It has been argued – with good reason one might add – that of all four skills involved in foreign language learning, the hardest to achieve yet the most rewarding is speaking the language in question. Being an FL student myself this year, taking my B2 exams in Spanish shortly, I’ve put my self in my students’ shoes and gained some empathy as to why the speaking exam is so daunting. I’d like to share some thoughts on how we can make it easier on ourselves (whether we are students or teachers).
By Katerina Tsiakmaki, Teacher of English
I’ve always thought of the B2 level as an important milestone in the language acquisition process. The learner starts producing language more freely and they need encouragement to practise English outside the classroom, unaided by the teacher’s guidance. And here is where the difficulty lies: most learners of that level aren’t confident enough to take this step. They feel they lack the structural knowledge and vocabulary to make themselves understood, despite the fact that they‘ve been taught all the structures and tons of vocabulary for years on end. So why should they be so self-conscious when it comes to putting what they’ve learned into practice? There is a number of factors that are to blame for this inconsistence.
English is a difficult language due to its range of vocabulary and its versatility. B2 learners, more often than not, report that their level is not high enough for spontaneous production and they don’t have a fixed set of grammar rules to fall back on when communication becomes challenging. It’s natural for learners to lack confidence at this stage, seeing as they are asked to perform demanding oral tasks that they’re actually tackling for the first time.
Productive skills (speaking / writing) are always harder to acquire than receptive skills (reading / listening). And speaking is even more difficult than writing as it entails spontaneous responses in a variety of interpersonal communication settings where the speaker does not have the ability to reflect on and correct possible mistakes as is the case with writing.
Methodological rigidity is another impediment. Exaggerating the importance of reading and writing as well as going over drill after drill in order to perfect structure and grammar can make the process of learning ineffective in that it fails to provide the learner with the confidence it takes to actually communicate. A problem usually faced is that students are quite suddenly asked to produce language when their B2 exams are approaching without adequate practice in former learning stages, which leads to their feeling silly and diffident when they practise. The communicative language approach has backfired too when it comes to speaking. Constantly nagging students to use the FL feels unnatural and contrived. Mother-tongue interference is spontaneous at this level and sometimes learners lack the patience it takes to narrate or recite something that will take forever in the FL.
The classroom is an artificial environment for someone to communicate in, especially when this communication has to take place between students sharing the same L1.
All these factors combined make for timid students and desperate teachers, especially as the exam dates approach (I’m finding myself in both the above-described positions this school year – lucky me!). So what can we do to boost our students’ confidence?
I would start with reminding myself what we shouldn’t do: we shouldn’t focus on exam-based tasks that are repeated until we die of boredom. Another mistake that we should avoid at all costs is to place too much importance on form over matter. Language is about communicating, not about producing perfectly structured utterances – which is an unattainable goal at B2 level anyway. We can’t have learners worry about error correction as they speak. They need to be encouraged to interact without being concerned about grammar, to be themselves and perceive the task of producing language as a fun activity.
Ideally, learners have been immersed in English right from the start and they have been given ample opportunity to practise speaking along with general learner motivation, positive feedback and appropriate incentives. If the case is such, then it is highly conceivable that they will not face difficulties in naturally producing speech. However, more often than not, we know that students aren’t given the chance to grow confident in speaking.
It’s never too late though. Even with the exams approaching there is still time for practice. Because the keyword is practice practice practice. Massive, consistent practice. And the good news for learners of English is that the language is literally everywhere. So here are some tips on perfecting our speaking skills:
Listen. Listen to songs, movies, series. The two skills are closely connected. Learners can not enhance their speaking skills if they don’t develop listening ability. And if the students aren’t adequately motivated to do so on their own, then let’s do it in class. Save some time to go over the lyrics of a song, or watch an episode of a series with our students. It’s much more effective than a “speaking lesson” in itself. Actually, in my book, there is no such thing as a “speaking lesson”. Speaking should be interwoven into the course of the lesson so as to come naturally. And let’s not forget: we need our students’ help in the choice of authentic material we use. After all, it’s them we need to keep interested.
Talk about pictures. Not exam oriented pictures. Any sort of pictures. From the internet, magazines, the students’ vacations, you name it. Talk about them, the story behind them, move away from the tedious “compare and contrast” activity.
Set a movie as homework. Have the students watch it with English subtitles and ask them to present it in class. Make a team of “film experts” and review it orally. Create a debate task between those who liked it and the ones who didn’t enjoy it.
Read an article online and comment on it in class.
Hang out with English speaking friends (even if those are English classmates). In this way we promote bonding and a number of life skills, not just speaking. Connect online with students from other language schools worldwide. It helps to share experiences with people who are on the same boat.
Put together a number of ready-made phrases and prepare your pause-fillers. These will come in handy when the learner feels they’re cornered and need some instant support to get them going again.
To sum up, it is important to see speaking (regardless of level or exam orientation) as a means of effective communication. Possibilities to perfect our English are virtually unlimited. Let’s take a step back from rigid instruction, take English out of the classroom and offer our students the opportunity to develop into confident effective speakers.