How do I improve my students’ spoken English?
This seemingly innocent question is a lot harder to answer than it sounds, and is the fundamental question behind decades of research in the field of applied linguistics. Still, there’s an easy answer and a complicated answer. Let’s start with the easy answer.
To improve your students’ spoken English, you must get them to talk. It’s as simple as that. Easy, right? Wrong. Let me explain.
Any teacher in China (or other East Asian countries such as Japan or Korea) can testify to the fact that students here tend to be “a bit reluctant to talk” in class, to put it mildly. Is it because you’re a shocking, big-nosed, tall, weird foreigner? Is it because they’ve been conditioned to be note-copying drones by a school system founded in the “the teacher is always right” principle of Confucian thought? Is it because the students are passive, apathetic babies?
The reason why the students are like that is beside the point. The fact that this may very well be the single biggest obstacle you’ll face in the classroom here is the part you should be focusing on.
There is one reason for the students’ reticence which may actually provide the needed insight to help you rectify the situation. Many Chinese students feel their spoken English is terrible (or “very poor” in their words). If you’re teaching first-year university students, chances are that they have been studying English for 6 years (since the beginning of middle school). Why, then, do they still stumble over basic sentences? The reason why (that the Chinese system for English education totally neglects spoken ability) is beside the point. The point is that this self-consciousness the students feel at having studied English so long, yet still being unable to communicate freely on a basic level, is very real. And their problem as students is now your problem as the teacher.
What can you do? Well, obviously, the students need encouragement. It helps to tell them their English is good. It helps to be very supportive any time a student has the courage to open her mouth. It helps to openly blame their speaking deficiencies on the style of English education they have received until now. But you’ll need to do more.
It is a fact that students will talk more if they feel relaxed in class. Linguistics research tells us this, and my own personal experience (as well as countless TEFL teachers’ experiences around the world) bears it out. You’re already at a disadvantage from day one, because the students will be self-conscious and nervous, both big hindrances to your quest for in-class relaxation. So what should you do? Do all you can to create a relaxed atmosphere in class.
If you have a relaxed atmosphere in class (but are still in control), you’re already doing well. Now you need to work on the actual improvement.
Remember, something like “improvement in spoken language ability” is subjective and difficult to measure. You’re not likely to see huge dramatic improvements over the course of a semester, no matter how good a teacher you are.
What you need to be aware of is that speaking English is a skill, not a form of knowledge, and it should be treated as such. Just as one can never learn to drive a car merely by reading various books and manuals or watching videos, students will not improve their speaking ability without speaking more. That’s your job. Provide plenty of opportunities for them to speak more in class. You need to put them behind the wheel. They won’t be used to being in the driver’s seat, but that’s where they need to be, practicing. And they need your patient guidance.