The Development of
Proficiency in the Classroom
by Jake Haymes
I think speaking is special for two reasons. The first one
is that most learners come to class and are prepared to invest
a considerable amount of time and money in order to achieve
the ultimate goal of speaking the language fluently. In this
respect, we can say that the development of oral proficiency
is the most important aspect of language learning (1). The
second reason is that orally communicating one's ideas is
personal and goes beyond the cognitive even for a native speaker,
doing it in a code you do not yet command incorporates both
affective influences and linguistic considerations.
I think it is also true to say that the success of most teaching
and learning is evaluated in terms of our students' ability
to speak. PPP methodology has been questioned and in many
quarters rejected because its discrete item approach is an
ineffective means of incorporating new language into fluent
production. This methodology also fails to embrace the realities
of talk exchange such as openings, closings, adjacency pairs,
vague language etc. or the phenomena of real-time delivery
such as "repetitions, false starts, re-phrasings, self
corrections, elaborations, tautologies and apparently meaningless
additions such as 'I mean' or 'you know'." Ur (1984).
Although people speak for many different reasons, these can
be broadly categorised in two ways:
1. transaction - using language to get things done. e.g. requesting
and giving factual information and service encounters.
2. interaction - using language for social intercourse. e.g.
conversing, discussing, making friends and story telling.
This assignment will attempt to examine the second type of
exchange. Brumfit (1984) states, "natural language use,
for most people is primarily discussion and conversation."
Despite this assertion, the focus of speaking activities in
the classroom seems to be on transactional competence. Perhaps
this is because it is easier to develop and assess. Transactional
exchanges usually follow a fairly predictable pattern or routine.
They tend to require shorter speaking turns and the functional
language presented in course books is often more suited to
this type of communication.
Some factors impeding the development of oral fluency
While a great deal of classroom time is spent on the perceived
precursors to oral fluency; vocabulary, phonology, structures,
functions and listening comprehension, it would appear that
these alone are insufficient. Widdowson (1978) states "the
acquisition of linguistic skills does not seem to guarantee
the consequent acquisition of communicative abilities in a
language." Bygate (1987) illustrates the difference between
language knowledge and productive skill. He points out that,
as native speakers, "we do not merely know how to assemble
sentences in the abstract: we have to produce them and adapt
them to the circumstances." While the value of linguistic
knowledge should not be underestimated, it would seem that
learners need something more in order to transfer the interactive
speaking skills they possess in L1 to L2.
Fluent oral production is often seen as the final piece in
the jigsaw. Nunan (1991) states that "course books, particularly
those aimed at lower-proficiency learners, consist largely
of manipulative, form focused exercises." I think this
leads to two problems. Firstly, fluency isn't developed as
learners are denied the opportunity to combine the disparate
elements of their existing productive store to communicate
authentically and secondly, the original structures themselves
are not internalised (for possible production at a later date),
as they are not used by the learners to create personalised
meaning. While I will go on to argue that practice alone is
not the most expedient means to oral proficiency, many learners
become demotivated because they are not given opportunity
to use the language communicatvely.
Although extended oral fluency practice is sometimes called
free speaking, I would argue that most tasks are set in the
hope that the learners will be able to incorporate some recently
studied language items into production. While semi-controlled
or bridging activities can, on occasion, help to effect this
integration, I find the items selected by teachers and course
books are sometimes inappropriate. Given the difficulties
of real-time production they are frequently too advanced for
learners' interlanguage systems to accommodate. With more
advanced students, there is often no perception of need so
that tasks are completed via their communicative competence.
When a carefully chosen task does force the employment of
the items, learners "do not treat the third stage of
the lesson as an opportunity for fluent communication"
but to "display the target form" and "as soon
as they switch to circumstances in which the focus is on communication
rather than conformity, learners will 'regress'." D Willis
Where genuine freer communicative speaking activities are
to be found, the tendency is to set up the activity and then
allow the learners to proceed. Richards (1990) outlines two
major drawbacks to this "indirect approach". Firstly,
that the type of language typically required is transactional
rather than interactional (2); Students are only really practising
the language of getting things done rather than conversing.
Secondly, he cites Schmidt's (1986) research into the latter's
own learning of Portuguese. This remained "deficient
with respect to both grammar and appropriateness." While
the second point concerns accuracy, I would argue that there
is a clear link here to fluency. Many of my learners produce
hesitant output and therefore do not develop fluency because
they feel they are making too many mistakes. This approach
is also limited in the fact that it neglects to draw the learners'
attention to those features of talk exchange outlined earlier.
While most experts agree that prolonged exposure to listening
texts is essential if oral proficiency is to develop, I suspect
that these activities are rarely used in ways which actively
highlight the connection. Many non-authentic recordings do
not incorporate the phenomena of natural speech such as discourse
markers, back-channelling, etc. and are therefore unsuitable
for awareness raising activities. Additionally, the role of
paralinguistics should not be underestimated in the tactical
manoeuvring of talk exchange (3). While listening comprehension
skills may well develop via the use of non-authentic, audio-taped
texts, the switch to production remains arduous.
(1) "most learners are interested-whatever
else they might want-in speaking the language." (Lewis
(2) Many British people complain that while they are capable
of buying fruit and asking for directions in French, they
could not begin to hold a conversation with a native speaker
of the language.
(3)"We speak with our vocal organs but we converse with
our entire bodies." Widdowson (1978) quoting Abercrombie
in 'Paralinguistic communication' in ECAL Vol. 1 Ch. 6
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