Facing Formal Academic Speaking Tasks with Growing Comfort

Facing Formal Academic Speaking Tasks with Growing Comfort

by Ziyun Chen

I took my first public speaking class in English four years ago. On the first day, the instructor gave us his requirement – to give presentations without notes in hand. I remember how stressed everyone was with fear and anxiety about forgetting lines. Our instructor expected us to prepare a draft and warned us to revise our draft so that we could avoid making grammatical errors in front of the class. Without notes, most of us got stuck during the presentation from time to time and tried desperately to recall the final draft, which fueled our embarrassment and angst.

Although not to the same extent as with that first formal speaking assignment, I have experienced the lack of self-confidence in English, the uncertainty of teachers’ expectations, and the fear of coming across sounding silly and uneducated. I have done all I could think of: tried to imitate my professors and my peers, gathered useful phrases, practiced speech tones, and added gestures that I could feel comfortable with.

Now that I am preparing to become a teacher, I feel the need to educate myself about helping students cope with their difficulty around speaking in public in English. I recently came across a useful source on the topic, Integrating Multilingual Students into College Classrooms (Hafernik & Wiant, 2012, p. 52-58), which offers valuable tips for ESL teachers who are preparing formal academic speaking tasks:

  • Anxiety – Students often suffer from anxiety when talking in front of a group of people. Whether they lack the confidence in their spoken English or they are afraid of appearing ridiculous in front of everyone, it would help them if the instructor could encourage them to choose topics that they are familiar with or at least comfortable with.
  • Imitation – Many ESL learners come from countries where conventions of public speeches are different from that in English speaking countries. To demonstrate what a successful speech is like, the teacher may show students recorded models, explicitly point out important features, encourage them to intentionally imitate the speaker, and adapt those features into their own speech.
  • Pronunciation and Phrasing – Before the final presentation, the instructor can check with students individually to give them feedback on their pronunciation and phrasing. Correct pronunciation is important for the audience’s comprehension. Phrasing can affect whether the audience feels respected by the speaker; some phrases may be perceived to be disrespectful, curt, condescending, or too pedantic. Targeted feedback may be a very useful tool for teaching students cultural competence.

The teacher of my second public speaking class allowed students to give presentations with a draft in hand. He believed that forgetting some lines was normal, and it would be unprofessional to get stuck in the middle of a speech and freeze before the audience, rigid with embarrassment. He also encouraged us to rehearse with him before our final speech; he told us to slow down and allow the audience to process our speech to full effect. Truly, I felt much more confident and comfortable in the second teacher’s class.

I also believe that reflecting on my own experiences is an important marker of changing from learner to teacher; it is a starting point to defining my felt difficulties. I am also learning that I am not alone and there is a wealth of resources available to help me navigate these difficulties, Hafernik and Wiant’s book being one of them.

Hafernik, J. J., & Wiant, F. M. (2012). Integrating multilingual students into college classrooms: Practical advice for faculty. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Ziyun Chen is an international student from Jingdezhen (Jiangxi, China). She holds a BA in English Literature and is pursuing a Master’s degree in English in the TESOL track at Missouri State University.

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