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Students' Limited Participation in Speaking Activities

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Students’ Limited Participation in Speaking Activities Aleksandra Moskal

A teacher comes to a classroom, checks the attendance and introduces the subject. “Today we will do some speaking.” He smiles, but several students do not share his joy. When he starts asking questions, they remain silent. Luckily, they do not make up the majority of the class. Actually, some students seem very involved: they speak vigorously, but they do not really allow the others to participate in the discussion. The teacher suggests a pair-work and slightly changes the topic, hoping that reluctant students will eventually speak. He is pleased to see and hear that they do. Yet, the manner they express themselves leaves a lot to be desired. He tries to correct them and provides them with some ideas for the conversation. At the end, he looks for a volunteer to come to the front of the classroom and present the conclusions of their speaking, but hardly anyone is willing to do it. Every teacher must have experienced a lesson which was more or less similar to the one presented above. Making students of a foreign language participate in speaking activities may pose an enormous challenge. In worst cases, students fail to say anything despite teacher’s attempts to get them involved. However, one needs to remember that just as the best cough drop does not treat food poisoning, similarly, a change of the topic does not make a student who cannot form sentences become a rhetorician, or at least a successful speaker. To help students increase their participation in speaking activities in a foreign language one needs to understand the reasons of their limited contributions or the lack of them, in order to save time and obtain best results. Therefore, this paper aims to present and explore the diversity of reasons for students’ limited participation in speaking activities in a foreign language. The author focuses on neither a particular level of students nor their age, although some differences between them are indicated throughout the paper. No distinction is made between a second language and a foreign language, since this is not believed to play an important role in the subject matter. At the very beginning, one may ask why speaking activities are so important in the curriculum of a foreign language, why so much time should be and is devoted to them if they create so much trouble. The answers are multiple. First of all, languages are first acquired and learnt in their spoken form: children listen and then start to speak. Reading and writing come later and require certain educational aids. Secondly, if a person knows a language, he or she is called, at least in English, a speaker of this language, which stresses the importance of this skill. Thirdly, speaking is a productive skill; thus, it needs to be practised. Obviously, students cannot speak without knowing some vocabulary and grammar (Bygate 3). However, one shall not presuppose that a learner who possesses this knowledge can actually implement it. Bygate makes a quite surprising, yet relevant, comparison between a speaker and a car driver (3). In order to drive a car one has to know where the accelerator, the brake and other controls are located and what their functions are. Yet, anyone who remembers their first driving lesson will admit that possessing this knowledge does not translate into the ability of driving. Similarly, one needs to practice speaking in order to obtain that skill, and this can be done through speaking activities. The literature provides numerous differentiations of speaking activities, which might be quite surprising as students are made to perform a limited variety of such activities on everyday basis. This may result from either teachers’ preferences or, in a worse case, their unfamiliarity with the richness of possibilities. However, a teacher may decide to curb the variety of speaking activities applied in the classroom, especially in the case of lower-level students, in order to make his or her students feel safe and comfortable. Apparently, being familiar with the scheme of an exercise facilitates the performance. On the other hand, choosing the same patterns of speaking activities may decrease students’ motivation or, to put it simply, bore them. Therefore, a teacher needs to choose an activity carefully, relying on his or her experience, observation of a particular classroom and intuition. As it has been mentioned above, the kingdom of speaking activities is rich and can be subdivided into various counties. With respect to the number of learners involved in a speaking activity, students can work individually, in pairs, groups or as a whole class. According to Ur (123), speaking activities can be divided into topic- and task-based activities. In short, topic-based activities are those which centre around discussing a subject, whereas task-based activities require students to deliver some end-product of their discussion. In the first case, the main objective is to actually hold a discussion. In the second case, “the discussion process is a means to an end” (Ur 123). During a task-based activity students do discuss some issues, but in the end their aim is to achieve an established goal, which usually has a tangible form, such as a list, short notes or a drawing (Ur 123). It is stressed that interaction between students is indispensable for achieving the goal. According to the views of teachers questioned by Ur (124), task-oriented activities motivate students more and are a better source of enjoyment than topic-based activities, because the participants find it challenging to complete the task within the given time. Moreover, when students need to achieve a goal, they talk more and their participation is more evenly distributed. Nevertheless, Ur stresses