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7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at Graduate Level – Part 3




Three graduate students smilingIn the final post in this guest series, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, gives us the final three of her seven tips for teaching academic speaking to graduate EAL students. If you missed the first four, catch up on tips 1 and 2 and tips 3 and 4.

This final post wraps up my top seven tips for teaching academic speaking to graduate EAL students.

Tip 5: Expand learners’ linguistic and strategic repertoires

Graduate EAL students need to participate in academic conversations at advanced levels, and, as such, confidence-building tasks that build on, experiment with, and expand their linguistic and strategic repertoires in class provide them with a glimpse of what they can try when participating in a range of predictable academic interactions, such as the ones listed in Tip 3. The first step is to encourage students to focus on getting their ideas or meaning across and feeling comfortable in using whatever language they already know. Their well-intended high expectations about achieving accuracy and their fear of being negatively evaluated naturally make many graduate EAL learners hesitant about expressing their thoughts and prone to undervaluing or overlooking the richness of their ideas and contributions to the dialogue.

Take dealing with questions and answers, which I discussed in my previous post as an example. After exploring the hidden assumptions regarding one’s approach to answering questions and facing the challenging situations associated with handling Q & A (e.g., multi questions, long-winded questions, off-the-subject questions, “don’t know” questions, hostile questions), request that students consider both strategies and language that they can employ when handling such situations. For handling “don’t know” questions, for example, not only will this exploration help learners become more comfortable saying “I don’t know” or more confident about sharing what they do know that is relevant to the question at hand; learners will also generate strategies and language that they can use to confidently deal with those questions. For example:

? In conference presentations:

Strategy: AAA (acknowledge, admit, and assume responsibility)

Language: “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to your question, but let me find out and get back to you.”

? In seminar discussions:

Strategy: Redirect and/or postpone

Language: “You know, I’m not really familiar with . . . , but let me turn it over to the group: Would anyone like to respond to that question?”
If no one is able to respond to the question, offer relevant information or references that you can think of and then assume responsibility to find out and get back to the questioner.

Tip 6: Integrate self-reflective practice

I have integrated learner reflection in my teaching, and I have also conducted several studies to examine its efficacy. Over the years, I have found that although individual learners’ ability to reflect may vary, reflection is an integral part of human existence. Some learners are naturally more reflective, while others can develop this capacity over time. Through guided reflection, all learners can engage in a dialogic cycle of exploration, experimentation, and evaluation of what worked and what didn’t work in preparing and performing the task, and what they might do differently or try when they encounter a similar communicative situation in the future. Beyond the traditional way of reflection through writing, different modalities of reflective practice, such as oral reflection or group reflection, may also help learners become more aware of their learning progress.

Tip 7: Provide individualized feedback

Providing individualized feedback, along with the first tip presented–conducting needs assessment, is the heart of learner-centred teaching. The nature of the course, that is, the development of academic conversation skills, necessitates that the course be capped at no more than 10 to 15 participants to allow adequate time for speaking practice. Such practice also provides the basis for the instructor’s feedback to learners. I am well aware of time-related and financial constraints that teachers face, but I have also experienced how even a little feedback can go a long way. What has worked well for me is providing no more than two points – (a) what I noticed a student did very well or had improved, and (b) one suggestion that the student might like to consider. Individualized feedback allows me to connect with each learner, to motivate each learner along the way (because, at this level, as we all know, learners might not notice their own improvements), and to foster a supportive learning environment, as presented in Tip 2. All of these aspects of feedback contribute to learners’ development of academic speaking skills.

What has worked well for you in your teaching of oral communication skills to EAL students at the graduate level? I’d love to hear from you!

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