Teaching Speaking to EFL Learners

I recently started volunteering to tutor some primary students in English speaking. The students are primary 3 and 4 students from a local Chinese school in Hong Kong. It was extremely challenging for me, even though I had previously taught English in a primary school. The students I had taught there were very fluent English speakers already, and I realized that I never had to explicitly teach them to speak English. They already had a wide range of vocabulary, they were able to pronounce words clearly and had basic phonetic knowledge, able to construct grammatical and meaningful sentences effortlessly, and start conversations. I thought I was a pretty good teacher until I met these local students; then I realized I did not know how to teach speaking at all.

I struggled to get these students to talk. I asked them question after question and all they could give me were one-worded answers. Sometimes they simply nodded or shook their heads, but most of the time, they just stared blankly at me in complete awkward silence and I did not know if I should repeat my question or move on to something else. I tried asking them about things they had already covered in their textbook in class but the result was the same.

I lost my patience and started lecturing them on how they needed to just try and say something, no matter if it’s right or wrong. It wasn’t my proudest moment. The message was important, but I don’t think I provided a very encouraging environment for them to try.

They have zero opportunities to practise speaking in English outside of the English lesson, so of course they cannot keep up or improve their speaking. Not only are they lacking an English environment to practise, they lack the vocabulary, grammatical structures, and most of all – self-confidence. They were simply afraid to try and feared that they would make mistakes or mispronounce a word, which is completely understandable. Even if they knew a word they wanted to use, they were unable to pronounce it properly to be understood by the listener. One student said ‘popla’ three times, and, not understanding what he wanted to say, I asked if he could write it down. He wrote ‘people’. It was at that moment that I realized just how weak their English foundation was and it was a futile effort trying to engage in a meaningful conversation with them. Even though they are currently in grade 3 to 4, their English level is that of a first grader or lower. They heavily rely on their first language, Cantonese Chinese, to learn a new language. Some of them are also weak in Chinese, making it even more difficult to learn another language.

I never thought it would be so difficult to tutor oral English! What makes it even more challenging is that we are paired one-to-one or one-to-two with students so if the student is shy, I get awkward silences and blank stares and end up talking for most of the hour.

I will definitely be trying a new approach next time and hopefully get the students to speak more by providing more stimuli and encouragement. It might also be more worthwhile to provide concrete examples for them to imitate and follow instead of trying to get them to answer random questions because they need time to think about the answers as well as how to correctly construct a meaningful sentence.

Have you ever taught an EFL learner how to speak? What difficulties did you encounter? What strategies worked for you?

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