In my first year of teaching I taught a class made up of 80% ESL (English as a second language) students. I wasn’t a trained ESL teacher – there were pullout “specialists” for that, but still the onus of their success was on me. I remember Daisy, the most eager to please “Daisy practically glowing as she showed me her story about losing a tooth.”student, practically glowing as she showed me her story about losing a tooth. Then I remember that same girl, in the same class, with the same (amazing!) teacher, not five minutes later. We were sitting in the meeting circle and I had asked her a question about the weather. The exercise was intended to encourage students to practice speaking in English. However, for Daisy, my little overachiever, this was her nightmare. Her face flushed, eyes locked on the carpet, trying to mumble enough so that I would leave her alone.
Is that it? Is it this moment, out of her entire year with me, that she remembers? With all my good intentions, trying to get her to practice speaking in English may have had a horribly negative impact.
Of course public speaking is known to be the biggest fear in 25% of people. And students are PEOPLE! How did I miss this key point? Yes, that was the curriculum – to teach students how to communicate correctly in English. But encouraging students to speak in front of the class and then layering that with a second language… I must have unintentionally caused a lot of heartache.
This dilemma, how to get students to be successful and confident English speakers, still haunts me today. What is the best way?
First of all, as exemplified by Daisy, teaching spoken English is riddled with complications. The question/answer sessions targeted some students, some of the time. In my class of 22, how many students were participating? It certainly wasn’t a majority. Those that didn’t want to join in didn’t get much practice. As for the conversation, it was random. I couldn’t record each student’s answer to review later. I couldn’t stop the class at each sentence until Jorge said the word “cat” correctly. And if I did correct a student’s pronunciation, did I embarrass him? Was I just correcting random words that I happened to notice out of reflex? It’s not like I could allot time for each student to practice until they got it right.
Teaching English is broken down into four core subjects – reading, writing, comprehension and speech. Although verbal communication is crucial to interpersonal relationships, ESL curriculums are unable to focus on speaking for just these reasons.
1. Time – a teacher just can’t get to everyone. Even a one-on-one lesson does not mean a student will have sufficient time to practice and improve.
2. Assessment – coupled with time, documenting a student’s speaking improvement in an empirical way (such as is done with other subjects) to instill confidence and goals, is not done. Vocabulary might be checked, but making sure the student feels confident saying the word “cat” and not “cot” is often overlooked.
3. Practice - Of course learning to speak English must come with a lesson, but typically there is not enough time for sufficient practice to master pronunciation.
4. Embarrassment – even on a 1:1 setting, students still feel pressure to perform and are embarrassed if they have to keep trying. Many students have confessed to me that they say specific sentences to avoid using particular words they are scared to say, because they could be heard as something else (such as “beach”).
5. Randomness – Research shows that connected learning forces the learned material into long-term memory. Even with an amazing lesson plan, teachers have a hard time restraining themselves to not “jump in” with random corrections. While this is interesting, it disrupts the chain of connected learning that happens when only one task is focused on at a time.
Of course, this is the part where I actually DO get to be “This technology is a ‘safe space’ virtual platform.”Michelle and have the perfect answer to all of these problems and save all of my students.
A now older and wiser (and in-the-future me) realizes that technology is the answer. All of the teachers’ dilemmas towards speaking English can be solved as simply as asking Siri to look up the weather.
Voice recognition and artificial intelligence technology
Siri can tell you it’ is raining just by verbally asking. Automated voice answering services can put you in touch with your colleague. Responsive technology is the answer.
According to academic research on Public Speaking Anxiety, many language learners would be well advised to heed the experts and search for a private, virtual environment as a ‘safe place’ to practice speaking English. A virtual platform is a practice environment, without judgment, where users gain confidence without the external pressures of impressing people or fears of sounding stupid. (Al-Seghayer, K. (2001). The effect of multimedia annotation modes on L2 vocabulary acquisition: a comparative study. http://llt.msu.edu/vol5num1/alseghayer/default.html)
Voice recognition technology is already out there. It’s already a “safe space” virtual platform, where students can interact with a computer and get real time personal feedback on their speech. Today’s technology can unlock the barriers facing both students and teachers.
Thanks to technology, students can practice – without fear and embarrassment – when they want. They can receive immediate feedback every time they speak. Focused lessons can fast-track success as part of a guided, overall plan. Students can perfect one pronunciation skill at a time, improving their confidence.
Voice recognition algorithms have been successfully attuned to the intricacies of speaking English. Today, students have the perfect safe place to practice English speech. Kids love to use technology so giving them a technology tool that is fun and overcomes a huge learning concern is a smart idea.
It’s time that we speak up for spoken language improvements! Take a look into what voice-recognition technology is available for your school, and let’s get students talking.
Do you use voice-recognition technology in your school? Let us know below.