rethinking oral English

alley-carsummer in Chengdu – alley

I made a mistake recently:  I tried to “teach” question forms and vocabulary in my Oral English class.  I knew shortly after I began the lesson, presenting one carefully-prepared PowerPoint slide after another, that I was on the wrong track.  For one thing, my explanations weren’t well thought-out or very clear; it was a mish-mash of the “W” question words everyone knows (who, what, when, where, why, which) and general guidelines for how to request information in English in both basic and polite forms.  It was a yawn.  My students’ eyes began to glaze over, and I realized that I was boring myself with my own lesson.

What went wrong?  First of all, it was a Monday morning. I remarked to my students, “You look tired today.”  They did; they are mostly engineers for a Chinese company, required to attend a month of English classes for 42 class periods a week.  They only have one free day, Sunday.  Second, I teach two groups of 38 students, a huge class size for an oral or conversation class.

Shortly after I left class, after returning the laptop computer and remote control for the projector to the A.V. department, I decided to rethink my entire approach to teaching Oral English.

In 5 years of teaching in China, I’ve begun to wonder if you can “teach” speaking.  Many of my classes have been geared toward test preparation, which means drilling students in vocabulary and sample responses for oral exams.  This may help students to pass exams, but it does little to prepare them for real-life speaking.

When I ask my students how much actual speaking practice they’ve had in previous English classes, most say “none.”  I figured that the best thing I could do for them was to give them as much English speaking time in each class as possible.  For my 10-periods-a-week classes, if I could have the students speaking for, say, 75% of each class, that would mean about 5 1/2 hours each week of speaking practice.  That sounded much better to me than loading them down with more vocabulary and teacher instruction; they were getting enough of that from their other classes.

For the next class, I brought enough group and partner activities to occupy 4 class periods – partner dictation, group brainstorming, role plays, even a listen-and-write dictation contest at the blackboard, in which students tried to “stump” each other with difficult sentences.  The students got a lot of speaking time, seemed more alert, and they enjoyed some of the activities.  Another result, though, was that I was giving up my “teacher” role for that of a ”moderator.”  The students took more charge of their activities, which was good, but I found that I had less to do.  I was also reminded how difficult it is to monitor conversations in a class of 30+ students.  I simply can’t hear what they’re saying with everyone talking at once.

There are always trade-offs and compromises in teaching.  On the last class day of the month-long intensive English instruction, I’d promised my students a movie day.  We had two movies playing simultaneously – a Vin Diesel action film on the movie screen, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation on the TV with the DVD player.  Somehow or other the students managed to “tune in” to one or the other, but it’s all a jumble of noise to me.  Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what a class full of students all speaking English at the same time sounds like.