Speaking English Outside of Class: When Students Need More Help

In several blog posts in 2013, I explored the ways I have worked with my students to encourage them to speak, read, and listen to more English outside of class and documented their success in doing so.

But what if some students still struggle to find ways to speak more English? What if students still fear speaking English in public outside the safe confines of the classroom?

Last semester, we tackled this issue in my evening ESL class, which consisted almost entirely of immigrants from Central and South America working in “survival jobs” as cooks, construction workers, bakers and housekeepers.  First, I shared with my students a list of ideas for speaking opportunities that my colleagues and I at SUNY Westchester Community College compiled last summer.  I asked them to review the list, discuss it with their classmates, and choose three speaking suggestions that they think they could see themselves trying out.  Among the most popular suggestions were:

  • Ask someone at the supermarket to help you find a certain product you want to buy
  • Talk to the librarian at your local library and ask her to help you find a movie to watch
  • Talk to any telemarketer who calls you—just don’t promise to buy anything you don’t need or want!
  • Call the 1-800 number for your cell phone or cable company and ask a question
  • Talk to the priest, minister, or imam at your place of worship and ask him to help you find someone to practice your English with
  • Say hello to a neighbor and ask how they’re doing
  • Talk to your pets
  • Make small talk with someone while you’re standing in line at the supermarket, bank, or bus stop.

Making small talk is a skill in itself, one that is well worth spending class time on.  It is especially important to help students practice formulating questions they can use to start a conversation.

Recently, my  students came up with a list of “ice-breakers” they could use to launch into small talk:

  • If you’re standing in line at the check-out counter at the supermarket, look into the cart of the person behind you and comment on an item in their cart. “I like broccoli [or artichokes or red snapper or pork chops], too. How do you prepare it?”
  • On the street: “What a beautiful baby! How old is she? What’s her name?”
  • In the park: “Oh, what a cute dog.  How old is he? Where did you get him?”
  • Anywhere: “What nice boots [or shoes or earrings or jacket] ! Where did you buy them?”

I had my students role-play these conversational gambits with each other.  Then, for homework over the weekend, I asked them to have at least one conversation in English outside of class and be ready to report on it at our next session.

What my students did surpassed even my own high expectations.  One student from Ecuador, who cleans other people’s houses for a living, told us proudly that she had gone to see Ecuador and Argentina face off in a soccer match over the weekend.  The American woman sitting next to her at the stadium asked her where she was from, and they were off and running, speaking English together for 90 minutes during the game.  A Mexican student who is a cook in a restaurant told us proudly that he noticed one of the customers was in a rush.  He asked, “Why are you in such a hurry?”  And the customer proceeded to explain that she was heading home to get a head start on her holiday meal preparations and planning to cook and freeze all her vegetables and side dishes (a concept that was nearly inconceivable to someone used to cooking everything fresh moments before it is to be eaten).  Yet another student, a babysitter from Peru, described having a sleep-over at her American employer’s house with six children and two nannies and chatting with them all in English for six hours until her brain ached.

Several students reported that they had informed their interlocutors that “my teacher wants me to speak more English” and were delighted to discover not only how helpful and encouraging these informal conversation partners were but how proud they felt about the experience of actually using what they were learning in class to have a real conversation.  And it was a powerful ego boost for them to hear from someone other that me how good their English had become!

Do you have other suggestions or ideas to help students speak more outside of class? Please share!

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she brings to the classroom the experience gained from years of creating workshops for judges, lawyers, physicians, social workers and journalists. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom and self-directed learning strategies that students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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7 Responses to Speaking English Outside of Class: When Students Need More Help

  1. LaFawn Davis says:

    If they seem willing (don’t have a book to read or other work), talk to someone seated next to you on an airplane or bus. Mail a package and talk to the clerk. Go to a department store and ask information about products. Watch popular soaps like Downton Abbey, Scandal, and Homeland and discuss them with people who watch the same shows.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Dear LaFawn: Thanks for the great suggestions . . . and for taking the time to share them with the TESOL community. I’ll be adding this to my “More Ways to Speak English” handout, for sure!

  2. Brian J says:

    Hi Alexandra,

    I have been living in Japan for the past 12 years. My Japanese leaves a lot of room for improvement and recently I have been thinking about this question. Where can I interact and speak in Japanese? In the past I would avoid situations where I might have to use Japanese. I have decided recently to develop my language skills and one place I have found that leave a lot of time and room for communication is getting your hair cut. I have found barber shops a great place for language practice and the barbers are generally very animated which helps with comprehension.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks, Brian, for taking the time to share this excellent suggestion. I will be sure to add barber shops – and hair salons – to the list of places my students can readily practice their English.

  3. Ardayatmo Mitroatmodjo says:

    Practicing is the best way to learn!

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Yes, indeed! Thanks for following my blog and writing in. I’d love to hear how you encourage your students to practice outside of class.

    • Bahena says:

      That’s right, practice makes perfect! Also, students will sometimes need to be a little away from school. Being out there and doing outside of class activities may help them a lot, especially if they’re using something they have learned in the classroom. It’s very important to think about creating a link between the class and the community. For that, we need to consider this cycle: CLASS———–COMMUNITY———–CLASS———–COMMUNITY…………… We learn in the first one and practice and use in the second one.

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