the fact that, however few, some students enjoy topic-based discussions, because they can dwell on the subject, under no time-pressure or the necessity of reaching a decision. Therefore, both types of activities should be included in the course of teaching a foreign language. Another differentiation suggested by Ur is that between discussions and other types of spoken interaction (129). The examples of a discussion which are given include describing pictures, finding differences between pictures, but without looking at a pair-picture, finding out shared characteristics or solving a given problem. As far as other types of interaction are concerned, Ur lists interactional talk, long turns and talk “based on (non-classroom) situations, emotions and personal relationships” (129), which might be referred to as role play. According to Jack C. Richards, the aim of interactional talk is social: its participants do not focus on communicating information, but they want to interact (qtd. in Ur 130). The examples are greeting, introducing oneself and others, beginning and ending conversations, apologising, thanking or complimenting (Ur 129-130). Being a more demanding type of a discourse, a long turn requires a student to produce longer, structured utterances. To practise speaking in long turns, students might be asked to tell a joke or an anecdote, give an instruction, describe the plot of a book or deliver a speech (Ur 130-131). The role play can be further subdivided into dialogues, plays, simulations and role play in its narrower meaning (Ur 131-133). A dialogue is learnt by heart by students and later performed, either in pairs or in front of the whole class. Appropriate facial expressions or gestures might be adopted. If a teacher can spare some time for rehearsals, and a class is willing to perform, they can decide to prepare a play. It is said not only to boost learner confidence and morale, but also to positively influence the learning process (Ur 132). Finally, simulations and role play are similar in that respect that they both set a task, group role or situation. Yet, in simulations students act as themselves whereas in role play they are given individual roles which they have to take. Not surprisingly, conducting any speaking activity in which students say something is not the reason to call such activity successful. On the other hand, this activity may not bring about revolutionary changes, but it can still be called successful provided that it fulfils a few requirements. According to Penny Ur (120), a successful speaking activity is characterised by four features. First of all, student-talking time should considerably exceed teacher-talking time or pauses (Ur 120). This refers to the period of time devoted to the performance of an activity, excluding time necessary for introducing the subject or giving instructions. Unfortunately, however obvious as this seems, teachers often tend to break this rule (Ur 120), for example, by finishing students’ sentences or flooding their pupils with their own ideas. It is students who should talk as much as possible during a speaking activity. Secondly, in a successful speaking activity student talking time needs to be evenly divided between individual students (Ur 120). Sadly, it is not an uncommon practice that only few active students participate in group discussions, with the rest staying silent for various reasons. In this case, it is a teacher who should see to it that everyone actually speaks and that their “contributions are fairly evenly distributed” (Ur 120). One student should not deliver a prolonged utterance if, as a result, other students have to limit theirs to one sentence or even an expression. A further characteristic of a successful speaking activity is a high level of motivation, which means that students are willing to participate in this activity (Ur 120). The reasons given by Ur are students’ interest in the topic and their readiness to share what they know on it and their willingness “to contribute to achieving a task objective” (120). To make it even more specific, when the aim of a speaking activity is, for instance, to plan a three-day trip around Warsaw, students suggest their ideas for sightseeing, because they want their favourite spots to be included. The last feature, which is necessary for a speaking activity to be described as successful, mentioned by Ur is “an acceptable level of language” (120). This broad and rather vague label encompasses, according to its author, three further requirements: what students say has to be relevant, easy to understand for other students and sufficiently accurate with respect to language (120). This implies that the utterances produced by students do not need to be perfect. Students may make mistakes, but the expectations towards what they say grow higher, in direct proportion to their general language level. However, a teacher should take it into consideration that students have difficulty in using the higher-level language learnt in “intensive language-learning activities” (Ur 121). Therefore, it is natural that their spoken language is less formal and less sophisticated than the language they understand. Still, an appropriate level needs to be maintained. However, the sad truth is that few speaking activities actually fulfil the criteria discussed above (Ur 120). The reasons may lay both on the teacher’s and students’ side. Yet, addressing all of them would considerably exceed the expected size of this paper. Therefore, one has decided to focus on the limited participation in speaking activities of students of a foreign language, which results in the failure to satisfy the criteria presented above. It is worth noticing that the problem of limited participation is somehow connected with all four features of a successful speaking activity, but in two different, yet negative, ways. On one hand, it might be the reason of excessive teacher-talking time or