Every ESL teacher working in a foreign country eventually realizes that one of the greatest obstacles facing their students is a lack of opportunities to speak English.
Often students’ reading and writing skills far outstrip their speaking and listening skills simply because they are exposed to more reading and writing than listening and speaking. There is no reason for students to speak English other than within the confines of the English classroom. This does not mean there are not opportunities outside the classroom, they are just not part of the students’ everyday life and the students have no reason to seek them out. So how can you, the teacher, make students want to seek out opportunities for speaking English outside of class? Well, you have to make it worth their while.
One great way of doing that is through challenges that must be completed outside of class. In this way, teachers can create or force students to capitalise on English speaking opportunities. Of course these mean very little if there is not a reward system in place. I have tried tying this to my classroom reward system, and I’ve tried having a separate reward system just for the challenges. My conclusion: it completely depends on the class and how the existing reward system is structured. I know of one teacher who set bars such as ‘complete five challenges and get a bonus point on your test.’ Obviously, few teachers will have the ability to start handing out bonus points for government testing, but I think you get the picture. So here are three challenge ideas for you to consider.
Challenge Your Students to Speak and Listen More
This task only really works if you have several different English speakers that you can call on to assist. Ideally, it would be a mix of teachers at your school and local business people, but if it is only teachers at your school that is fine. For teachers who are on good terms with their colleagues who do not speak English, it may be possible to have them participate by teaching them the two phrases that they need to know to respond to student queries. In this model there is room for an entire series of challenges. Everything from asking each person’s favourite colour, to what they like to eat, to getting the details about where they went last summer or why they started their business, etc. can be used as the basis for the challenge, as long as it is asked in English.
That’s all there is to this challenge. They just have to find the people, ask questions, listen, and write down the answers. Challenges like these are great early on or good to put up in the weeks before exams when students are especially busy.
This is a more complicated version of the collect information challenge. You still need participation from other people who are willing to speak English in the school and, if possible, in the community. It also takes more preparation on your part. Teachers create a set of clues that take students around the school or neighborhood to a final destination. Remember that there will be a limited amount of time for students to actually spend travelling between destinations. I tend to make the clues in the form of a riddle so that they have to put some careful thought into where to go next. Given that this scavenger hunt is something that takes place out of class, it’s probably best to keep the entire hunt to three or four clues.
How these actually work will depend in a large part on your own neighbourhood and how good of terms you are on with the local businesses. In my case, my area has a café owner who is very friendly and speaks English. I am a regular customer and he has assisted me with various projects involving my students.
Questions about an English TV Program
Wide availability of online English TV programming provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to direct their students towards more English exposure. Unfortunately, this type of activity is only a listening activity, but it can be done by any student with a good internet connection. Teachers must carefully select age appropriate shows that can be accessed in their country of residence. Korea, for example, has quite rigid rules about accessible internet content. Once solid content has been found, the teacher can create several types of questions/challenges around it. One option is to provide dialogue gap-fill exercises for specific portions of the show. This is best for low level students as it requires only listening for single words at specific intervals. Another is to ask the students specific questions about an episode. (ie. Why does [character] get angry at [character]?) This is a mid to high-level activity. It will only work if your students are capable of following and understanding conversations at native-speaker-speed. A third option is to have students draft up a summary of the episode. Be very clear in your requirements for this. Do you require a character list? A general plot summary? Specifics about relationships between characters? Make sure the students know exactly what you want.
Finally, make sure that you have watched the episode yourself. If you are going to evaluate their work, make sure you can do so accurately. Also, it’s a great excuse to watch a little TV. After all you’re working, right?
Alternative: If the students do not have access to consistent internet, the teacher can lend out copies of various TV shows in the appropriate media format. This of course means the teacher needs to create a decent library of these types of files.
A Few Notes on Delivery
There are many ways to put these challenges in front of the students. I started a blog (there are plenty of free blog sites) and posted a new challenge there each week. This kept the process completely out of regular class time. This worked for me as I only had each class once a week and posting it on a blog meant that all classes had the same amount of time to complete the task, regardless of when I actually taught those students. The downside to this was that only the advanced, enthusiastic students really got involved until the end of the term when kids were desperate to up their scores. Other options include, presenting the challenge every Monday morning. If you don’t teach all your students on Monday, you could have the school broadcast the challenge. The problem with this is that if students miss the broadcast, or don’t take notes on some of the more complex challenges, they won’t be able to complete them.
It is important to note that these things only work if the teacher keeps pushing them in class and keeps the challenges in the forefront of the students’ minds.
When I had tied my class attitude marks to my classroom reward system, I would display the students’ scores and then say things like, ‘for those of you who are struggling a bit, now might be the time to get into those classroom challenges.’ Usually, this would push a few of them into greater participation.