Teaching speaking skills to adult EFL learners
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014
Author: Assylbayeva Assel, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan
Learning to speak a foreign language
requires more than knowing its grammatical and semantic rules. Learners must
also acquire the knowledge of how native speakers use the language in the
context of structured interpersonal exchange, in which many factors interact.
Therefore, it is difficult for EFL learners, especially adults, to speak the
target language fluently and appropriately. In order to provide effective
guidance in developing competent speakers of English, it is necessary to
examine the factors affecting adult learners' oral communication, components
underlying speaking proficiency, and specific skills or strategies used in
communication. The paragraph explores these aspects so that teachers can more
effectively help adult learners develop their abilities to communicate in the
Speaking a language is especially difficult
for foreign language learners because effective oral communication requires the
ability to use the language appropriately in social interactions. Diversity in
interaction involves not only verbal communication but also paralinguistic
elements of speech such as pitch, stress, and intonation. In addition, non-linguistic
elements such as gestures and body language/posture, facial expression, and so
on may accompany speech or convey messages directly without any accompanying
speech. In addition, "there is tremendous variation cross- culturally and
cross- linguistically in the specific interpretations of gestures and body
language" (Nunan, D., 1991). Furthermore, different cultural assumptions
about the purposes of particular interactions and expected outcomes of encounters
also affect communication. Consequently, due to minimal exposure to the target
language and contact with native speakers, adult EFL learners in general are
relatively poor at spoken English, especially regarding fluency, control of idiomatic
expressions, and understanding of cultural pragmatics. Few can achieve native-like
proficiency in oral communication.
EFL learners need explicit instruction in
speaking, which as any language skill generally has to be learned and practiced.
However, in practice, it is too often assumed that spoken- language skills can
be developed simply by assigning students general topics to discuss or by
getting them to talk on certain subjects. Evidently, not enough attention is
given to the factors that inhibit or facilitate the production of spoken
language. Therefore, in order to provide guidance in developing competent
speakers of English, instructors of EFL should keep these questions in mind:
What affects adult EFL learners' oral communication? What are the components
underlying speaking effectiveness? How can adult EFL learners' speaking
abilities be improved?
The oral communication of adult EFL
learners, their interactive behavior is influenced by a number of factors. They
are age or maturational constraints, aural medium, sociocultural factors,
Perhaps age is one of the most commonly
cited determinant factors of success or failure in foreign language learning.
Krashen, Long, and Scarcella (Cross, K.P., 1981) argue that acquirers who begin
learning a foreign language in early childhood through natural exposure achieve
higher proficiency than those beginning as adults. Oyama's study also shows
that many adults fail to reach native-like proficiency in a foreign language.
Their progress seems to level off at a certain stage, a phenomenon which is usually
called "fossilization"-the permanent cessation of foreign language
development. This shows that the aging process itself may affect or limit adult
learners' ability to pronounce the target language fluently with native- like
pronunciation (Richards, Jack C., 1998). Even if they can utter words and
sentences with perfect pronunciation, problems with prosodic features such as
intonation, stress, and other phonological nuances still cause misunderstandings
or lead to communication breakdown. Adult learners do not seem to have the same
innate language-specific endowment or propensity as children for acquiring
fluency and naturalness in spoken language.
The central role of listening comprehension
in the foreign language acquisition process is now largely accepted. There is
little doubt that listening plays an extremely important role in the development
of speaking abilities. Speaking feeds on listening, which precedes it? Usually,
one person speaks, and the other responds through attending by means of the
listening process. In fact, during interaction, every speaker plays a double
role-both as a listener and a speaker. "While listening, learners must
comprehend the text by retaining information in memory, integrate it with what
follows, and continually adjust their understanding of what they hear in the
light of prior knowledge and of incoming information" (Shumin, K., 2002).
If one cannot understand what is said, one is certainly unable to respond. That
is why, speaking is closely related or interwoven with listening, which is the
basic mechanism through which the rules of language are internalized. The fleetingness
of speech, together with the features of spoken English-loosely organized
syntax, incomplete forms, false starts, and the use of fillers, undoubtedly hinders
EFL learners' comprehension and affects the development of their speaking abilities,
Many cultural characteristics of a language
also affect foreign language learning. From a pragmatic perspective, language
is a form of social action because linguistic communication occurs in the
context of structured interpersonal exchange, and meaning is thus socially regulated
(Riggenbach, H., & Lazaraton, A., 1995). In other words, "shared
values and beliefs create the traditions and social structures that bind a
community together and are expressed in their language" (Riggenbach, H.,
& Lazaraton, A., 1995). Thus, to speak a language, one must know how the
language is used in a social context. It is well known that each language has
its own rules of usage as to when, how, and to what degree a speaker may impose
a given verbal behavior on his/her conversational partner (Riggenbach, H.,
& Lazaraton, A., 1995). Due to the influence or interference of their own
cultural norms, it is hard for non-native speakers to choose the forms
appropriate to certain situations. For instance, in Chinese culture, paying a
compliment to someone obligates that person to give a negative answer such as
"No. It is not so good," and so on in order to show
"modesty," whereas in North American culture such a response might be
both inappropriate and embarrassing.