pauses over student-talking time, and of uneven distribution of students’ contributions to the activity (Ur 120). On the other hand, the lack of participation or its limited extent might be the outcome of the lack of, or poor, motivation and students’ awareness of their language problems. The latter are to be discussed first. Language problems belong to a very broad category of problems which hinder students’ participation in speaking activities. Their roots may be situated purely in a foreign language, but they may also reach students’ mother tongue. Those originating from the first language are treated here as valid as long as they influence students’ performance in the second language. Yet, one does not intend to address problems faced by students with inborn or acquired speech and language disorders, such as autism, hearing impairments, deafness or cerebral palsy. The problems discussed below refer to ordinary students, who develop well, do not suffer from serious physical or mental disorders, and do not have special educational needs. In order to communicate, both orally and in writing, a student needs to be “linguistically competent” (Faerch, Haastrup, and Phillipson qtd. in Hedge 47). With respect to speaking, this means that a learner needs to learn the language itself: its vocabulary, pronunciation, grammatical structure, sentence structure and linguistic semantics (Hedge 46-47). Students should use accurate grammatical forms, pronounce words accurately, use stress, rhythm and intonation and know the syntax of a foreign language (Hedge 56). To be more specific, selected language problems which deter students from speaking are presented in the following paragraph. First of all, students may lack vocabulary or struggle to retrieve a necessary expression from their memory. Xiu refers to these phenomena saying that students have “limited language resources” (18) at their command. Despite pre-speaking exercises or revision of vocabulary, students stumble over phrases. This must have happened at least once to any language learner. In such cases, students of more advanced levels should be able to, and try to, express their ideas using words they remember, but even they may abandon attempts to speak. The next common obstacle which students face is grammar. They may know the vocabulary items, including the verb, but they start hesitating which tense they should use, and, in the end, they prefer not to say anything rather than make a mistake. Both vocabulary and grammar problems refer less to adult learners than to younger students, although adults tend to be more anxious about making mistakes. Yet, at the same time, they are generally less reluctant to ask for help. On the contrary, younger learners may withdraw from participating in a speaking activity, since they are more susceptible to criticism, which might be levelled over their linguistic performance, but this problem can be analysed later. However, one needs to take into consideration the remark of Norman, who says that due to insufficient knowledge of the second language, students of low and intermediate level are not able to maintain a conversation for more than a few minutes (30). Other problem poses the fact that in a classroom students usually speak the same mother tongue, which tempts them to use it, especially when a pair-work is involved. Ur (121) gives three reasons for students falling back on their first language. First, they obviously have less trouble communicating in their mother tongue. They do not need to exert themselves to recall relevant expressions, to combine them using appropriate rules and finally to pronounce them correctly, provided they know what they want to say. Secondly, students find it artificial to use a foreign language between themselves (Ur 121). As it has been mentioned above, what hinders students’ participation in speaking activities in a foreign language is not only neglect on the foreign language side, but it is also lack of knowledge in their mother tongue that contributes to students staying silent or speaking very little. In this case, they no longer hesitate how they should say something, but they simply do not know what they could say. To put it simply, it may happen that they do not possess any knowledge of a subject, or they have not formed any opinion of the tackled problem, in their first language. Therefore, they are unwilling to participate in a discussion or simulation. Ur reports students’ complaints that they have nothing to say and their only reason for speaking is “the guilty feeling that they should be speaking” (121). Obviously, when their only motive behind speaking is teacher’s expectation of them to utter something, their performance cannot be refined, which brings us to the concept of motivation. Motivational problems establish another separate category of factors which influence, in a negative way, students’ participation in speaking activities. Yet, an explanation that a student is not motivated is not a satisfactory one. The category can be further subdivided in accordance with the distinction between various types of motivation itself. As for motivation, it is described by Harmer as “some kind of internal drive which pushes someone to do things in order to achieve something” (51). In other words, motivation is what causes people to make an effort, because they want to reach a certain goal. With respect to the sources of motivation, distinction is made between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. However, Stribling also identifies achievement motivation (englishaustralia.com.au), which is not referred to by Ur. Extrinsic motivation has its source outside the learner. According to Ur, it “derives from the influence of some kind of external incentive” (277). Obviously, extrinsic motivation in a classroom environment depends on a teacher. Therefore, it is vital for teachers to know how to increase it. Norman states that