Why Don't My ESOL Students Speak?

After years of struggling to get more than a basic response from learners, I was beginning to wonder if perhaps the problem was not that they didn't want to speak; the trouble was, they didn't know what to say.

It was not until I started studying for my degree (yes, I did everything backwards - job first, degree later) that I realised just how simple, and how complicated, a conversation could be. 

Conversation analysis was a component in my English Language and Literature degree. Once I understood the ideas of function and form in speech, I could adapt these ideas to my teaching. This meant looking at speaking exercises from a different perspective; in terms of structures, rather than words or phrases. In other words, by showing them how to build a conversation. (I often use the analogy of words and phrases as bricks, and monologues or dialogues as walls, floor, and roof of a house)

For example, with new groups or student, we often begin by asking 'Where are you from?', which usually elicits the standard response 'I am from Poland' (I began my teaching career there - more of that, perhaps, in later blog posts), which may be correct English, but it's hardly a fascinating opening to a pleasant chat.

So, to help students offer a better response, I developed a flow-chart-style diagram to show how this could be extended into something not only more interesting, but also more natural. (The diagram is available on the bookstore page)

By following the diagram, the students were able to develop the basic response 'I am from Poland' into 'I am from Poland (basic fact) I live in Gdansk (general fact) It's a big city (specific fact, article + adjective + noun) in the north of Poland (specific location, fixed expression 'in the X of Y) It's a nice place to live (positive opinion) because it's near the sea (justification, conjunction, preposition of place) but there are a lot of tourists in the summer (negative opinion (balanced response), there are + plural noun, fixed expression ' in the + season).

I have used this technique many times and I can honestly say it works. Students love it because they can see genuine improvement in their spoken English in a matter of a few minutes.

Approaching language learning and teaching through structure and function, not words, phrases and sentences, has definitely helped me to help my students to go beyond the basic response by showing them what to say, and  how to put it all together.