|Michael Choguill is currently school director at LSI Brighton but is also the leading light behind the provision of online tuition for professionals which is now available on the lsi website.Clearly Michael knows a lot about teaching English and is full of good advice for students.|
Many students think that they need to speak quickly in order to show others that they speak English well. This is not actually the case. Of course, we would all like to speak our second language at the same speed and with the same fluency as our native language but this is not always possible. There are many factors involved in speaking well: accuracy, vocabulary range, pronunciation and so on. If a student tries to speak quickly without taking these into account, the result is often difficult to understand. Understandably, students want results quickly so it is important that we are all very clear about which results are achievable. My suggestion is very simple: slow down! There is no reason and little benefit in speaking a second language at break-neck speed. Teachers and students should work together on broader issues relating to good speech with an aim to improving intelligibility, in other words, speaking so that others can understand easily (and even enjoy listening!). Focus on intonation (the rise and fall of the voice for effect), stress and timing (for emphasis), joining up strong and weak words, pitch and rhythm. For many centuries, these characteristics were considered very important for good speaking, and today, good speakers still employ these techniques.
When I ask new students what they think they should learn in class, many will answer: “Grammar”. This is absolutely fine. Without a good grasp of the grammatical system of a language, a students’ accuracy will be poor, and their ability to progress limited. However, the approach we take to teaching and learning grammar is important. If an intermediate student says they have to learn the Past Perfect, I will usually ask them why they think so. I do not usually receive a clear answer. Often this is because the student knows that the Past Perfect exists (it is in most course books and is often an item tested in traditional language exams). Unfortunately, they don’t know what to do with it in real life. They spend a lot of time studying the rules and doing exercises but when they are having a real conversation in English, they don’t use it or use it inappropriately. I suggest turning things around. We should encourage students to think about the real-life functions of grammatical structures. If a student needs to spend a lot of time talking about sequences of past actions and being very clear about the exact order of events then they need to use the Past Perfect (this is not something most students need to do very often). If the students want to talk about their regrets or the things they have failed to achieve they need the Past Perfect (hopefully, not such a common occurrence). Basically, we need to teach grammar and students need to learn it, but it is essential that they understand how to use it and that they relate what they learn to practical situations rather than to theoretical ones.