help them express themselves clearly."
Another participant asked why there was relatively little emphasis in these workshops on the development of the ESL student's oral ability. My response:
"Consider firstly the totality of an Upper School student's academic work, including the time spent in class and the time at home doing homework assignments. Consider secondly the major modes of academic learning: speaking, listening, reading, writing. It is impossible to give any precise breakdown, but I would predict that students spend much more of their academic learning time listening, reading and writing than they do speaking. Certainly, the most important ways of gaining knowledge are through reading and listening; and the ultimate method of demonstrating knowledge and understanding (and hence achieving academic success) is through writing. On this basis developing the oral abilities of the ESL students is of lesser importance in achieving the goal of passing exams than helping them to be better listeners and to read and write well. This accounts for the relative lack of emphasis on speaking in these ESL workshops.
Nevertheless, many of the workshop sessions contained advice that, if followed, will increase the opportunities for ESL students to speak in the mainstream class, and to feel comfortable doing so. For example, ESL students are encouraged to participate orally in class if they are given enough time to process the teacher's question and formulate an answer. Lessons that are interesting and incorporate aspects of the personal or cultural backgrounds of the ESL students are more likely to promote a willingness to participate. Another important factor is a non-threatening classroom atmosphere where the teacher is tolerant of the hesitancy of ESL student answers and of grammar/pronunciation mistakes. Collaborative groups in particular are an excellent means of allowing ESL students to talk in a less threatening environment than in front of the whole class.
Mainstream teachers who want to maximise their ESL students' chances of improving their conversational English can encourage them to join a lunch or after-school club where they are mixing with native speakers in an activity that is interesting and enjoyable to them. An excellent example would be to join a drama production. As far as academic spoken English is concerned, teachers could tell the student that he or she will be asked a specific question in the next day's class, thus allowing the student time to prepare and, if necessary, practise the answer. It is helpful also if mainstream teachers are aware of the advice given to ESL students about what they can do to develop their oral proficiency.
In summary: Of course speaking is important and of course students learn to improve their speaking competence in their ESL classes. However speaking is probably the least important skill in achieving academic success (which generally means passing written examinations). Hence it has not been given too much emphasis in these workshops."
There are answers to many more questions from mainstream teachers on the FAQ page of this website.