Wed, Apr 04, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Explaining silence in the English classrooms

By Kao Shih-fan 高士凡

As a graduate student in the US, I noticed something interesting about students there -- almost all my US classmates actively participated in class discussion, while most Asian students tended to be silent or, at best, reluctant to speak up in class.

One reason why US students eagerly shared their opinions in class might be due to the heavy weighting of participation in course grading. Moreover, my US classmates had been trained, since the very beginning of their school life, to speak their mind in public.

In Taiwan, students at the secondary level might not be encouraged to speak up in class owing to the pressures of entrance examinations, the way teacher deal with pupils' mistakes and mockery from peers.

One could expect, however, things to be different at the tertiary level, or with adult students in general, whom we could expect to be more active in class. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case either.

A survey conducted with four English teachers who were teaching classes of varying levels of proficiency and age showed that the teachers, not the students, did most of the talking -- even when the teachers pushed for conversation practice in class.

The reasons why Taiwanese students of all ages remain silent are worth exploring.

Insecurity in one's language abilities seems to play a large role. Many students have low confidence in their speaking abilities, more so when they are expected to speak extemporarily, without preparation. Students are afraid they will say something wrong and thereby embarrass themselves.

Unlike my US classmates, in their formative years most Taiwanese students were not trained to express their opinions on a variety of subjects, even less so in a foreign language. In fact, most of their experiences consisted of listening to the teacher.

Culture could also be a factor. Many students believe it is disrespectful to talk too much in class or to ask too many questions, fearing that doing so would take up too much of the teacher's -- and classmates' -- valuable time.

Many students also suffer from speaking anxiety. In other words, when they speak English, they become very self-conscious. This results in a sense of uneasiness and apprehension that they will not perform well enough.

A Hong Kong-based study of university-level student participation in class discussions showed that the majority of students preferred classes where they did most of the talking. The Hong Kong study and my own observations showed that college teachers need to explore a variety of strategies to encourage adult students to take a more active role in English classes. These include encouraging students to move away from traditional attitudes that reinforce passivity and silence, and creating a more relaxing and supportive environment for student participation through group work and other activities.

As far as English learning is concerned, students participation makes a marked difference. Participation improves language abilities both quantitatively and qualitatively. Group work is an effective method to generate student participation as well as linguistic interaction. If half of the class time is spent doing group work, a student's practice time will be five-fold that of the traditional method. Group work also enhances the quality of interactive English. In a traditional English classroom, language use is often limited to a fixed and artificial situation determined by the teacher. Group work, on the other hand, provides students with more face-to-face exchanges by using authentic, everyday language.

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