Teaching in China: A Guide for the Uninitiated

How much should I talk?

I mentioned already that to improve your students’ spoken English, you must get them to talk. That’s important. The sharp reader will note that the teacher and student cannot talk at the same time. That means that whenever you’re talking, your students aren’t talking. If they’re not talking, they’re not practicing their spoken English. This is actually a significant problem.

It’s easy to fall for the lure of the spotlight. If you’re an engaging speaker, your students will love listening to you speak, maybe even asking you questions along the way. It can’t be denied that one must have good listening ability in order to be a good speaker of English, so it may seem justified. And it is justified, at least partly. Just try to remember that speaking English is a skill that must be practiced. Your job is to provide opportunities for practice. As a foreigner, you can provide said opportunities in the most authentic, natural way. It’s good to talk to your students, to build rapport and improve their listening skills. Just don’t forget that the emphasis should be on the development of their speaking ability. Get those students talking!

Also, don’t fall into the trap of giving your students endless vocabulary. True, you need to be giving them more natural words to use (they really need it!), but frequently providing long vocabulary lists at the expense of talking time is a mistake. Unless you make them, chances are that those students will never use the words you just taught them. Don’t overdo it. Even if the students are not using new vocabulary or grammar, but rather using all the vocabulary and grammar they already know, just plain more talking is what the students need. Give them ample opportunities in class.

Your students may find the ideas in the previous paragraph absurd. Because of their previous schooling experience, they will very naturally fall into the role of intently listening, board-copying machine. Chinese education is geared toward acquisition of knowledge, not practice of skills. Speaking English is a complex skill in which your students will most likely be horribly lacking. They need practice, whether they know it or not. Many times I’ve repeatedly practiced (usually rather simple) patterns with students, and the students will start to complain, “but we already know this.” When asked, “can you do it without making any mistakes?” they have no reply. Chinese students are not used to learning a skill in class instead of knowledge.

So how much should you talk in class? That’s a difficult question. You have to talk to lead class, create a relaxed atmosphere, and provide a model of natural spoken English, but the students must talk to practice their spoken skill. Since your goal here is to improve your students’ spoken English, and that is accomplished by making them talk, all talking you do should have a rationale behind it. If it doesn’t, you’re wasting time you should be spending letting students talk. You’ll have to find a balance yourself. Keep in mind that when letting the students practice speaking, dividing into groups is the most efficient method. “Divide the students, multiply the speaking” is the concept.

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