Tony Gurr

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

In Classroom Teaching, ELT and ELL, Uncategorized on 22/04/2011 at 12:34 pm

So, where were we?

NO…the “movie” first!


…Young Marcus, after saving the Roman garrison and being horribly injured, is given an honourable discharge. This only fuels his obsession to locate and return the lost eagle standard to Rome. He takes his British slave, Esca (who happens to be the son of the chief of the Brigantes – a tribe that actually “took on” Marcus’ dad back in the day) on a “hunt” –  past “Vallo di Adriano” and into the wilderness of northern Britannia (Scotland).

On their “journey” an interesting “swap” takes place – you know “master becomes slave, slave becomes master” (an important lesson for us all) – and Marcus begins to understand that the Ninth Legion (and his daddy) were slowly picked off and butchered by the savage Northern tribes, the Brigantes and the vicious Seal People.

Ahh, the power Hollywood has to manipulate our emotionsBut, is “the Eagle” lost forever?


In Part One, we suggested that “speaking” often loses the “learning fight” to the “Too-Difficult-Tribe” – English is a tough language to learn.

We also noted that this important skill also gets beaten down by other tribesthe reluctant speakers, the ill-equipped speakers and the non-speakers (who are almost as “savage” as the Seal People).

But, is that the “whole” story? …And, what really happened to Marcus’ dad?


Sorry, guys! I need a few more comments…before we get to that!

Yes, I am that “mean”…try the question at the top of the post.


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  1. Speaking is like learning to swim – the more you do it, the better you become. Unfortunately most teachers in my locality don’t understand this; they’d rather pursue the ‘easier’ option of teaching grammar. The categories you use – reluctant speakers, non-speakers, etc – can best be used to describe the teachers rather than the learners. The only way to reform this is to put a moratorium on grammar teaching & make people speak, but there’s as much likelihood of this happening as me winning the National Lottery tonight.

    • Laurence – there is more than a word of truth in there. The other thing is that, as teachers, we very often on “practicing” speaking skills – without doing much “teaching”. If this “practice” is not linked to the very real needs of students – it does not produce any real results 🙂

  2. I think there are context specific challenges in teaching speaking as well as common challenges we all experience. In the context I teach, an intensive English program in an English medium university in Turkey, we focus mainly on oral presentations and group discussions in our program as these are the skills university students need the most to participate in their classes in their departments. My experience is that teaching speaking objectives/competences/(sub)skills are generally much easier,more
    straightforward and more definable compared to creating a culture in which the members (in this case students)feel comfortable and have the confidence and the skills to do research to base their opinions and arguments on, analyze data and turn into knowledge to put in in a meaningul context to present, read and listen to counter-arguments of others and respond to it objectively. Therefore, speaking, probably like any other skill, requires the mastery of a set of cognitive and affective (and cultural)enabling competences in an academic context.I do agree with the previous comment on the importance of practice but I also think that it is our responsibility to create a learning environment (especially if it’s a univeristy)where students
    need and are encouraged to speak to express who they are (their ideas, their friends’ ideas,their feelings, arguments, agreements, disagreements,etc).I don’t know if this is a generalizable challenge but at least in our context I believe that our students’ performance in speaking says a lot about the culture we establish in the learning environment we create. So the main question I’d like to ask myself is ‘Do we create an academic environment where our students genuinely need to speak to be an active member of the society they live in?’

    • Aybike – totally agree! The issue of the “culture” of an organisation is critical – for me, the quality of speaking (learning of – by students) is really about the teachers, the students, the curriculum and the mode of assessment. All of these are determined by the “type” of organisational culture – one “creates” the other, one “feeds” off the other (maybe “nurtures” is a better word). We cannot realise improvements in the quality of student speaking skills without addressing the “culture” in which these skills are being improved 🙂

  3. “You hear a lot by listening,” said American Baseball player and manager Yogi Berra.

    We learn to speak another language by listening, the same way as babies do in their native language. Unfortunately, the crowded classroom is not conducive to this, as there are so many distractions. Also, teachers, because of time pressure and plain impatience, often finish the sentences for struggling students, and do not take the time to correct speaking errors.

    Can we “Teach” speaking…I don’t think so, but we can “Learn” to speak. but the burden is primarily on the student, who needs to be motivated and tenacious. For those who do not have access to a native speaking environment, which are most students. the cliches of listening to the news, watching films, etc, is a solution, but it must be an active process. listen, repeat, listen, repeat. paraphrase.

    Audio books help a great deal. Use the native speaker as a model, and repeat. Of course, this has nothing to do with the spontaneous speaking that we aim for, but, it is a very good start.

    Go to a native speaking country for a holiday. Does two weeks in England really cost that much more than two weeks in Bodrum? Isn’t the investment worth it? A couple of weeks of day to day living, shopping, observing, asking and getting directions is invaluable. But, go alone, or with a non-Turkish speaking friend. Immerse yourself. For a couple of week, take the plunge and get out there. alone and free, without the crutch of your friends and family.

    Be brave, self motivate, be determined, and it will come.

    • …so many sub questions to answer before we can say whether we can ‘teach speaking’ or not, because in some cases we can, and in some we can’t. Fo example: Why will they speak? Who will they speak to? Is it natural for them to speak to their audience in a foreign language – in our case English? How sophisticated is their topic and will their reference be sufficient to express themselves? How much instant translation do they do – how much does the mother tongue prevent them from speaking naturally?

      In my experience a) with highly educated,high IQ adults and b)with low learning capacity adults, I have noticed similar patterns: basic mistakes are very deep-rooted and it is very difficult to undo them. They will insist on formulating sentences like in their own language.

      How much of this do we allow?

      By the way, how well is English spoken by native speakers these days?????

      • Pinar – love the last question 🙂 It seems native speakers can get away with “murder” on grammar, false starts, just “making up words” – and no one notices 🙂

  4. Answer to question: Yes

    Evidence: http://englishoutthere.com/listen

    Process: Teach in class using ‘certain’ tried and tested (but flexible) materials. Do controlled practice. Practice online in class or as homework. Record, save as MP3s. Listen again. Post best one as assignment to teacher.

    Any questions? 🙂

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