Maximizing Students' Oral Skills: The Asian Context

Suchada Nimmannit, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Observations of adult EFL classes across Asia might reveal similar circumstances:
Students sitting in neat rows listening attentively to the teacher and obediently
following each stage of the teacher's instructions. The teacher directs
questions to specific students, and occasionally calls for volunteers, but
students generally seem reluctant to respond. When the teacher switches
to group work, however, the air is filled with the sound of the students
talking, for the most part, in the target language. One cannot help wondering
why these students, relatively high achievers in their own fields, appear
so reluctant to speak up in English class.

Cultural Attitudes

Among the many factors that have helped shape students' attitudes are
a number of frequently quoted platitudes praising the virtues of silence,
such as "Silence is golden." Asian children are still taught not
to talk back to their elders and are warned to be extremely careful what
they say, according to the saying, "What has already been said cannot
be unsaid." In traditional Asian societies, silence is a virtue: Only
when one has something meaningful and important to say should one venture
to open one's mouth. In other words, it is better to seek anonymity within
the group rather than risk ridicule by speaking out on one's own. In my
adult Business English Oral Communication class, I used a questionnaire
to find out more about how students felt about speaking in class.

Some of the results were:

I am nervous every time I have to answer questions. I don't think
I can speak English.

I don't want to speak up in class. I'm afraid I will make a mistake
and I will lose face.

I like to work or do the oral report in pairs or in groups because
I feel better and safer.

These answers, which were similar to the findings of another study (Cohen
& Norst, 1989), indicate fear of losing face, insecurity, and lack of
confidence--all of which slow down progress and impede success in foreign
language learning.

It should therefore be one of the teacher's top priorities to help students
overcome these feelings of insecurity and fear by creating a positive atmosphere
in class in which the students feel safe and at ease, thereby enabling them
to build up their confidence and self -esteem, while at the same time making
their learning enjoyable.

In this paper, I will describe, based on my own experience teaching business
communication in Thailand, how the teacher can make positive changes in
the classroom and suggest what teachers can do to improve themselves so
that they can bring out the best in their students and lead them to success
in English.

Classroom Atmosphere

In the average primary school classroom, the walls are a riot of colour:
posters, maps, magazine clippings, students' projects, and essays. It is
widely recognized that young minds with short attention spans are easily
motivated when exposed to classroom environments which are rich in visual
stimulus (Ur, 1996). As the years progress, however, the pressure to pass
entrance exams to high school and university takes over, and attempts to
create a rich and warm classroom atmosphere disappear. Students are confronted
with a sterile learning environment: four blank walls. This is made worse
by the classroom layout: Students sit in long straight rows and the teacher
stands at the front or is seated behind a desk. This is hardly a congenial
environment for an EFL conversation class.

To remedy the situation, teachers need to brighten up their classrooms
by adding as much colour as possible in the form of posters, pictures, drawings,
or student work on a poster board. During the lesson, the teacher could
introduce realia or props to bridge the gap between the world of the classroom
and the real world. Equally, it could mean introducing music or songs into
the class, which could be made an integral part of the learning experience,
in addition to helping the students to relax and overcome their nervousness.
When the students' minds are relaxed, their ability to think and learn increases
(Lazanov, 1979).


Relating activities to the students' experience

Students will be more motivated if they are exposed to activities to
which they can relate, which encourage them to use the target language,
and which allow them to choose what they want to say. They will be motivated
to engage in an activity if they feel it is cognitively challenging. Activities
with elements of problem-solving are recommended (Brown, 1994).

A simple activity in which students introduce themselves in groups and
talk about their hobbies or interests can be adapted for business majors
by assigning a realistic business purpose to the task. While students are
introducing themselves, other members of the group listen and take notes
about the speakers' interests and hobbies. Based on the data they have collected,
they decide what kind of products or services a company might create for
these groups.

Another activity for business majors requires students to make use of
their combined knowledge of business and English. Students take on the role
of a business executive. They introduce themselves, where they are from,
what company they represent, and what it sells. A sample introduction would
be: "My name is Somsri. I come from Thailand. I work for the Jim Thompson
Company, which is based in Thailand. We produce high-quality silk."

Managing turn-taking

Giving 25 students in one class the opportunity to speak is a challenge
to the teacher's management skills. The teacher should introduce some kind
of system that automatically allocates turns to each of the students, for
example by using tokens or small topic-related picture cards. In my Business
Communication class, for instance, I sometimes use mini-erasers in shapes
of food to allocate turns when discussing food-related topics. Tokens in
the shape of hearts, birds, or stars can be used symbolically--to lift up
the students' spirits and build up their confidence.

Building up security and confidence

Most Asians tend to be conformists. They are group-oriented and value
harmony above all else. Consequently, students feel more secure working
in pairs or in groups, since they will not be the only ones to shoulder
the blame or to lose face if they answer incorrectly. To get all students
to speak, the teacher should maximize pair and group activities with specific
goals and monitor the students' language production as they work.

Letting students take the initiative

Classes in which the teacher has students raise their hands to volunteer
to answer questions are not so common, although not improbable. The teacher
may also get into the habit of walking into the classroom and, instead of
asking the students questions, give the students a topic of the day and
have them ask two or three questions on that particular issue. Students
could also ask open questions which require others to answer. Each time
that students' different ideas are accepted, their self-esteem will increase
(Christison, 1997).

The Teacher

The teacher is probably the most critical factor in motivating students.
One study (Cohen & Norst, 1989) confirmed that the teacher's warmth,
friendliness, empathy, and sense of personal commitment help students build
confidence to participate more in class. The teacher should set realistic,
achievable goals, and praise students' progress and help them develop strategies
for tackling problems. It is vital that the teacher acknowledge the students'
progress and achievements by giving them some form of reward for their attempt
to learn, and feedback on their performance so that they can improve themselves.
It is very important that the teacher maintain an open line of communication
with students so that they can speak out when they have learning problems.


Maximizing students' oral skills does not require any dramatic changes
on the part of the teacher. It could start with the teacher's developing
sensitivity towards the students' feelings. Once teachers understand students'
insecurity and fear, they can start building up their confidence by making
a few slight adjustments, starting with creating a positive class atmosphere.
Teachers then gradually adjust their style of teaching, sidestepping their
traditional role as imparter of knowledge or lecturer, and gradually adopting
the role of facilitator or mentor. This does not require a radical re-orientation,
but it does require sensitivity, planning, and action. Finally, through
self-reflection, teachers can determine whether they have provided sufficient
support for students to try and improve their oral skills.


Brown, H. D.(1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive
approach to language pedagogy.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Cohen, Y., & Norst, M. J. (1989). Fear, dependence
and loss of self-esteem: Affective barriers in second Language learning
among adults. RELC Journal, 20(2), 61-76.

Christison, M. (1997). Creating optimal learning environment,
TESOL Matters, 8(2), 3.

Lazanov, G. (1979). Suggestology and outline of suggestopedy.
London: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching. Cambridge
: Cambridge University Press.