setting a clear and limited topic is helpful (30). Ur agrees with this statement when she indicates that specifying the objective of the activity helps to increase [extrinsic] motivation (122). Raynaud stresses the importance of “convivial atmosphere” (8) in boosting motivation. The atmosphere in the classroom should favour socialising, and students should feel that what they want to say is to be heard with interest and attention. Some instances which lower the extrinsic motivation and deter students from participating in speaking activities include repeated criticism of their previous performances, expressed both by a teacher and other students. Teachers may de-motivate their students when they pay too much attention to each and every mistake made by the speakers and correct them on the spot, whereas other students may create a negative atmosphere when they tend to evaluate the performer’s contributions. Unlike extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation comes from the learner’s general attitude towards learning and the language (Ur 280). Therefore, if a student does not like the language and its culture and, moreover, does not enjoy speaking in general, he or she is less likely to be willing to participate in any activities, not to mention those requiring producing oral utterances. Yet, this type of motivation may be influenced by a proper selection of topics. Norman states that “contrived topics and games are less intrinsically motivating than discussing one’s own life, world and opinions” (31). If topics are of no importance to students, because, for example, students do not deal with them even in their mother tongue, their level of motivation to discuss them in a foreign language cannot be expected to increase. Generally speaking, as far as the age of learners is concerned, younger students are more prone to extrinsic motivation than older students. However, adults show higher intrinsic motivation than teenagers and are basically more willing to respond to the teacher. Moreover, adult learners possess greater general knowledge and they have already formed opinions of the world, issues and problems, which sets a solid basis for various speaking activities, including long turns. However, they are more afraid of making mistakes and do not want to experiment with the language. Without a doubt, these selected observations are rather general and they are certainly not true for every single student within each of the groups. Last but not least, a few problems unrelated directly to either language or motivation are discussed below. They tend to be socio-psychological problems, but a few culture-related instances are also presented. Reluctant speakers are often self-conscious or inhibited. Some students cannot bear the idea of speaking in front of an audience, because this makes them anxious (Xie 18). They are afraid that they will make mistakes, will be criticised or lose face (Ur 121). What is even worse, because this is difficult to overcome, not only do they not enjoy being in the limelight, but some students are also “shy of the attention that their speech attracts” (Ur 121). They avoid it like the plague to express their own ideas, not to mention feelings or opinions, to people whom they hardly know, even in their mother tongue. It is not the aim of this paper to find the primary causes of this situation, yet teachers need to be sensitive to this problem and act wisely. Surprising and thought-provoking observations are made by Xie with respect to cultural differences between teachers and students. It turns out that, for example in China, students’ limited interaction with the teacher results from the upbringing. Generally, students do not dare to comment on or challenge teacher’s opinions, because in this way they show respect (Xie 12). This refers, in particular, to speaking activities in which a teacher is an active participant. In some cultures, students who ask additional questions or express divergent opinions are believed to show off, and their behaviour is perceived as inappropriate (Xie 11). These and other cultural differences should be considered when a teacher works with students belonging to another culture than his or her. Finally, several members of a particular class can render the participation of all students in a speaking activity impossible. For example, domineering students tend to occupy the majority of speaking time. They may also refuse to cooperate with other students (Ur 133) or to form pairs or groups. Moreover, as every group, a class creates its own unspoken rules, which students subconsciously follow. These rules are binding also during language lessons, which means that, for instance, one person is always right. Therefore, whenever he or she has spoken, the others tend to agree. It would take a great courage to oppose, especially if the person holding a conflicting opinion is not a favourite of the class. Again, the problem requires careful inspection, and the silent and talkative students alike need to be consulted. Sticking to the medical metaphor, students’ limited participation in speaking activities might be considered as an illness, or at least a disorder. Random treatment with any measures available may temporarily relieve its symptoms, but only identifying its causes can result in developing an effective therapy. The process is essential for students and teachers alike, although it may be time-consuming and painful. Hopefully, the paper has managed to present the size, complexity and diversity of the problem of students’ limited participation in speaking activities, although one is aware that the list of causes might be significantly extended. Suggesting methods for dealing with the presented causes and ways of increasing students’ involvement would be a natural further stage of the research, but the expected size of the paper renders this impossible.

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