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Student silence 

A major issue inherent to all speaking activities is that the learners are unwilling to speak. I have experienced this situation many times and for many different reasons. Learners often do not want to speak because they are shy. If students are new to a class, it can be very intimidating for them to meet a new group of people and then have to talk to them in a language they may not feel familiar with. On arriving in England, learners are often used to different teaching methods where perhaps speaking was not a priority, so they are not used to speaking in class. This has been an issue with many students I have taught. Indeed, a student once told me the only speaking practice they previously had was through choral repetition. The maximum number of students that I teach in a class is 20, which is not the case in many countries where students are often taught in classes of 50. This means that the opportunity for speaking activities is limited. Therefore, even if speaking activities were to be included in the lesson, it would be very easy for students not to get involved and stay quiet. 

Other reasons for student silence are that the activities are pitched at the wrong level or are inappropriate for the group of students. Cultural sensitivity must be taken into account with regards to all activities. Lack of schema on the topic can also be an issue and another reason for student silence. If students have no prior knowledge on a topic set for debate or discussion, then they are unable to voice their opinions or ideas.

Language avoidance

As these activities are communicative, the learners have a choice in what language they use.  Some students may avoid using language that they feel uncomfortable with. Speaking activities are an opportunity for students to practise the new language structures learned. However, students must have frequent opportunities to practise these structures to gain confidence in their abilities. In a recent activity, students avoided using the more complex exponents I had introduced to express their opinion, and used simpler terms that they were familiar with, e.g. I agree, I disagree. This is a common occurrence when students are self-monitoring and worried about making mistakes.

Errors

A major issue affecting fluency is the fact that students focus more on producing accurate (rather than fluent) utterances. Lengthy pauses while students search for the correct word or grammatical structure bring fluency development to a halt. Students may be self-conscious about making errors in their speaking as they do not want to be embarrassed in front of their peers. Recently, a student brought up the issue of errors and told me that because the other students in his group were making errors during speaking activities, he thought that I should be correcting them constantly. He was worried that the errors he heard would have a knock-on effect on his English and that he would pick them up. 

Suggestions for teaching 

General

Developing fluency in students requires both the opportunity and the encouragement to communicate. As teachers, we need to create situations where the students can utilise their language knowledge through communicative activities, therefore building their confidence and enabling them to develop language knowledge which eventually develops fluency. ‘Fluent speech is automatic, not requiring attention and is characterised by the fact that psycholinguistic processes of planning and speech production are functioning easily and efficiently’ (Schmidt 1992, p93).

When students have the opportunity to use their language knowledge to communicate and when they are engaged in tasks, automaticity can occur. During these occasions, the teacher needs to step back and allow the students more autonomy. Brown (1996), in Fluency Development, discusses 5 ways that teachers can promote fluency in the classroom:

  1. Encouraging students to communicate without worrying about making errors - errors made can be constructive and discussed after the activity
  2. Creating many opportunities for students to practise
  3. Creating activities that force students to communicate a message to achieve a goal 
  4. Assessing students on fluency not accuracy
  5. Talking openly about fluency to the students

Student silence

Students must be familiar with the topic, and most importantly, the activity must be well adapted to the group. To give students more information and enable a deeper understanding of the topic, provide a relevant reading or listening text first. The information presented in the text can lead to a discussion which in turn can lead to role-play.
In discussions where students are apprehensive about sharing their opinions (either because they are shy, or feel that they don’t have much of an opinion about the topic at hand), students can be given roles. If this is not possible, tell the students to disagree with everything the person on their left says, or rephrase views expressed by others. This encourages quieter students to be more active in discussions, yet not feel shy about their opinion because ‘the teacher told them to do it’.

Giving learners time to pre-plan what they want to say before a discussion is another means to counteract student silence. See the examples below:

  • Pyramid discussion is a great way for learners to plan what they want to say in response to a text, question or statement. Discussion is carried out first in pairs, then finally in groups. Although this activity does not replicate ‘real life’ communication as it is not as spontaneous, the learner recycles the language they want to use. As a result, students are offered the opportunity to reformulate ideas which in turn will lead to improvements in fluency.
  • Give learners the opportunity to first discuss the topic with speakers of the same language, therefore enabling them to formulate and share ideas on the topic in their mother tongue (L1) before moving on to English (L2).  

Enabling learners to pre-plan has a positive effect on their confidence, so they are consequently more likely to participate in later discussions. 

Avoiding student silence, using role-plays as a specific example

For students to fully participate in role-plays and stimulation, Ken Jones (1982) states that they must have the following characteristics:

  • Reality function: the students must not think of themselves as students but as real participants in the situation
  • A simulated environment: for example, the teacher says that the classroom is an airport check-in
  • Structure: students must be clear on how to complete the activity within the intended structure and they must be given the necessary information to carry out the simulation effectively.

Student silence often means that the students are unable to identify with the situation or the role they have been given. The teacher can adjust their own level of intervention during these activities to allow for a greater or lesser level of creative involvement by the students. Teachers’ intervention can range from controlled role-play activities, to cued dialogue techniques, to open-ended role-play. 

To make role plays more purposeful, they should be open-ended. Different characters hold different points of view of the outcome but learners should come to a consensus at the end. Our role-play resource is available for you to download on this page. 

Language avoidance

To encourage students to use recently introduced exponents, give them scaffolded support such as:

  • Set phrases which students need to include at some point in the activity. Therefore, they are given more support as they do not have to recall the language, but they still have to include it appropriately in the discussion. I find that this also increases student participation, as they want to use all their expressions. 
  • Substitution tables
  • Sentence starters

I often use a task-based learning approach where the language focus comes after the task; this enables the learners to notice how much they avoided using the language after completing their tasks. After students have finalised a task, they listen to fluent speakers completing the same task and highlight the language used. Time is then dedicated to students discussing language they could have used in the activity that would have benefitted their fluency. When the task is repeated, I have found that students not only complete the task effectively but feel more confident in using the target language. This leads to a greater degree of fluency. 

Errors

While students are completing the activities, I closely but unobtrusively monitor them so as to hear any repeated errors. I make a note of the errors, and discuss them after the task, during student feedback. Repeated errors are highlighted, and students are encouraged to peer correct. My students often forget to use the 3rd person, so before any speaking activities I draw an ‘S’ on my thumb. If I hear the students forgetting to use the 3rd person, I then show them my thumb. The students recognise the mistake and correct themselves without me having to interrupt them.

Students must also understand that making errors is a ‘natural component of language development. A student who is afraid to make errors won’t make errors and a student who won’t make any errors won’t become fluent’ (Brown 1996). Therefore, if the errors which naturally arise through communicative activities are handled appropriately by the teacher, they can be constructive. 

Bibliography

Bateman, D. (2000) Ideas and Issues, Chancerel International 

Bygate, M. (1987) Speaking, Oxford University Press

Bygate, M. (1996) in Willis (ed) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, MPL

Brown, JD. (1986) Fluency Development

Hadfield, J (1990) Communication activities, Thomas Nelson Ltd.

Harmer, J. (2001) The Practice of English Language Teaching, PEL

Hartman and Stork (1976) A dictionary of language and linguistics

Littlewood, W. (1998) Communicative Language Teaching, Cambridge University Press

Maggs, P and Hird, J. (2005) Speaking Activities, Scholastic Inc.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching, MPL

Thornbury, S. (2005) How to Teach Speaking, PEL

Thornbury S. (2005) A-Z of ELT, MPL

Skeham, P. (1996) in Willis (ed) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, MPL

www.onestopenglish.com

www.teachingenglish.org.uk

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