Tony Gurr

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

In Classroom Teaching, ELT and ELL, Our Universities on 30/05/2011 at 11:39 am

I thought it was about time we got “serious” about this mini-series (and for me to tell you what actually happened to Marcus and Esca, too – see the bottom of the page if the movie is more important to you)…

A few weeks ago I met a young university student getting ready to graduate – she was so happy to have someone to “practice” her English with. I got chatting with her and asked how she had learned how to “speak” English.

She thought for a minute and said “by myself”.

Now, I knew she had been to a prestigious private high school and completed a year of university prep classes (at one of our best universities) – so I asked the “obvious” next question.

“They taught us nothing but grammar at school – and I did a year of the same in hazırlık without being asked to speak once – she had more than a slight “edge” in her voice!

She clearly “blamed” her teachers for doing so little to help her with what is the most “visible” of the language skills – and the one most widely regarded as the “step-child” of ELT here in Turkey.


As we noted in Part One of this mini-series, learning how to speak a foreign or second language is an amazingly complex task. English is tougher than most.



But, engineering is tough – as is rocket science and brain surgery – but that doesn’t mean we “avoid” them. Although the teaching and learning of “speaking” might be a serious challenge for institutions and teachers, it is certainly not brain-surgery – it is very doable!


Many institutions would also have us believe that it is the students themselves that are to blame for their own poor speaking skills; they do not want to speak, they are overly-concerned with not making mistakes (or “losing face” in front of their peers), or they just want to do grammar (to pass “the test”).

There may be more than a word of truth in these observations!

The problem is that these students have “learned” many of these behaviours and attitudes at school, from teachers…often unconsciously after years and years of exposure to the way we “do business” in our schools and universities. They have, if you will, been “created” in institutions that more often than not undervalue oral communication skills at the level of curriculum, classroom practice and assessment.

Remember also that teachers are “created” by their educational experiences, their training and the way their institutions “do business”! There’s many a teacher out there who knows what is “right” – but also blames the “system” for not being able to “do the right thing” by their learners.


Most teachers and institutions sing the praises of a skills-based, integrated language programme these days – focussed on listening, reading, writing and speaking. At a very basic level that suggests to me that 25% of our curriculum, classroom time and assessment matrices should be given over to the “step-child”.

OK, OK – we have to do some grammar and some vocabulary work, too – but again (very roughly, of course) that means speaking should get at least 16-17% of our “attention”.

Let’s be honest! How many teachers come close to these sorts of numbers in terms of how they use their GLHs?

Digging deeper! How many pages of the typical language learning curriculum are given over to learning outcomes that “balance” real-life interactions, transactions and performances?

One more! How many institutions do not even “assess” speaking in their proficiency exams (let alone use systematic processes to promote classroom-based assessment and learner self-assessment)?


It might appear, from the simple logic I used above, that the “solution” is easy – self-evident, even.

Do more “speaking”!

The problem is that improving the speaking skills of our learners is not just a “numbers game” – before we tackle the “class-scape” or “exam-scape”, we have to look at the “mindscape” of learners, teachers and institutions.

In the past (and still today), we have prioritised “grammar” and the assumption here is clearly that if we give them enough “grammar input”, they’ll be able to “speak” at some time in the “future”.

The problem is – this does NOT work and we have known this for years!

What did Einstein say about “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – insanity, pure insanity!


The student I chatted to said she had gone a whole yearwithout any serious instruction on how to speak, without any meaningful classroom speaking activities and (I would hazard a guess) without any relevant assessment or feedback on her spoken communication skills.

But, she “passed” hazırlık…and, I bet she was not alone that year!


If we are to have any success in “teaching” speaking (or facilitating its learning):

  • We have to have a decent “roadmap” for speaking
  • We have start “walking-our-talk”
  • We have to know how well we doing (and let learners know about this, too)

That having been said – what institutions need to do to redress this critical problem is actually quite simple:

  • STEP ONE – fix the curriculum!
  • STEP TWO – support your teachers in bringing more speaking into the classroom!
  • STEP THREE – assess speaking (and give learners decent feedback)!

I think we have the basis for the follow-up trilogy – watch this space!


BTW, and as promised…

Marcus (after waking up to what it’s like being a “slave” for a few days) discovered that his father had fought bravely to protect the eagle – but was murdered by the Seal People. Esca found a way to recover the golden standard – and both he and Marcus did a “runner”.

The problem was that the Seal People were all bloody marathon runners – and lasted longer than the horses Marcus and Esca used to escape. Exhausted, trapped in a dead-end and destined to re-live the fate of his daddy, Marcus decided to make his last stand but granted young Esca his “freedom”. Esca did the wise thing and left his ex-master to his fate…only to return with the sad, rag-tag remains of the Ninth Legion (the buggars who’d all done runners and left Marcus’ daddy to be sliced and diced by the Seal People). Determined to earn back their own honour and help Marcus prove his daddy was a true Roman-among-Romans…all hell broke loose in the shallow waters of a Scottish river…

You know the rest…

  1. Very good points indeed Tony!

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