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7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at Graduate Level – Part 1




Four college students wearing graduation robesIn this series of three posts, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and Learning and Teaching Centre Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Victoria, Canada, shares her top tips for the teaching of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to English-as-an-additional-language students at the graduate level.

Anyone who follows news, feature stories, or research related to higher education in English-speaking countries will have noticed the increasing number of items related to recruitment efforts or enrolment trends of international students who speak English as an additional language (EAL). Even if you are not following the latest trends and research related to graduate EAL students, you are likely witnessing the ever-growing presence of international EAL students first-hand in your institution.

Since I first taught EAP in 1997, which led me to pursue advanced degrees in this field, I have had the good fortune to continue working with graduate EAL students at various academic institutions. Over a decade later, my passion for EAP only grows. Today, I wear my regular hat, as I carry out research related to language teaching and learning and train ELT professionals and researchers. At the same time, I still design and run courses and workshops for graduate EAL students and consider it a great privilege to work with these usually highly motivated learners. These students are eager and determined to improve their academic conversation skills, because every day, they encounter many opportunities to speak English on topics about which they have sophisticated knowledge. They also know very well that their academic conversation skills and confidence will impact their future career options.

The idea for this post series came from my recent sharing at a local conference for ELT students and professionals. The tips presented here are inter-related, and they are not meant to be rules or a be-all-and-end-all guide; they are derived from my own teaching experience and research. My hope is that this post series will prompt you to reflect on and share what has worked well for you in your own teaching/learning contexts, so that together we can continue to enrich our students’ learning journeys.

Tip 1: Conduct a needs analysis

As instructors, we often ask, “What should our learners learn?” but a quick show of hands at a recent presentation I was giving reaffirmed the fact that not many of us regularly ask what our students’ needs are from their own perspectives. In addition to the mismatch highlighted by research between learners’ and instructors’ views about areas where learners need help, my recent research further suggests that what instructors or learners consider important skills to possess may not necessarily be the ones that learners perceive that they need to develop. Whether learners’ perceptions represent their realities or not, few of us would argue with the idea that learners’ needs are sound starting points for instruction, because learners may be most receptive to guidance in areas where they perceive a need for support and development. Furthermore, because learners’ needs are context-specific, it is important for us to conduct our own needs analysis to help us prioritize and inform our teaching.

The process of conducting an informal language-learning needs analysis may not be as daunting as one may think. I typically use one or a combination of the following methods to help me gauge where learners are at different stages of the course:

  • adapt simple checklists or surveys to collect information regarding learners’ language-learning backgrounds;
  • use informal interviews to explore their perceived needs;
  • collect their langauge performance data to identify issues;
  • implement in-class group discussions that involve exploration of challenges; and
  • integrate weekly learners’ reflections about their needs and challenges.

These methods can be easily implemented, and they have helped me gather the information I need to meet students’ learning needs and my teaching objectives. Take the method of in-class discussion as an example. A simple set of warm-up questions such as the following provides clues to what I need to address in class:

  • How do you feel about your ability to pose questions in academic discussions? What is/are one (or some) of the most challenging aspects of asking questions? Together, brainstorm some strategies that will help you overcome such challenges.


Tip 2: Build a supportive learning environment


When it comes to teaching academic conversation skills, it is of paramount importance to develop a supportive learning environment where learners are free to reveal their setbacks and challenges and to experiment, explore, and develop their linguistic and strategic resources. Activities I have used that worked well include the following:

  • A simple icebreaker that I use on day one is “3-2-1” – that is, in groups of three find out two interesting facts about each other and one thing that the three share in common.
  • In the following week, I usually implement a mingling activity resembling a departmental gathering that graduate EAL students often are invited to attend at the beginning and/or end of the term. The activity requires students to practice strategies and language used for entering, maintaining, and exiting conversations; it also enables students to get to know each other.
  • I always incorporate a regular segment that helps learners share their own speaking challenges in their day-to-day speaking encounters and develop strategies for overcoming those challenges, as mentioned in the previous tip. This segment helps learners to know that they are not alone in facing their challenges, to become agents of change in their own learning endeavours, and to foster a learning community of open sharing and support.
  • I have created private Facebook groups for learners to foster a learner community, promote a safe place for students to exchange ideas, and provide students opportunities to engage with peers as resources for learning outside of class.

Building a learning environment needs to start on day one and continues throughout the course. In such an environment, learners feel free to use whatever language they know, to experiment with language they are not familiar with, and to make mistakes trying out language and communication strategies outside their zones of familiarity.

Do you have a workable method for needs assessment to share? How do you go about creating a supportive learning environment?

In my next post, I will follow up with two more tips for teaching speaking for academic purposes at the graduate level.

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