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7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at Graduate Level – Part 2




Two female students in graduation robesFollowing on from her first post, which explored the importance of conducting a needs analysis and building a supportive learning environment, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, shares her next two top tips for teaching conversation skills to EAL learners.

In my previous post, I shared the first two tips, which serve as the foundation for teaching academic conversation skills to graduate EAL students. Many instructors wonder how to promote the transferability of skills that students use in class to outside-the-classroom, real-life contexts. In this post, I will move on to my list’s next two tips, which help promote the transfer of learning and skill development.

Tip 3: Link tasks to real-world activities

One key way to make learning meaningful and relevant in the classroom is to link pedagogical tasks to what learners will be doing outside the classroom. For graduate EAL students, participation in academic dialogues typically involves or will involve the following settings:

  • interpersonal one-on-one communications;
  • small group interactions;
  • seminars or class discussions;
  • departmental presentations;
  • teaching in the classroom; and
  • conference presentations and beyond (e.g., job talks, teaching demonstrations, and interviews).

Linking tasks that learners need to perform in those typical settings to class activities not only motivates learning because of the tasks’ perceived relevance and practicality; it also promotes the transfer of the language and strategies learned in the classroom to post-class, real-life contexts. For example, a task that involves meeting with a student during office hours to discuss a grade provides an opportunity for learners to experiment with ways to deal with this common scenario. Another example is involving learners when clarifying a key concept, something that graduate EAL students often must do in their roles as teaching assistants, as participants in departmental meetings, or as speakers at conferences. Such a task first of all provides the speaker an opportunity to practice providing explanations through the use of techniques such as the following:

  • stating a definition in formal and lay person’s terms;
  • using practical examples that listeners can relate to;
  • linking a concept to the speaker’s personal experience;
  • using an analogy with some concept that the listeners already know;
  • providing comparison and contrast;
  • referencing a word’s origin; and
  • offering visual illustrations of a term.

Second, the clarification provides opportunities for participants to practice asking questions, which, in turn, creates further opportunities for each speaker to practice clarifying explanations.


Tip 4: Integrate the exploration of hidden assumptions

In academic communication contexts at the graduate level, being able to understand what an interlocutor is saying depends to a great extent on shared concepts, knowledge, and ways of interaction. What speakers say or hear is often embedded in assumptions shared by the community. A by-product of sharing within communities is that speakers may consciously or unconsciously convey information less explicitly. This possible difficulty is compounded by the likelihood that EAL learners have their own sets of culturally related assumptions and expectations, which may differ from those of their interlocutors. In such contexts, exploring tacit assumptions and expectations becomes critically important.

Culturally shaped and individual preferences can cause many types of miscommunication, and thus familiarity with such key concepts as Anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s high/low context (i.e., preference for explicit/implicit communication), Social Psychologist Geert Hofstede’s power distance (i.e., the perceived differences in the distribution of power), individualism and collectivism (i.e., the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups), and masculinity and femininity (i.e., distribution of roles between genders) helps learners self-diagnose their speaking choices and challenges in academic settings (Lustig & Koester, 2006; Kotthoff & Spencer-Oatey, 2007).

An example about how those factors have the capacity to influence communication came from a student who once said to me: “I am available now.” This one-line, high-context utterance illustrates the student’s assumption about my understanding of his request for a meeting to discuss his research project. Using the word “available” as opposed to “free” also signifies how the student viewed the power distance between us, expressing it in a way that showed formality and, thus, deference, even though the four-word sentence may have achieved an unintended, potentially negative meaning had I not known the student personally.

While becoming familiar with the factors that may come into play in the course of communication, it’s important to guard against assuming that people from a specific cultural orientation communicate in a certain way at all times. For example, within a particular culture, the degree of explicitness or implicitness, or how much information needs to be explicitly transmitted or coded in a message may vary, depending on such factors as context, interlocutor, audience, purpose, and so on.

For each of the common academic settings listed in Tip 3, integrate discussion questions designed to help learners make those assumptions and expectations explicit. The goal is to raise learners’ awareness of underlying factors that can be at play in their choices and in the outcomes of their conversational encounters. For example, in a typical Q & A situation, students who expect or value status differentials and social hierarchies (i.e., large power distance) may be more hesitant about asking questions, because they might feel that they would be seen as posing a threat to the speaker’s authority. At the same time, as presenters, the expectation that speakers should have answers to all questions may affect students’ comfort level and ability to deal with questions when they do not have a clear answer.

Here are a couple of sample questions that I have used to guide learners in exploring their hidden assumptions:

  • Interpersonal one-on-one communications: How would you address your supervisor? How do you decide which form to use? What cultural factors might influence your choices or preferences in how you address others?
  • Seminar or class discussions: Share with your group member(s) your personal or cultural perception of interruption in academic discussions. What factors may come into play in how you request, maintain, or yield your turn in speaking?

In the final post of this three-part series, I will present the remaining three tips on teaching speaking for academic purposes at the graduate level.

Kotthoff, H., & Spencer-Oatey, H. (Eds.). (2007). Handbook of intercultural communication. (Vol.7 of Handbooks of Applied Linguistics). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Lustig, M. W., & Koester, J. (2006). Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication across cultures (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

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