Why your students can't (or won't) speak
Here’s a funny thing. When you learn your first language, speaking is the first skill you acquire, which would suggest that it’s the easiest of the four skills to master. But when you learn a second language, speaking is very likely the last skill you acquire, as you find it the most taxing. The reason is not all that difficult to fathom. Listening and reading require no output from you. You hear the words, you listen to the words, and either you understand them or you don’t. If you don’t, there’s no embarrassment or shame involved – it’s just one of those things. Writing, of course, does require your output, but you do have recourse to a dictionary and Google in the process, (or you can ask your big sister for help), and once the writing’s done you can go over it as many times as you want, checking, revising and rewriting.
But speaking is a different story. For one thing, once it’s said, it’s said. You have no chance to review and correct your words. (Of course you can resay your words, but that’s all a bit embarrassing.) You’ve produced some oral language, and there’s an expected result – namely the listener understands or doesn’t understand what you have said. If he or she doesn’t understand, here’s where the embarrassment factor comes into the equation. You’ll be met with a blank stare, or a ‘huh?’ or a ‘pardon?’ and then you’ve got to go through the whole thing again, with no guarantee of success this time round, or the next. Ooh, the shame of it all! I wish I’d never opened my mouth in the first place!
Think about when you learned a foreign language; about how difficult it was to say your first dozen or so utterances. It required a great deal of courage, didn’t it? And what a setback and confidence shatterer it was when no-one understood. And that’s exactly how it is with our students. EFL text books nowadays expect students to speak 30% to 45% of class time. Speaking to a partner is difficult enough, but when you are required to speak out in front of the whole class, God almighty! Am I going to stuff it up? Will my efforts be met with sniggers, or hysterical laughter even? Oh Lord, let the ground swallow me up!
I’ve experienced the same feeling myself. In a teachers’ workshop, someone drilled us in beginner-level Mandarin, then asked the ‘students’ to say a simple sentence one by one. When my turn came around I was a dry-mouthed bag of nerves.
Which is why, as a teacher, you’ve got to get your students involved in unison repetitions from day one. Unison drilling allows the students to get their mouths around the target language in near anonymity. If they stuff up, there’s no embarrassment involved; no-one’s gonna know. Some people call it choral drilling, some call it unison drilling. Whatever you call it, there’s no substitute for it.