Tony Gurr

Is SPEAKING the “lost eagle” of ELT? [Part ONE]

In Classroom Teaching, ELT and ELL on 21/04/2011 at 7:59 am

I have just finished watching “The Eagle” (I love my historical bio-pics – the “new” Ben Hur is the next on my list)!

The movie, set in 140 AD (twenty years after the disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland) is basically about a young Roman commander named Marcus Aquila (his surname is, of course, the Latin for “eagle”).

Young Marcus (who also secretly has “military ESP skills” – you have to watch the scene when he wakes up all his soldiers just seconds before the Britons “attack”) is obsessed with regaining the honour of his father (the commander of the Ninth) by finding the legion’s lost golden emblem – the Eagle – with Billy Elliot “dancing” by his side as his slave, Esca.

Now, as a “Briton” myself perhaps I should have been asking “what the hell were the Roman’s doing in our back yard anyway” – stealing our land, killing our sons and raping our daughters!

OK – we were a pretty “savage” bunch, too…

But, as I teacher – I was thinking is the “missing Eagle” a bit like the “lost” skill of “Speaking” that so many students, parents and employers are talking about these days?

Today (some) people in Turkey are so worried about the “lost ELT eagle” that we are planning to hire 40,000 new “foreign soldiers” to find it (I hope this new army do a better job than the 9th Legion – but somehow I think not)!

Just as Roman citizens often saw their little metal symbols as embodying “Rome” or the “honour of all Romans”, many second language speakers or language learners (and their “sponsors”) view “speaking” English as the measure of “knowing” the language.

Although speaking is a critical and challenging part of the language learning process, many students also regard speaking as the most important and enjoyable part of learning English.

Teachers, especially ELT teachers, know that speaking is fundamental to communication between human beings – it’s how we build relationships and its how we learn.

Many ELT teachers, especially those of the “communicative variety” that believe that language is learned by communicating, note that speaking is central to language learning. For them, every teacher should make speaking a key component of every “lesson” – at the start, in the middle and at the end of every lesson.

English language teachers have also developed complex processes to “keep students speaking” in English, such as circumlocution and “the information gap”. Most also have an armoury of cut n’ paste games and activities to keep student tongues wagging their way to proficiency.

These teachers also know about the “pitfalls of TTT” (teacher talking time – the “sin of all sins”) and do their very utmost to maximise STT (hence the use of pairwork and groupwork) and do everything they can “keep their own mouths shut” – don’t they?

Learning-by-speaking in ELL is considered so important by some language teaching institutions that languages other than English are frequently “banned” in classrooms and across whole buildings.

Despite all this, the problem is that most students, especially in Turkey, still highlight this skill as being the biggest problem in English Language Learning (ELL). We hear students saying things like “My English is really good – but I just can’t speak…

So, why can’t students speak English?

Let’s be honest – English is not the easiest of languages to learn. Many of its grammar “rules” have more exceptions than the rules themselves predict, its pronunciation is hardly something we could describe as user-friendly – and “spelling”, well just forget trying to make sense of it.

Oh, yes and now we have a whole range of “global varieties” and “Englishes” that need to be “learned”.

The bottom line is that speaking English or (one of the Englishes) remains a highly complex act (more akin to “driving a car” than “making kuru fasulye”) with many different elements that need to be brought together to facilitate effective communication:

  • Accuracy is needed – errors in grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation can hinder communication
  • Fluency is needed – too many pauses or false-starts due to hesitation can also interfere with the message
  • Knowledge of the “rules of the game” is needed – hiccups with formality, ways of interrupting speakers and inappropriate turn-taking can lead to misunderstandings
  • Understanding of “culture” is needed – we all know that fluency is not just a matter of grammar and vocabulary (remind me one day to tell you all about my wife’s first discussion on the weather – with my mother – when she was a young ELL)!

No wonder many teachers think it is just easier to present and practice “grammar”!

However, some students are held back in their speaking skills because of the way they feel, how they think or what they do (or not do) both in and out of the classroom.

