Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What is speaking?

Speaking is an interactive process of constructing meaning that involves producing and receiving and processing information (Brown, 1994; Burns & Joyce, 1997).  Speaking is also spontaneous and open ended but it is also not always unpredictable.  A speaker not only needs to know how to produce the specific parts (such as grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary) of language but also needs to know how to produce language in social situations (pragmatics).  Speech has its own skills, structures, and conventions different from written language (Burns & Joyce; 1997; Carter & McCarthy, 1995).  When a speaker is involved in a speaking exchange, many different skills are involved in the process.  A speaker needs to be able to anticipate and then produce a correct response when in a speaking exchange.  Turn-taking, rephrasing, providing feedback, or redirecting (Burns & Joyce, 1997) are all elements that a speaker must manage in a speaking exchange.  Other skills a proficient speaker of English would need include:
·         Producing the sounds, stress patterns, rhythmic structures, and intonations of the language;
·         Using grammar structures accurately;
·         Assessing characteristics of the target audience
·         Selecting vocabulary that is understandable and appropriate for the audience
·         Applying strategies to enhance comprehensibility, such as emphasizing key words, rephrasing, or checking for listener comprehension;
·         Using gestures or body language; and
·         Paying attention to the success of the interaction and adjusting components of speech (Brown, 1994).
There are many components that are needed in order for a person to be a proficient speaker.  As a student learning the English language a teacher needs to determine what skills and knowledge a student already has and what areas needs support and development.  If an ESL student is not able to appropriately use speaking skills, the message to a listener will not be able to be understood.  Whether an ESL student is in or out of a classroom, language functions are used to express meaning.

Here is a speaking conversation between two people:

What are language functions?

     Language functions refer to how individuals use language to accomplish specific tasks (O’Malley & Pierce, 1996).  The types of language functions that are used most commonly describe information and express feelings.  There are two types of language functions that have been identified; social/communicative and academic (O’Malley 1996).  Communicative language functions are those used to express meaning in a routine social context that is not cognitively demanding.  Examples of that would be through greetings, requesting information, giving information, describing something, and expressing feelings.  Academic language functions are those that are needed for success in educational classrooms.  Academic language functions can be used across a variety of content areas or they can be more specific to a certain content area.  Examples of academic language functions are seeking information, comparing, ordering, classifying, analyzing, inferring, persuading, solving problems, synthesizing, and evaluating in a classroom setting.  Both communicative and academic language functions are used in a classroom setting but a student is going to have to rely more on academic language as tasks become more difficult in the content areas.  A teacher working with ESL students has to take into account the different types of language functions when preparing a lesson in a classroom.  An ESL student may have strong social language but lack the academic language to excel at the activity presented so the teacher needs to be able to support ESL students at all levels of English proficiency.  When looking at language functions, specifically academic language, an ESL student needs to have strong skills in the areas of grammar and syntax to truly excel in speaking activities.

What is Grammar and Syntax?

Grammar is the principles or rules for speaking according to the form and usage of a language.  Syntax is the internal structure of language, including the order in which the elements of a language can occur and the relationships among the elements in an utterance.  Grammar is the branch of linguistics dealing with the form and structure of words (morphology), and their interrelation in sentences, called syntax.  The study of grammar reveals how language works, an important aspect in both English acquisition and learning (Carter & McCarthy, 1995).  This is also very important when teaching an ESL student how to really use the English language appropriately and effectively.   Grammar can be taught both implicitly and explicitly.  When grammar is taught in context, an implicit manner, students practice the grammar learned in a lesson by using it in a natural, communicative situation.  Explicit teaching of grammar may be needed when the features of English grammar is very different from way it is expressed.  Some parts of English grammar that is difficult for ESL students to understand are word order, determiners, prepositions, auxiliaries, conjunctions, and phrasal verbs.  Explicit teaching of grammar is more formal, focusing on written language studies, while implicit teaching of grammar is more informal and practiced in social situations through conversation.  Either approach is important to evaluate and use when teaching ESL students, also taking into account how each ESL student is going to learn differently.  Once a teacher decides the best way to teach an ESL student, the way to appropriate assess an ESL student also needs to be decided.  Appropriate assessment of speaking skills will tell a teacher whether the lesson has been effective and if any other supports are needed for an ESL student to succeed. 

Here is a fun website to help students work on grammar.
Education Place

How to assess oral language functions in an ESL student?

Assessment of oral language should focus on a student’s ability to interpret and convey meaning for authentic purposes in interactive contexts (O’Malley & Pierce, 1996).  Cooperative learning activities that present students with opportunities to use oral language to interact with others (social or academic functions) are optimal for assessing oral language.  The key is to also include assessment right along with daily and weekly lesson plans so an ESL student’s progress can be documented right at the same time.  A good teacher will look for assessment opportunities while completing the actual lessons.  Some of the steps that are important for oral language assessment include: identifying purpose, planning for assessment, developing rubrics, setting standards, involving students in self and peer assessments, selecting assessment activities, and recording information.  When a teacher is better prepared or plans for assessment, the ESL student’s progress is better monitored and overall growth and success is seen.  As a teacher looking more specifically at assessing oral language functions (grammar/syntax) a variety of traditional and alternative testing can be used.  Traditional oral assessments would include the oral sections from the Basic English Skills Test (BEST), the English as a Second Language Oral Assessment (ESLOA), the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the WIDA MODEL, and Pre-IPT Oral English Language Proficiency Test.  Oral grammar and syntax of an ESL student can also be assessed alternatively through real-life uses of grammar in context (students demonstrate their level of grammar proficiency by completing oral tasks), communicative drills and communicative activities through the use of checklists, analyzing taped speech samples, and reviewing notes or records of speech in classroom interactions.  Although looking specifically at grammar and syntax in assessing the speaking skills of an ESL is important, all the areas of oral language (semantics, phonology, syntax/grammar, and pragmatics) need to work together in order for a student to appropriately express a message.   ESL students benefit from clear goals and objectives, well-structured tasks, adequate practice, opportunities to interact with others, frequent assessment, and reteaching when needed (Coleman & Goldenberg, 2009).

Listed are websites that you can use to obtain more information about the assessment tool.
WIDA: ELP Standards

What I Learned

Through this research on how to appropriately assess the speaking skills of an ESL student, I have learned that both teaching and assessing needs to be multifaceted.  A good teacher will take the time to plan lessons with assessment in mind.  Assessment needs to happen throughout the teaching of the lesson, both formally and informally.  An ESL student can be an effective speaker of the English language when given the appropriate tools needed to excel.  I have learned about many good strategies that are important for an ESL student to succeed in the classroom with speaking skills.  Many components are needed of oral language (semantics, phonology, syntax/grammar, pragmatics) for an ESL student to be a proficient speaker of English.   A good teacher takes the time to get to know each ESL student to understand the level the student is at and where the supports need to be implemented for success.


Brown, H.D. (1994). Teaching by principles: an interactive approach to language
            Pedagogy.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall Regents.
Burns, A., & Joyce, H. (1997).  Focus on speaking.  Sydney:  National Center for
English Language Teaching and Research.
Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to
Second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1, 1-47.
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (1995). Grammar and spoken language. Applied Linguistics,
16 (2), 141-158.
Coleman, R. & Goldenberg, C. (2009). What does research say about effective
Practices for English Learners? Oral Language Proficiency, Kappa Delta Pi
Record, 10-16.
O’Malley, M., & Pierce, L.V. (1996).  Authentic assessment for English language
Learners: Practical approaches for teachers. New York: Addison-Wesley