Honing Verbal Skills: the Most Essential yet the Most Neglected!

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Spoken word travels faster than written word! Oblivious to this fact that verbal skill is one of the most sought after skills compared to reading and writing, it is either neglected or ignored in academic circles. Basically, spoken/oral/verbal skills are always on top of the list as any kind of communication begins with the spoken word starting from a new born to a person with a last word. Despite the fact that verbal communication skills are indispensable, modest attempt is being made to hone verbal skills in a good number of schools. Teaching spoken skill often poses difficulties considering various factors such as strength of class, influence of mother tongue, stage fear, fear of being mocked at, faltered pronunciation etc. Besides, many of the syllabi do not focus on spoken skills and this is evident from the fact that all these years, focus in the evaluation process has been on reading/ writing but not on listening and speaking.

It is quite understandable that the need to learn another language is sometimes not natural but arises out of necessity. Anybody moving to a new place attempts to learn the spoken form first rather than the written form. But that is not the case with English. I wonder why school instruction spread over a span of twelve years fails to hone the spoken skills of a child. Doesn’t this demonstrate that learning spoken form in natural surroundings is more effective than formal learning of twelve years of English in a classroom? The reason is that very little emphasis is laid in developing verbal competence of students while they are in school. As a result, at the moment of entering their professional life, they face the exit door due to lack of effective spoken skills. What amuses me is that a child spending ideally ten years in an English medium school finally lands in a spoken English Institute with a hope to learn it in forty days or so. Therefore, it is not surprising to see mushrooming of so many English language institutes in India. It’s really bewildering to comprehend how these institutes can make such promises.

Verbal competency not only lets a person communicate effectively, but also instills in him or her sense of confidence and gets rid of any kind of inhibitions. As aptly quoted by Howe (2003, 12) “Speaking is extremely important: it’s a voice into pupils’ writing, it helps them to develop and make sense of their reading, and it also does wonders for their self esteem, building confidence for the outside world”.

Working in a spoken English institute has not only given me insights into the problems that the learners face in oral skills but has also given me great opportunity to try innovative techniques that stimulate them to speak. It is amusing to see that these students speak mistakes confidently unaware of the fact that what they are speaking is not right. In fact, teaching a new batch of students always poses challenges for me because the learner group is heterogeneous; being adults they are encased with some amount of self-esteem and come with background knowledge; they show little interest in activities such as vocabulary games, extempore etc., and wish for activities that match with real life situations as they come from varied professions with different language needs. In this article I would like to share two innovative methods that I have employed and found them to be very effective in not only enhancing spoken skills but also in motivating the students to be active participants.

Method 1: Cogent talk

Task: Talk about a topic assigned by teacher (10 min)

Level: Advanced

Objective: To prepare the students to speak coherently, confidently and fluently.

Procedure: In this activity the student speaks on a teacher-assigned topic with the help of clues. The students get a brief idea about the subject they have to talk about, and the clues help them in sequencing bits of information and linking ideas to form a complete story in a coherent manner. The topics are randomly distributed to the students before the presentation. They are encouraged to do a kind of mapping and visualize the events before an oral presentation.

Examples:

Topic 1: Enables the students to sequentially arrange ideas/events

Title: Tsunami in Japan

Clues:

Introduction: What happened in Japan and how did the events in Japan unfold.

What is an earthquake? (Hints: huge plates under the earth move causing quakes, Japan is an earthquake zone etc).

Body of presentation: On March 11, 2011, an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan – followed by a devastating tsunami – affecting the entire coastline up to United States – thousands of people perished – extensive property damage — how the Japanese are bravely fighting the disaster and so on and so forth.

Conclusion: How can natural disasters be averted? How far is nuclear power safe? Lessons to be learnt from the Japan’s nuclear disaster.

Topic 2: Enables the student to organize ideas chronologically:

Title: How Bin Laden was captured and killed

Clues:

Introduction: Who is Bin Laden? An international terrorist – Founder of Al Qaeda, the Jihadi organization — responsible for various terrorist attacks in the US .

Body of presentation: On June 2, 2009, President Obama vowed to capture Bin Laden – In August 2010 Obama was given a possible lead on Bin Laden. In February 2011, they intensified their efforts to pinpoint his hideout – the hideout was identified as Abbottabad in Pakistan . During March 2011, President Obama held a series of meeting with defense officials . On April 29, 2011, Obama ordered to carry out the operation – on Sunday midnight at 3.30pm EST operation was carried out – At 11pm EST Obama declared the death of Osama Bin Laden.

Conclusion: Thus the US played a big role in eliminating one of the most wanted terrorists. Death of Bin Laden end of beginning? Can awareness in values and principles among children stop in making of a terrorist?

Topic 3: – Enables the students to mentally arrange ideas thematically.

