There is some debate between teachers and even researchers that one way of teacher speech is better than others. Some propose not changing your speech rate, clarity, structure, or vocabulary, believing that learners need to hear real English speaking to improve. They consider this more of a natural way of language teaching.
Others say that students need to hear clear, slowed, conventional, understandable teacher speech to follow along and pick up the language. This is what we could call a more nurturing method of language teaching. In our blog today, we’ll discuss both sides of the discussion and in the end, you’ll have a better idea that works best for you and your learners.
A natural manner of speaking is pretty much what you do every day with friends, family, and even strangers. It’s what we might refer to as native speech. The emphasis is often not on clarity, diction, perfect grammar, or necessarily advanced vocabulary, but on everyday, natural communication between English speakers. That could be in the form of slang, rhythmic intonation, or modified conventional grammar structures (e.g. Instead of How are you? Saying, How you doin?). The idea for using this speech when teaching ESL lessons is demonstrating natural English speaking. However, there are both pros and cons to this method.
True, learners are being exposed to speech that’s more in-line with what they might encounter outside the classroom. This helps students become more capable of interacting with people in English language environments. In that sense, teachers who favor this style of speaking in class believe they’re preparing learners for the real world.
An additional benefit is that learners from this type of teacher speech may tend to have more natural intonation. Their speech may become more rhythmic and flowing. Perhaps, in time, and within various contexts, they pick up this sound by being exposed to it. And this will likely give them advantages over mechanical, proper, telegraphic speech.
On the other hand, before embarking on a strictly natural speaking method of lesson delivery, you might want to consider the answers to the following questions: How well does this facilitate language acquisition? Can my students understand what I’m saying? Moreover, how effective would this be for lower-level learners? Would it serve to turn them off from the language—discourage them? Indeed, natural, free-flowing teacher speech can be helpful for higher-level learners, but what might it do to beginners? How you answer these questions might reveal a few cons if you favor a natural method of speaking.
A nurturing manner of teacher speaking involves slowing your speech and being sure to integrate diction. That means enunciating your consonant sounds and articulating your vowels sounds. It doesn’t always come across as natural, but it results in clearer, more conventional speech for learners to follow. We’ll discuss the pros and cons below, starting with the cons.
The biggest argument against slowed and enunciated speech is that it’s not natural. Those who oppose efforts to be clear in oral communication lessons say that real people don’t speak like that. So, why should the teacher? Why teach learners in that way if when they leave the classroom, they won’t be able to understand the natural oral communications of natural English speakers? An additional argument against nurtured teacher speech is that it might tend to result in learner intonation sounding mechanical and unnatural. Furthermore, use of perfect grammar is not always perfect. Just listen to a few native speakers talking and you’ll realize that.
On the other hand, proponents for slowed and conventional speech say that being intelligible is the priority. They say learners must be able to understand instructions to learn. Specifically, at lower levels, nurtured teacher speech is foundational for them to gain basic spoken English language skills. Quite simply, they must be able to produce rudimentary sounds and statements before moving on to advanced levels. The question on their minds may be: How can a learner acquire a language that is unintelligible to them? Even learners at higher levels have trouble comprehending full-blown natural speech at times.
Another school of thought suggests a more balanced approach. For example, when learners are at lower levels, you can use slowed, articulated, and enunciated speech along with common grammar structures and high frequency vocabulary. As they progress, adjust your speech rate, intonation, structure, and vocabulary to reflect consistently advancing levels of naturalness. That’s why I prefer using a more gradated approach—it’s win-win.
What Do Students Want?
Of the thousands of students I’ve encountered over a 16-year career thus far, I’d have to say that the majority of students prefer being able to understand their teachers. They come to class wanting to learn. In so doing, they want to be able to understand what the teacher is saying. Understanding the words spoken, the vocabulary, and the grammar structures used can encourage them, helping them feel they’ve accomplished something. Imagine if you went to a class and the teacher was unintelligible to you—you wouldn’t feel like it was a very productive class, would you?
What Do Students Need?
In language classrooms, the teacher has to discover individual learner concerns. And there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The answer to this question must come from you and the student. It depends on the learning environment, the targets of the learners, and the skills and limitations of the learners. I’ve encountered lower-level learners who wanted me to speak at a natural rate and sound yet could not understand me. In fact, much of what I said had to be typed. So, simply asking what a student wants does not always solve the riddle. As a teacher, you have to make the most informed decisions that will lead your learners to their goals.
What Is Best?
When deciding which method mentioned above you should use, try answering the following questions:
1) Can your students understand you?
2) Does your speech promote language acquisition or retard it?
3) What manner of speaking will help your learners improve and help them toward reaching their English language goals?
4) Would starting with slowed and clear speech then working your way toward more normal speech more efficiently facilitate language learning?
5) Does your speech intimidate your students or encourage them?
As the teacher, it’s your call, but these questions can help you make right choices. Add them to what we’ve discussed above, and you’ll have a much better idea of where you should be beginning and working toward.
What Do You Think?
As you can tell, there’s no cut and dry answer here. A lot of it’s relative to the situation and the learners. But, we’ve given you some things to consider. So, it’s time for you to sort through them and decide which way you think is best.
Please share your experiences and challenges with teaching speech. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.
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