A lot of students are what we could refer to as “reluctant speakers” – despite wanting to be effective in their oral skills, they are too shy or nervous to speak in English. Many of these students are scared of making mistakes or looking “silly” in front of their peers or teachers – sometimes this is the case in their native tongue, too. We can often help these speakers by providing a more supportive, caring environment or perhaps just allowing more rehersal or preparation time – before a “public appearance”.

Others could be called “ill-equipped speakers” – these students are really keen to chat away in English but do not quite have the language, vocabulary or cultural fluency levels to put into words what is going on in their heads.  These speakers often get frustrated because they just can’t express themselves and we can help them best with a bit of scaffolding, modelling and practice.

It’s also the case, especially in the classroom situation, that students become “non-speakers”. This is perhaps the least desirable situation for any teacher and is often the result of:

  • Not being “interested” in the topic or activities
  • Not feeling “connected” to the wider group (or even the teacher)
  • Not being “engaged” by the environment or wider learning opportunities

Thankfully, while this last group of students can be a serious thorn in the side of a teacher, they are often out-voted by the other groups.

There you have it – almost!

I actually have another “theory”… that I will share with you, promise!

BUT, first I want to see some comments from you all:

  • Do these explanations make sense to you?
  • Why do you think that your students do not speak?
  • What do you do to get your students to speak and how successful are you?
  • [for non-ELTers] Do you notice the same challenge with your students?

Hey, you never know – I might also tell you how Marcus Aquila and Esca “recover” the Eagle of the 9th Legion….

  1. I think one problem regarding speaking and writing skills in Turkey-or in different parts of the world is that we, teachers, do not focus on “meaning” and “usage” while we teach vocabulary and grammar particularly; rather, we deal with ” form” and usually stop the lesson at this stage feeling content that we’ve done everything we should. And, here we go: loads of students claiming that ‘ they know English very well’ but ‘cannot speak it very well’. Who could blame them? They have long vocabulary lists in their pockets, their notebooks are full of rules and formulas of language structures and they have an excellent grade from a local language exam- say a 90. In their shoes, I’d also claim that ‘my English’ is good. It’s not fair, is it? Students obviously do not know how English should be taught but WE KNOW! Teaching ‘form’only does not help them. Wasting time on exercises like ‘Rewrite the following statements by using the Passive Voice’ will not do them any good unless they know WHAT it means WHERE and HOW to use the Passive Voice. By the way, I believe nobody can compete with Turkish students when it comes the ‘golden’ Passive Voice and Indirect Speech. They can rewrite 100 statements at speed of light. However, when it is time to speak, we go loooooong back to the times of horse power. As I said before, it is not their fault! In addition to what Tony has said, we should also focus on “meaning” and “usage” to help them COMMUNICATE. After all, language is for communication, isn’t it?

  2. As you say, there’s no one reason for poor speaking skills. In Turkey, as in many countries, there is of course the problem of English teachers not being able to speak very well themselves, and the foreign army may do something to alleviate that. (I’m not sure, though, since I doubt if the Ministry of Education can afford the kind of salaries that would attract decent teachers.) What I’m more interested in, though, is why students in my classes, many of whom near-native fluency, still opt to speak Turkish whenever they can. They’ll answer a question in English if I ask them, and they’ll speak English in a fairly controlled class discussion, but put them in pairs or groups and it’s right back to Turkish. One thing I noticed is that when I take measures to make them speak English in their groups, they will at first deliberately speak in Tayyip English (“Van minüt!”) to overcome their awkwardness. It’s like the fluent ones don’t want to be seen to be showing off, and the poor speakers can disguise their lack of competence by deliberately speaking at a low level.

  3. Did it work in Korea and what has it cost them?

    There has to be a more imaginative, cheaper, better and more environmentally friendly way(both to the careers of Turkish English teachers and the ozone layer).

  4. Fantastic website. Lots of useful info here. I am sending it to some buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks to your effort!

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