The challenge of speaking during class

The basis of many international students’ reluctance to speak in class are both linguistic and cultural. It is likely that students had few opportunities to practice speaking in English in authentic communicative situations before coming to the US. In schools in some countries standards for using “correct” grammar and pronunciation are seen as so important that students feel strongly inhibited while attempting to speak, and their memory resources are diverted away from communicating ideas toward choosing the right surface form. This results in less fluent, halted speech and typically negative feedback (frustration) from listeners which creates a cycle of self-conscious embarrassment and lack of confidence. Other students display more fluent speech, but with grammar, word choice, or pronunciation inaccuracies that, in extreme cases, inhibit communication.

I should note here that among the productive language skills and levels of linguistic structure, pronunciation (second language phonetics and phonology) is the area in which learners are most likely to never attain native speaker proficiency, nor should they be expected to. Studies of listening comprehension when the speaker has a dialectal or non-native accent have shown that for willing listeners, after a short time of accommodating to a speaker’s accent, there is no loss of comprehension. In other words, students (and all people with an accent that is different from the local variety of English) should be encouraged to speak without suffering public correction. Any significant miscommunication will be obvious and subsequent negotiation for meaning will result in appropriate, contextualized learning for the speaker who wants to communicate and the listener who wants to understand.

Speaking in educational contexts is also culturally embedded. In the countries that many of our international students come from, students are not only punished for speaking out of turn, but may be discouraged from speaking at all. There are a host of reasons for this from orientations toward traditional authority to the realities of large classes (60 to 90 students) per teacher at the elementary to high school levels to emphasis on the reception and storage of facts rather than co-construction of meaning. The result is that for many international students, speaking in any language in class is an odd practice, and speaking to the teacher and peers in English even more obscure. Attitudes toward group work may be similar as students have no experience playing the various group member roles (leader, recorder, facilitator, contributor, questioner, task-master, etc.) that American students are socialized into; and some students may see discussion with peers as a waste of time because more accurate information can come directly from the instructor.

Unfortunately, it is entirely possible for international students to listen and speak in English only during the 12 hours per week of their classes. Many international students live off-campus with same-country peers, watch TV and movies in their native language, talk or text-chat at all hours with friends and family in their home country, and eat at restaurants where they can order in their mother tongue. Traveling and shopping in groups, international students will often rely on one group member to do the English communicating when necessary. As faculty and staff, we must do everything possible to encourage international students to interact in English and practice their speaking and listening skills both in and out of class.

Tips for students (speaking)

    • Don’t be afraid to speak. Your pronunciation and grammar do not need to be perfect for you to be understood.
    • As with listening practice, reviewing and pronouncing content-specific vocabulary that is likely to be part of class discussion will improve students’ fluency and confidence.
    • Students should form study groups with other international students or with native speaker classmates in order to practice academic speaking in a less threatening environment than in front of the entire class. Working with a course tutor can also accomplish this goal.
    • Becoming involved in the Conversation Partners program is an excellent way for students to practice speaking in English.

Tips for teachers to promote student speech in class

    • Encourage students to speak. When the message is not clear, be patient and helpful: ask simple clarification questions; try to rephrase the student’s words into more standard language. This ‘recasting’ during communicative exchanges puts just enough emphasis on form that students notice and learn from the more appropriate structure while not significantly distracting from the message at hand.
  • Provide opportunities for students to practice speaking with a partner or in a small group before speaking to the entire class. Before discussion time, allow students a few minutes to write about the topic, then share with a partner or group that they are comfortable in (require that students actually read or summarize what they wrote).

A modification of this is to inform students that they will be called on to tell what their partner thought. This especially encourages partners to help each other get their messages straight and it removes the anxiety of getting the content right since each student only has to venture what their partner thought.

    • If possible, provide a list of discussion topics and questions before the day of class.
    • Because international students often sit together in class, it may be beneficial to assign students to mixed (international and domestic) working groups who they sit next to and collaborate with during class.
  • Don’t ignore international students.

Morita (2004) investigated the experiences of international graduate students at a Canadian university. One of her participants offered a poignant reminder of how an instructor’s behavior can influence students in a way that may not show outwardly but that encourages them and helps them learn better:

If someone followed me in all my courses and simply observed me, she would have just thought that I was a quiet person. But my silence had different meanings in different courses. In Course E, the instructor made me feel that I was there even though I was quiet. In the other courses my presence or absence didn’t seem to make any difference… I just sat there like an ornament. (Morita, 2004, p. 587)


Morita, N. (2004). Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 573-603.