I have just come out of my regular class and I am struck once again by how hard speaking and listening are for some of our learners. I used to think that if they worked hard on getting the words in the right order, with an understanding of context, using the right words pronounced as clearly as possible, then they would be close to holding a conversation. The problem is that communication is not just the sum of the various parts – grammar, vocabulary, function and pronunciation – it is more complex than that.
The speaking skills we have in our own language allow us to anticipate what someone is going to say, repeat and rephrase in order to seek clarification, contradict or take the conversation off in a different direction, articulate a new idea or something recently read or heard, make comments and even jokes, and many other things. We take turns to lead, encourage reactions, tease out responses, come to an agreement or agree to disagree in many different shades and nuances. How can we get our learners to do this? This is a life skill as much as a language skill.
One way might be to encourage them to have their own ideas, to exchange them with others, to use language in a truly authentic way which achieves a set goal. It seems to me that project-based learning might well be a vehicle for this sort of learning. It requires time and motivation, but once your learners are engaged with a project they have a very real need to communicate, to exchange information and opinions, decide on actions and allocate tasks all with the aim of producing something concrete, whether in the form of a poster, a video, a presentation or a printed document. In this issue we have a number of articles based around such projects which I think you will find useful.
With my own classes I have been trying out more and more short-term projects, ranging from visits to local attractions followed by reports, presentations on famous New Zealanders or research into topics such as water, food or the planet. What I have found is that getting the right topic counts for 90% of learner engagement. The more influence the learners have over a project, the better they will be involved.
When it comes to monitoring their discussions and conversations, one thing I have been trying to raise their awareness of, is the logic required within communication. Filming their conversations and playing back to them shows them how many times there is a choice of direction to take and how important it is to make the right choice. We all reach brick walls in conversations but usually having attempted a wide range of workarounds. Filming also highlights how often learners don’t fully understand each other and how important strategies like asking for examples or clarification or simple repetition are useful. Listening to each other is a key part of our syllabus and helping students hone those skills is an important part of our classes.
Carrying on from the theme of our last issue we have more articles based around classroom research and I am also delighted to see two pieces about a really important part of what we do, teaching English to refugees. I am also pleased to publish articles by a number of new writers and to see the gender balance is well maintained. I am just coming into spring down here in New Zealand but whichever season you are in, I hope your teaching is going well and the magazine will give you a few new ideas to think about, discuss with your colleagues and even try out.
Editor: Robert McLarty
Robert McLarty has been involved in Business English teaching since 1979. He is a teacher and teacher trainer, and has run a number of RSA Diploma and teacher-training courses. From 1986 to 1997, Robert was the Director of ILC Paris. In 1998 he moved to Oxford to run OISE Oxford and in 2004 he joined Oxford University Press' ELT Division as Publishing Manager, Business English.
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