Who wants to talk about things they know nothing about?
Unfortunately, that is frequently how your ESL students feel about speaking in English. They feel out of their league. They may think they don’t have the skills or experience to use spoken English, but without using it they will never gain those skills or that experience. It can be a vicious cycle. That’s why it’s so important to give your students the freedom to fail when they use spoken English. That does not mean you want them to produce failing level work. What it does mean is that you allow students to use English freely without the pressure to produce perfect language. You make a point that mistakes are a part of learning, and you expect them from your students. That includes mistakes in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Set that standard with your students. Then, hopefully, they will feel less pressure for perfection when they talk. And once they have that correct attitude in place, you can use the following tools to help them use spoken English and improve it.
5 Must-Have Tools for Improving Spoken English
Student Smart Phones
Undoubtedly, your classroom is full of technology even if there is not a computer or projector in sight. Often the most advanced technology is right in your students’ pockets in the form of their phones. Having a smart phone is like walking around with an entire computer in your pocket, and the best ESL teachers will take advantage of this tool that doesn’t cost them a dime. Have your students use their phones to record themselves during a speaking activity. You might have one person record another in a group discussion. Or you might have one student record himself while reading a dialogue or answering questions orally. After students record themselves, have them go back and watch their videos. If possible, give them a rubric or checklist of the skills you want them to measure in their video. Since students will view and assess their own videos, they can be brutally honest, and you should encourage them to be so. And if you want them to be even more honest, assure them that you won’t take their own assessment into consideration if and when you grade them on the speaking project.
Have your students use their phones to record themselves during a speaking activity.
Recordings and Transcripts
How well does your students’ pronunciation approach that of a native speaker? They may find out for themselves when you have recordings and transcripts available them to practice with. Many websites for ESL students have videos and corresponding transcripts free for classroom use. Try making the materials available in your own classroom for your students during independent work time. Have students listen to a line of the video and then repeat it, reading off the transcript. As students work their way through the video and the transcript, they will find their speaking skills approaching that of the speaker on the recording.
Of course your students listen to you all of the time (though like any good ESL teacher you try and limit your talk time and increase your students’ talk time). But are you using one of the best resources for pronunciation improvement at your disposal – other native speakers? If your school allows, invite other people into your classroom to come and talk to your students. Ask around or send out a general invitation on social media. You might be surprised just how many friends and acquaintances are willing to come spend an hour with your students and give them a little sample of their spoken English. Have your visitors come and talk about a topic you will be teaching in class, about their job, about their family, or just sit and chat with your students. Listening to other voices and accents will benefit your students as they seek to have good English pronunciation (not to mention increase their listening comprehension skills).
Skype and/or Facetime
You don’t have to invite other people to your classroom to give your students the benefits of talking to native speakers, and if you teach overseas you might not have the resources to do it, either. Instead, team up with some volunteers or a class of English speakers overseas and set up some time for video chatting through Skype, Facetime, or another program. This way, your students can have conversation partners without anyone having to move away from their desks. Both classes will benefit, and your students’ pronunciation will improve by simply hearing and speaking with native speakers. And this is another opportunity when your students’ smart phones will be a great resource in class.
The Phonetic Alphabet
Do you know the phonetic alphabet? If not, you should learn it. And once you do, you should teach it to your students. English spelling is mediocre at best. If you know the rules of spelling and the pronunciation that goes with them, that doesn’t mean you’ll know how to pronounce a word when you encounter it for the first time. In fact, knowing phonics and spelling rules can be little to no help when you encounter spellings such as “ough” which has eight different pronunciations associated with it! Instead, teach your students the phonetic alphabet. This international system of delineating pronunciation associates each sound with a specific symbol. One symbol to one sound. That’s all you get. So when you write out new (or even old) words using the phonetic alphabet, it is clear to your students exactly how that word should be pronounced. When you teach new vocabulary, have students write down the spelling as well as the phonetic transcription and they will learn not only what the words mean but also how to say them. This is also a great tool for pointing out the difference in what students are actually saying as opposed to how native speakers say the same things.
The best teachers are eager to use every tool at their disposal to help their students learn, and I am sure you are no exception.
These great pronunciation tools are probably right under your nose, and if you aren’t using them in the classroom, you should consider it. They may be just the thing your students need to take their English pronunciation from so-so to stellar.
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