Oral Language

The main goal in teaching oral language —listening and speaking— is to help students to communicate effectively. Many newcomers need to first understand the social rules and culture of the new language being acquired. For instance, they must learn the proper grammar, “social graces,” interactions with others, and methods of manipulating the language to clarify meaning and get the point across. Language learners have several common problems when first developing oral language:

The process of becoming competent in the different aspects of the language usually takes a number of years. For instance, grammatical errors should be viewed as a natural part of language development. The students are making attempts and experimenting with the language. It is important that the instructors appreciate and support their efforts. Pointing out every mistake will impact the learner negatively and he/she will not be willing to take risks. The idea is to concentrate on getting the basic meaning across, not on the form (that would only hinder a student’s progress). In the beginning stages of language acquisition, indirect error correction is preferred to direct error correction. A good way of correcting indirectly is by repeating or answering using the proper form instead of making comments such as “that is wrong” or “we don’t say it like this”.

Another common problem area orally for language learners is pronunciation. The main focus for teaching pronunciation is for the student to be able to communicate and be understood. The student must be able to get the meaning across accurately through proper pronunciation of words. Several challenges that fall under this category include; 1) the language learner may hear only one sound when we hear two, 2) he / she may be working with different dialects within a language, 3) and he / she may not understand the stress and pitch in the English language (may sound excited or angry when speaking the English language when he/she doesn’t mean to at all). At the beginning stages correct pronunciation should not be the focus, instead vocabulary development is the most important goal!

Similarly to when we acquire our first language, it is common for students to go through different stages of oral language acquisition. Many of them start at the silent stage. By using effective teaching strategies and activities, the student will progress through the next stages of oral proficiency. In the meantime, it is important to keep them involved and interacting, and allow plenty of opportunities for them to express themselves in various ways. The idea is to keep the affective filter (level of anxiety) low for the students to feel comfortable in their environment so they can take chances and begin speaking. DON”T FORCE THEM TO SPEAK IF THEY ARE NOT READY. BE PATIENT! Remember, at the beginning stages, you as the teacher will do most of the work, so you must provide comprehensible input to help the students understand the new vocabulary.

It is essential that someone assess the students’ listening and speaking proficiency and abilities. It is important to note the learners’ prior education, age, personality, societal attitudes towards them and their culture, classroom climate, and native language, because these are also factors that affects language acquisition.

When testing for listening comprehension:

  • Use real objects rather than pictures whenever possible, but use photographs rather than drawings. Photographs are easier to connect to real life than drawings, which can be fairly abstract as well. Remember that you are testing for the students’ understanding in the second language, so the responses do not need to include them producing speech or talk. Show them, prior to testing formally or informally, examples of how you can “point to” (by using gestures) or “nod” to indicate yes or no. In this way, you can ask them “is this a man or a woman” and they can just nod “yes” or “no” to demonstrate comprehension.
  • Ask questions that assess one item at a time. For instance, if you ask the student to “point to the door” to test if the student knows the word “door” you need to ensure he/she knows what “point to” means first. Otherwise you will no be sure if he could not do it due to the lack of concept of “point to” to begin with …
  • Use simple sentences, simple commands, and stories with the student during the the first part of the assessment and gradually increase the difficulty. Click here for a more detailed list of commands and questions to assess the different proficiency levels.