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5 Important Ways to Help Students Improve Their Speech

Viewed 399 times 2017-3-28 17:15 |System category:News| teaching, english, esl, learning, english tips

In China, learning the English language presents learners with many interesting challenges – but there are solutions.  Some of the hurdles that students need to overcome are systemic, while others are more individualized, however, both can severely hinder speech.  The background story is that the educational system is exam focused, so you will find that lecture and rote-based practices are predominant in English speaking classes, in contrast to a communicative approach. Moreover, another problem they face is interference from their native language while they learn the second.  Chinese speakers (as with any group sharing the same characteristics), will tend to make similar mistakes when learning a second language.  However, regardless of where the problems originate there are solutions that teachers can undertake to help students improve.  So, here are five solutions to help Chinese students improve their speech.


1. No need to keep pushing the ox cart of bad English in 2017.  Teachers need to help students to understand that, as a language learner, there are some common mistakes that they generally make, and help students to avoid them.  Of course, there are many aspects to language learning but here are two important factors to consider.  First, there is first-language interference.  This is when your native language and its characteristics intrude in learning the second language.  For example, Chinese students will often leave out articles because their language doesn’t really use them.  Second, people from the same culture will often make the same language mistakes, and these problems have been recorded.  With Chinese learners, some of these common mistakes are: incorrectly using tenses, missing articles, word confusion (he/she or person/people), countable nouns, subject-verb agreement, and speaking Chinglish.  So, if learners understand these issues, they can quickly correct and avoid them.   

Solution: Teachers can go online to search for common mistakes and make students aware of these pitfalls.


2. Encourage one pronunciation standard.  In China, everything is relatively homogenous except for English pronunciation.  Many students pronounce words from seemingly different English speaking accents, causing them to sound unclear.  Many times in class, I often wonder if I’m hearing a mispronunciation or a word from another Western country.  Moreover, adding to this problem is the trend of having Western graduated Chinese becoming English teachers, which adds to the pronunciation issue. 

Solution: Teachers should reinforce the notion that there are different accents, and point out country distinctions whenever possible.  Ultimately, it’s important for students to follow one accent to avoid problems. One good way to ensure this is by drilling students with an online practice guide called Pronunciation Poetry where they can be introduced to 90% of English sounds.


3. Don’t teach Math-English.   As English teachers, we’ve all had this experience; we ask a question and the student responds with a short answer then stops speaking.  It’s a little awkward, almost as if the student is completing a workbook answer. Perhaps, the tendency of students is to give simple responses was due to pragmatic lessons.  Historically, learners were taught language by drilling and rote practice and it was useful for testing purposes.  Thus, they didn’t really use the language but studied it, like a math equation.  I could imagine that English instruction went something like this… “Everyone, one: ‘How are you?’; two: ’Fine thank you.’; and three: ‘And you?’”  So, in a funny numerical sense it’s like 1+1=2 and that’s it, they were not taught to say more than this.  Sadly, foreign teachers and training centers continue this line of math-English teaching by relying heavily on a workbook or PowerPoint slides in a class, thus again limiting student conversation or fluency.  

  Solution: Teachers should facilitate real discussions and provide students with talking points to help them talk continuously about one topic, similar to a talk show format.


4. Teachers should not assume that some students don’t want to speak. Chinese students really want to speak English to the point that they make fun of themselves by repeating a funny expression, “I love English, but English don’t love me.”  The heart of the matter is in trying to change the prior learning style and foreign teachers very often misread the students’ situation.  The reality is that foreign teachers need to put more creative effort into getting students to speak.  Unfortunately, as foreign teachers, we often have a bias about student effort or behavior.  We might interpret that a student is shy or just doesn’t want to learn because of their quietness or passivity, but this is far from the truth.  Especially as outsiders, teachers should reconsider our own perceptions of student attitudes and actions.  Yes, it’s a challenge for us “opinionated Westerners” not to jump to conclusion, but whether we are teachers in China, or in another part of the world, it’s our responsibility to work out the puzzle of getting students to speak, and of course reigning in our misconceptions.

Solution: Teachers should put aside our perceptions, be more patient and very importantly, set up a class format where students are in a group scenario where the situation indirectly motivates them to speak up verses being directly called upon by the teacher.


5. Use scaffolding techniques to help learners express themselves.  A common occurrence for Chinese English learners is that they know the point they want to make, but can’t say it, start it, or explain it.  From high school students to managers, they all seem to have this challenge. Perhaps, the reason for this is due to a different cultural and language logic. To overcome this difficulty, teachers should use scaffolding methods to help students with starting their speech and elaborating. I think we all have heard the common ones, “I am thinking…” or “In my opinion…” and others. 

Solution:  Teachers should use the following techniques: 1) try stem sentences to get students to start speaking; 2) say to them “because…”; “Go on…”; “Tell me more.”; , or “Why?” to increase elaboration; 3) introduce them to the pattern, “I think this bla bla idea, because of bla bla for example, bla bla.”; and 4) give them a list of common expressions or phrasal verbs to help them to learn to speak more natively.  

Happy Teaching!

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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