In addition, oral communication, as
mentioned above, involves a very powerful nonverbal communication system, which
sometimes contradicts the messages provided through the verbal listening
channel. Due to a lack of familiarity with the nonverbal communication system
of the target language, EFL learners usually do not know how to pick up
nonverbal cues. As a result, ignorance of the nonverbal message often leads to
misunderstanding. The following example is a case in point. One day, when a Chinese
student heard, "Let's get together for lunch sometime," he
immediately responded to fix a specific date without noticing the native
speaker's indifferent facial expression. Undoubtedly, he was puzzled when his
interlocutor left without giving him an expected answer. It is evident that the
student had not understood the nonverbal message, which illustrates that the sociocultural
factor is another aspect that affects oral communication greatly.
"The affective side of the learner is
probably one of the most important influences on language learning success or
failure" (Savignon, S. J., 1991). The affective factors related to foreign
language learning are emotions, self-esteem, empathy, anxiety, attitude, and
motivation. Foreign language learning is a complex task that is susceptible to
human anxiety (Savignon, S. J., 1991), which is associated with feelings of
uneasiness, frustration, self-doubt, and apprehension. Speaking a foreign
language in public is often anxiety-provoking. Sometimes, extreme anxiety
occurs when EFL learners become tongue-tied or lost for words in an unexpected
situation, which often leads to discouragement and a general sense of failure.
Adults, unlike children, are concerned with how they are judged by others. They
are very cautious about making errors in what they say. Clearly, the
sensitivity of adult learners to making mistakes, or fear of "losing
face," has been the explanation for their inability to speak English without
As has been mentioned earlier, the
functions of spoken language are interactional and transactional. The primary intention
of the former is to maintain social relationships, while that of the latter is
to convey information and ideas. In fact, much of our daily communication
remains interactional. Being able to interact in a language is essential.
Therefore, language instructors should provide learners with opportunities for
meaningful communicative behavior about relevant topics by using learner-learner
interaction as the key to teaching language for communication because
"communication derives essentially from interaction" (Shank, C.,
& Terrill, L., 1995).
Communication in the classroom is embedded
in meaning-focused activity. This requires teachers to tailor their instruction
carefully to the needs of adult EFL learners and teach them how to listen to
others, how to talk with others, and how to negotiate meaning in a shared
context. Out of interaction, learners will learn how to communicate verbally
and nonverbally as their language store and language skills develop. Consequently,
the give-and-take exchanges of messages will enable them to create discourse
that conveys their intentions in real-life communication.
Small talk. The ability to get along with people in society may correlate with how well a
person can engage in brief, casual conversation with others or an exchange of
pleasantries. Talk of weather, rush hour traffic, vocations, and sports events
etc., may seem "meaningless," but it functions to create a sense of
social communion among peers or other people. So, at the initial stage, adult
EFL learners should develop skills in short, interactional exchanges in which
they are required to make only one or two utterances at a time, such as:
1. A: I hate rush hour traffic. B: Me too.
2. A: Boy, the weather is lousy today. B:
Yeah. I hope it'll stop raining.
As the adult EFL learners get more
experience, they will be able to use some of the simple exchanges and know how
to open conversations.
Interactive activities. Since most EFL learners learn the target language in their own
culture, practice is available only in the classroom. That is why, a key factor
in foreign language development is the opportunity given to learners to speak
in the language-promoting interaction. Teachers must arouse in the learners a
willingness and need or reason to speak.
A possible way of stimulating learners to
talk might be to provide them with extensive exposure to authentic language
through audio-visual stimuli and with opportunities to use the language.
Likewise, teachers should integrate strategy instruction into interactive
activities, providing a wealth of information about communicative strategies to
raise learners' awareness about their own learning styles so that learners can
tailor their strategies to the requirements of learning tasks.
In designing activities, teachers should
consider all the skills conjointly as they interact with each other in natural
behavior, for in real life as in the classroom, most tasks of any complexity
involve more than one macro skill (Green, M.L., 1989). Effective interactive
activities should be manipulative, meaningful, and communicative, involving
learners in using English for a variety of communicative purposes. Specifically,
they should (1) be based on authentic or naturalistic source materials; (2)
enable learners to manipulate and practice specific features of language; (3)
allow learners to rehearse, in class, communicative skills they need in the
real world; and (4) activate psycholinguistic processes of learning.
