Founder of ESL Reads
EAL Teacher and Curriculum Writer (Secondary)
Boosting the Speaking Confidence of Your EAL/D Students: Lessons Learned from Becoming a Language Learner
June 19, 2023 by Lauren Piovesan
As a former educator, my focus was always on boosting the speaking confidence of my EAL/D students and creating a supportive and encouraging environment to facilitate this. However, recently, the tables turned, and I became the language learning student who was being encouraged by others to increase my speaking confidence! Recently, I had a short stay with relatives in Northern Italy where I needed to communicate in Italian. During this time, I mostly communicated using foundational phrases and could grasp the gist of conversations when they were delivered in a slow and supportive manner. While it is clear that my fleeting experience as a language learner is wildly different from the experiences of my EAL/D students (who were navigating a new country, culture and language daily), I gained some insights around teaching speaking and listening skills which I would like to share in this blog. This blog will delve into four areas:
- The emotional rollercoaster of learning a language
- Ways to support listening comprehension and speech
- Effective approaches for developing speaking and listening skills
- Implementing speaking and listening activities in the classroom
1. The emotional rollercoaster of learning a language
When I first set foot in Italy, a wave of embarrassment washed over me. Despite having an Italian surname and Italian origins, I felt like a helpless infant attempting to utter their first words—except I was a fully grown adult! It’s natural for questions about cultural identity to arise (and they did frequently) when you find yourself in a new country, and even more so while communicating in a new language there.
With my limited vocabulary, particularly in regards to adjectives, expressing myself became an arduous task. My lack of knowledge about verb tenses further exacerbated the problem and caused all kinds of miscommunications. Due to these limitations, I found myself repeating similar phrases daily and feeling self-conscious about it. On the one hand, I wanted to practise speaking and show initiative. On the other hand, I worried that I was annoying my relatives by asking the same questions every day, or that I appeared, for lack of a better word, “dumb”. There were countless moments of silence where I wracked my brain for something to say, fearing that any utterance might disturb others, or make me seem silly.
This feeling led me to question whether it was frustrating for the listeners (my relatives) to constantly have to adapt their speech so that I could understand. Thankfully, they would slow down or use supportive gestures to assist me, and while I was grateful for this, I was concerned that this was taxing for them. If we think about our students, these kinds of fears would be enough for them to be apprehensive about engaging in conversations, asking questions or trying new sentences.
It was also rather fear inducing when relatives would switch into speaking in a dialect that I was unfamiliar with, and which differed greatly to the Italian language. Trying to understand this was like cracking an impossible code, so I would sit there quietly waiting for it to pass! When my relatives would switch into dialect, I felt lost and a little lonely; a feeling I am sure our students feel frequently when we speak too quickly, use a lot of slang or use high level vocabulary.
On top of feeling insecure and unintelligent, there was a persistent feeling of fatigue. My brain went into overdrive trying to make sense of the language I was hearing all around me all of the time. I was constantly rehearsing sentences in my head before delivering them. At night, my mind would involuntarily play re-runs of conversations that I had had during the day and analyse whether my responses had been correct. Due to the fatigue, I found it difficult to concentrate in the afternoon and had to work extra hard to follow conversations (this might have also been partly due to the huge bowls of pasta at lunch time!). It’s safe to say that at the end of the day, as soon as my head hit the pillow, I fell into a deep sleep.
But it’s not all bad! I did call this section the “emotional rollercoaster” because there were undeniably highs too! When I was able to hold a conversation, or implement a new phrase I had learnt, I felt euphoric. In this way, language learning can be amazing for your self-confidence and resilience, especially when you are immersed in it and are growing your skills every day. All in all, I believe this is a small taste of what our students go through while navigating their own highs and lows in their language learning journeys.
2. Ways to support listening comprehension and speech
I was lucky to have relatives who were understanding, and who used a variety of strategies to help me understand and speak. Below are some strategies that my relatives used naturally, which I found to be especially helpful when developing my speaking and listening skills. They would:
- Fill in the gaps when I couldn’t think of a word.
- Repeat the correct word or phrase back in a helpful manner.
- Use gestures, pointing, photos, or images.
- Speak slowly and clearly.
- Conduct short exchanges regularly.
- Use Google translate, gestures, or visuals for difficult concepts
3. Effective approaches for developing speaking and listening skills
In the time that I was in Italy, I developed some practises which upon reflection, helped me to develop my speaking and listening skills. I would:
- Look up words I heard in conversations frequently but didn’t understand. I would write them in my phone or recall them at night.
- Try to speak using new words that I had just looked up so that I didn’t forget them.
- Rehearse a word or phrase once, then use it. I recommend that students don’t spend too much time analysing the grammar. Getting your meaning across is key, and the grammar will come later!
- Try to speak with people one on one or in groups of two as this was much easier. When there were 4-6 people speaking, it became very difficult and tiring to follow the conversation.
- Try to initiate conversation, even if it was a simple exchange e.g. What are you doing today? How’s the weather? How was your day?
- Learn more adjectives because it gave me a gateway to express myself more clearly, and feel more like myself as a result.
- Minimise background noise when speaking and listening in the new language. For example, no music, TV or crowds in the background where possible.
- Substitute for a similar word when I couldn’t think of the specific one.
- Observe how others were doing what I wanted to do e.g. ordering a coffee. Certain situations are cultural and cannot be translated directly.
- Become comfortable with making mistakes and forgive myself for making them (this took time but was critical to my growth as a language learner).
4. Implementing speaking and listening activities
There is a huge variety of fantastic speaking and listening activities out there for EAL/D students. However, after my brief experience being a language learner, I think these activities would help students develop greater confidence. I recommend:
- Frequently implementing short, sharp and focused pair work into your daily lessons. This could look like “Think-Pair-Share,” routine greetings, morning circles, question cards etc.
- Greeting students or having short exchanges with each of them throughout the day or week. This could be modelled at the beginning of the week and repeated to give students multiple chances to practise and respond in different ways.
- Showing students how key vocabulary can be used in different sentences and contexts through listening activities, texts or drama.
- Giving students a pocket diary or a place in their phone where they can write down or voice record (if they are not yet familiar with English script) new words they hear frequently.
- Stand up or clap when you hear a taught key word in a listening activity.
- Having discussions about different cultural practises or differences in languages e.g. in my country, we…, in my language, we use…, in my city, we used to… This helps to clarify cultural habits which extend to language.
- Demonstrate how you can substitute words to get meaning across. Model using synonyms or saying things in slightly different ways. This would work well in a role play or scenario-based activity.
- Teach students how to initiate conversations. Model role plays and ask students to participate by conducting think alouds: What can I say here? What do you think this person will respond with? How can I start talking about…?
Please note: This blog is written with my personal experiences (both as a teacher and as a language learner) in mind and is not the result of academic research.