Title: Kung Fu Panda 2 (cinema story)

Clues:

Introduction: Kung Fu Panda is the story about an overweight panda, masters the art of kung fu – in part one of the film the panda grows from a zero to a hero – in part two, he is puzzled over his parentage- how can he be the son of a goose and there the story begins – the entire movie revolves around a philosophical theme.

Body of presentation: The main theme of the movie is about saving the world and China from the evil domination plans of the albino peacock Lord Shen – but before they can do that, the panda tries to find his parentage. Finds inner peace and overcomes his weaknesses and frailties, aims to defeat the enemy and achieves it finally.

Conclusion: This animated movie has won young and adult hearts alike as it conveys a message – on the whole it’s a good movie for family viewing.

Topic 5:: Enables the students to mentally weave ideas around a problem/causative factors, solution and result

Title: Global Warming

Clues:

Introduction: Global warming is all about drastic climate change around the world — the debate on this issue started way back in 1950’s – sudden change in climate around the world, rise in natural disasters alerts the scientific community – increases awareness about conservation, pollution control etc.

Body of presentation: What is global warming? – global warming is heating up of earth – gases are trapped in the atmosphere resulting in increase in temperatures –there is no escape route for the heat – the result, trapped gases may destroy animals, plants, cause skin cancer, result in new incurable diseases – melt glaciers resulting increased sea levels — result in erratic climate changes affecting the farmers due to unseasonal weather conditions. What causes global warming? Emissions, vehicular population, water pollution, deforestation etc.

Conclusion: How can our future generations survive? How to prevent global warming? Decrease use of electricity, fuels, pollution, and population, conserve energy, forests, water etc. – Follow what Gandhi’s said “Earth provides enough for every man’s need but not every man’s greed”.

Method 2: Rapid conversation

Task: Connect speech (30 minutes)

Level: Advanced

Objective: To introduce the students to fillers and train the students to respond spontaneously.

Procedure: Meaningful conversation is broken and jumbled. Then the same is transferred on to strips of paper. Strips of paper containing questions and answers are randomly distributed to the students. Each student holds in hand about five to six strips containing either questions or responses. One of the students begins to read aloud from the given strip, while the remaining students should carefully listen to it and link with the content in their strips. While they read aloud contents are sequenced to form into a meaningful conversation. All the participants should be very alert and try to make sense out of the jumbled sentences to form a meaningful dialogue. One student takes the responsibility of writing the questions and responses on the blackboard. This method also enhances the listening skill of the students. Since conversation is spontaneous and the speaker has little time to think and respond, it is necessary to train the students to think quickly and respond. In order to train the students to respond spontaneously this method was employed and it was well received by the students.

Sample conversation with fillers highlighted:

Speaker 1: Hi! How do you come to office?

Speaker 2: Usually by car sometimes by metro.

Speaker 1: Don’t you have a car pool?

Speaker 2: You mean sharing a car?

Speaker 1: Yeah, In fact that’s what I meant.

Speaker 2: No, not really.

Speaker 3: May I know why?

Speaker 2: Well, honestly speaking I don’t believe in that.

Speaker 4: What do you mean? Don’t you care for the environment?

Speaker 2: Certainly I do, but does just car pool save the environment?

Speaker 5: Every drop makes a sea. I mean every small step matters.

Speaker 2: Probably, what about the huge things like deforestation, population, corruption, and pollution? How many things can we ignore?

Speaker 6: In other words you mean to say let’s not bother.

Speaker 4: Anyway let’s not argue over this.

Speaker 3: Oh yes, Gosh! Let’s stop it. Let’s not argue for argument’s sake.

Speaker 5: Perhaps we must not argue but have a productive discussion.

Speaker 4: So to continue, I would like to support a cause that helps save the environment.

Speaker 5: As I was saying, every small step matters and let’s us do something.

Speaker 5 to 3: And what about you? Don’t you have anything to say?

Speaker 3: Well let me think. May be we can try to bring about awareness in our colony itself to start with.

Speaker 5: Absolutely! That’s a good idea.

Authentic Sample:

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These strips with broken dialogue are randomly distributed and the students are supposed to rebuild it into meaningful dialogue.

Often the strength in a typical spoken English class is not more than 15. However, the techniques evolved in this present study worked out very well with my students. They all actively participated and even some timid students contributed to a large extent. I would like to conclude that the two techniques that were experimented can also be tried in large classes with meticulous planning.

Works Cited

Howe, A. (2003). “Talk is vital”. Literacy Today, Vol.34 (online). pg 12. Available from http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/Pubs/howe.html. Accessed in October, 2010.


* A Srivalli is an English Language Trainer at VETA Spoken English Institute, Janakpuri, Delhi. srivalli68@gmail.com

* Article first published in FORTELL, September 2011

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