Based on these criteria, the following
activities appear to be particularly relevant to eliciting spoken language production.
They provide learners with opportunities to learn from auditory and visual
experiences, which enable them to develop flexibility in their learning styles
and also demonstrate the optimal use of different learning strategies and
behaviors for different tasks.
1. Aural: oral activities. With careful
selection and preparation, aural materials such as news reports on the radio
will be fine-tuned to a level accessible to particular groups of learners.
These materials can be used in some productive activities as background or as
input for interaction. In practice, students are directed to listen to taped dialogues
or short passages and afterwards to act them out in different ways.
2. Visual: oral activities. Because
of the lack of opportunity in foreign language settings to interact with native
speakers, the need for exposure to many kinds of scenes, situations, and
accents as well as voices is particularly critical. This need can be met by
audiovisual materials such as appropriate films, videotapes, and soap operas.
They can provide (a) "the motivation achieved by basing lessons on attractively
informative content material; (b) the exposure to a varied range of authentic
speech, with different registers, accents, intonation, rhythms, and stresses;
and (c) language used in the context of real situations, which adds relevance
and interest to the learning process" (Knowles, M.S., 1968). While
watching, students can observe what levels of formality are appropriate or
inappropriate on given occasions. Similarly, they can notice the nonverbal
behavior and types of exclamations and fill-in expressions that are used. Also,
they can pay attention to how people initiate and sustain a conversational
exchange and how they terminate an interactive episode. Subsequent practice of
dialogues, role-playing, and dramatizations will lead to deeper learning.
Visual stimuli can be utilized in several ways as starter material for
interaction. Short pieces of films can be used to give "eyewitness"
accounts. An anecdote from a movie can be used to elicit opinion-expressing
activity. Likewise, nonverbal videos can be played to have students describe
what they have viewed. While watching, students can focus on the content and
imitate the "model's" body language. In this way students will be
placed in a variety of experiences with accompanying language. Gradually, they
will assimilate the verbal and nonverbal messages and communicate naturally.
3. Material-aided: oral activities.
Appropriate reading materials facilitated by the teacher and structured with comprehension
questions can lead to creative production in speech. Story-telling can be
prompted with cartoon-strips and sequences of pictures. Oral reports or summaries
can be produced from articles in newspapers or from some well-designed textbooks.
Similar material input such as hotel brochures can be used for making reservations;
menus can be used for making purchases in the supermarket or for ordering in a
restaurant. In fact, language input for oral activities can be derived from a
wide range of sources that form the basis for communicative tasks of one sort
or another, which will help learners deal with real situations that they are
likely to encounter in the future.
4. Culture-awareness: oral activities.
Culture plays an instrumental role in shaping speakers' communicative competence,
which is related to the appropriate use of language (e.g., how native speakers
make an apology and what kind of form the apology is to take). Generally, appropriateness
is determined by each speech community. In other words, it is defined by the
shared social and cultural conventions of a particular group of speakers.
Therefore, it is essential to recognize different sets of culturally determined
rules in communication. Just as Brown and Yule (Knowles, M.S., 1968) say,
"a great number of cultural assumptions which would be normally presupposed,
and not made explicit by native speakers, may need to be drawn explicitly to
the attention of speakers from other cultures." Cultural learning
illustrated by activities and strengthened through physical enactment will
Teachers can present situations in which
there are cultural misunderstandings that cause people to become offended, angry,
and confused. Then, thought-provoking information and questions can follow each
description or anecdote for in-class discussion. Students can be asked to analyze
and determine what went wrong and why, which will force students to think about
how people in the target culture act and perceive things, and which will
inevitably provide a deeper insight into that culture. This kind of exercise
can strike a healthy balance between the necessity of teaching the target
culture and validating the students' native culture, which will gradually
sharpen students' culture awareness.
By and large, using audiovisual stimuli
brings sight, hearing, and kinesthetic participation into interplay, which gets
students across the gulf of imagination into the "real experience" in
the first place. Meanwhile, the task-oriented activities give students a
purpose to talk. Ideally, the flexibility and adaptability of these activities
are essential if the communicative needs of learners are to be met. With the
limited time available in class, it is necessary to follow open language experiences
with more intensive structured situations, dialogues, and role-playing activities.
These will give students both the chance and confidence actually to use the
In conclusion, speaking is one of the
central elements of communication. In EFL teaching, it is an aspect that needs
special attention and instruction. In order to provide effective instruction,
it is necessary for teachers of foreign languages to carefully examine the
factors, conditions, and components that underlie speaking effectiveness. Effective
instruction derived from the careful analysis of this area, together with
sufficient language input and speech-promotion activities, will gradually help
adult EFL learners speak English fluently and appropriately.
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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014