Near the end of an arirang Heart to Heart, an American professor was asked by the host to give a few words of advice to English Conversation teachers. The distinguished professor has been teaching ESL for most of his life, and his advice to teachers was as sagacious as it was succinct: "Don't talk too much; let your students do the talking."
That students should be doing most of the talking in conversation classes is self-evident, but too often they are not. I came to this conclusion by asking them what they liked, or disliked, about my class. Most students said that they liked my class because I let them speak, implying that that has not always been their experience in conversation classes. And this was the opinion of students at all conversation levels.
Students are pleased when, during my introductory lecture, I tell them that my conversation class really is a conversation class and that they are going to do most of the talking. Then I practice what I preach by not giving them repetitive grammar-based exercises and dialogue practice but by giving them the freedom to say, or try to say, what they think about the day's topic following my review of it. Many students seem to enjoy speaking English for the first time in their lives.
This is not to say that students do not need to improve their grammar -- even the best students?grammar has 'holes' -- but it is time that they end their reliance on books and begin relying on the English stored in their heads, the English they seldom if ever use.
"Why," I ask them, "should I teach you more English when you can't use the English taught to you last semester, or worse, can't use the English you were taught over and over again in middle and high school? 'What's the point,' I continue, of teaching you more English when you probably won't use it?"
There comes a time when students just have to speak English no matter if what they say is riddled with errors, which will, over time, self-correct with practice. The remedy to "can't use the English" is, speaking or just trying to speak.
I then tell students that my intention is not to teach them more English but to help them learn to use the English that they already know -- the English stored in their heads -- but "can't use" simply because they have not done enough talking. Much of their English may lie dormant in their heads, but it is there, nonetheless.
Once students take on the challenge of speaking and do speak, their dormant English will awaken and all the time and effort that they have put into studying English will not have been in vain. Forgotten words will re-enter their vocabulary as if out of the blue and speaking a declarative sentence will be less daunting if, of course, the students challenge themselves to speak. Years of formal English study have given them a foundation based on grammar. It is high time that they build on it through speaking.
What most students really need is confidence though the Korean educational system has trained them to be confident test takers, not speakers. Yet the ability to speak is there; it only needs a little coaxing.
Many reticent students assert themselves when they are put in pair/group conversation practice and role-play situations in which they are obliged to participate. This is why students often tell me that their confidence has improved in my class. And every semester there is always the student who says that he took my class in preparation for study abroad and now has the 'confidence' to study in North America.
Rather than learn more superfluous English, students have to learn to better use the English that they already know. "Quality, not Quantity" is my mantra.
Quality begins with clear enunciation, which slows down pronunciation and gives one the time to arrange syntax and even the time to correct oneself while speaking. Fast talkers will not improve until they learn to slow down; for it is the speed of their pronunciation that causes errors. Many recurring errors, whether these have to do with something as basic as the verb to be and personal pronouns, could be corrected if students would just slow down.
Clear enunciation at the beginning of a sentence, especially the first word, sets the pace of the sentence. In fact, the ability to speak slowly and clearly is what often separates lucid advanced students from frenetic intermediates who can be half-way through a sentence before I begin to understand what they are trying to say.
The affect of temperament on speaking ability has been ignored for too long. Self-conscious students can be so nervous during formal classroom discussion, or when talking to native speakers, that there seems to be a disconnection between brain and tongue, the latter rambling on to the point of incoherence. Sometimes I have to remind these fast talkers to breathe, really.
Although speaking in a formal discussion may unsettle students who normally are at ease when conversing with peers, it does compel them to discipline their speech, building self-confidence as they overcome self-consciousness.
I do not believe there is another classroom where the demarcation between teacher and students is as blurred as in a conversation classroom. Here the teacher must interact with students and be an accessible role model that they are comfortable being with and believe they can emulate. This goes a long way in overcoming the social and cultural barriers inhibiting frank and enjoyable conversation between them.
English Conversation teachers are the very living and breathing embodiment of the culture the students associate with English. No amount of culture introduced to students can affect them as much as the teacher introducing it. The teacher, therefore, should be a goodexperience, an inspiration whose class the students want to take again and which they recommend to friends. Nothing makes me feel better about my teaching than seeing a former student in my classroom at the beginning of a semester and/or meeting a student who is taking my class at the recommendation of a friend.
One of my students told me that he liked my class because of how I interacted with students: "You like being in the classroom; you like being with students." He is right. It stands to reason that there is no place in a conversation classroom for a morose teacher.
Since students respond favorably to recognition of almost any kind, establishing rapport with individual students, and the class as a whole, is vital for a teacher. Once students know that they are not anonymous faces but, rather, individual personalities the teacher knows something about, they are motivated to perform better. My students perk up when I engage them in conversation.
An engaging manner can motivate even the most reticent student to speak confidently. Loving mothers and grandmothers and doting siblings were, after all, our first language teachers.
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