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Why ELLs—and Other Students—Need Practice Speaking


Particularly at the secondary level, it's not second nature for teachers to systematically teach oral language in their classrooms, educators told me recently at a conference hosted by the National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English-Language Learners, or CREATE.

Secondary-level teachers are trained to get across content to their students, they said.

Researchers at the conference presented findings that show that English-language learners, and other students with weak verbal skills, benefit from oral language. I write about these findings in an article that was just published at edweek.org. They stressed that the teaching of oral language in the classroom helps students to improve their vocabulary and background knowledge, which helps to enhance reading comprehension.


Great topic. It's been my experience that many teachers move between two extremes-some teach mainly oral language and not enough reading/writing, while others tend to focus on reading/writing and not enough oral language. ELLs need a balance of all four language domains to be proficient in English. Unfortunately though, at the secondary level, sometimes teachers are so strapped for time because they have their students for less than an hour each day and oral language might be the first thing they throw out in order to cover all the information that they are required to cover.

I agree that developing oral language skills are important and if you know how to say it, it is easier to write. At the same time, don't forget that Stephen Krashen has found that speaking isn't as important as developing comprehensible listening activities and reading activities. That's what develops speaking and writing.

One cannot neglect one in favot of another. There needs to be a balance in educational methods. Speaking provides a comfort zone for ELLs and enables them to become part of the community.

Currently, I am an IELTS instructor at the University of Technology located in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My students consist of college freshman intending to go abroad to the United States, England, or Australia.

Last week I performed a quick survey about what the students’ English language learning abilities. The survey consisted of forty-five students. A majority of the Vietnamese students possessed three to six years of English language training. Seventy-five percent of the students felt somewhat confident in their speaking skills. Sixty-two percent considered themselves somewhat comfortable in their listening skills. Thirty-five students were not at all confident in their writing skills. And lastly, twenty-eight percent were very confident in their reading skills.

Additionally, the survey questioned how much time spent on each of the four skills and what the students desired to do more of during class time. Twenty-one students stated they spend most of their class time reading and only two students marked reading as their in class activity they wished to do more of. Thirty-five percent of the students desired more time to speak during class and twenty-eight percent wanted more writing activities.

The results clearly show the Vietnamese students spend most of their time reading in class and a considerable amount less in writing; therefore, their writing skills are not as fully developed as they would like. In addition, writing and speaking were the strongest categories the students wanted more time to develop.

Understandably, if one considers the two strongest skills used in an English speaking university would be reading and writing. Certainly researching articles and writing responses consumes a majority of the students in class time. However, making friends, ordering food, and simply living day to day fulfilling emotional needs can only be filled by speaking and listening acquisition and daily practice.

Finally, the role of the instructor is to locate the needs of the students, both mentally and emotionally, and understand their already mastered skills, developing a curriculum and plan based on those findings. As all instructors know, no two classes are alike.

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