Guest Post: Support for Oral Communication within the ESL Curriculum at Baruch College

The following is a guest post from Professor Elisabeth Garies, of Baruch College’s Department of Communication Studies. She can be reached at Elisabeth.Gareis@baruch.cuny.edu.

Oral communication instruction is traditionally somewhat neglected in the ESL curricula and services of colleges. Many programs focus on reading/writing proficiency and give only nominal, if any attention to listening/speaking skills. The imbalance is due to a great extent to college entrance requirements and grading practices in college classes: Students are often only tested for reading and writing proficiency but not for speaking skills. With the correlation between spoken and written proficiency in nonnative speakers being only moderate, it is no surprise then that some students graduate with low proficiency in spoken English.

This status quo is in stark contrast to the skills needed for integration into the college community and success in the workplace. In fact, oral communication skills are consistently ranked most important by employers of business as well as liberal arts graduates. Yet, every semester, nonnative students report that they are being asked by teammates not to speak during group presentations so that team grades are jeopardized. They also report being dismissed from job interviews due to comprehension-inhibiting accents.

It is paramount, therefore, that we address oral-communication competence. Two services are available for students at Baruch College: (1) Students can go to the Student Academic Consulting Center (SACC, VC 2-116) and make an appointment for free one-on-one tutorials with a professional speech tutor. (2) Students can visit the new ESL Lab (VC6-121, enter through VC6-120) and practice with the excellent software, audio, and video materials there. See http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/esllab for hours, instructions, and materials.

To give an example: It’s the beginning of a semester. An (ideal) instructor collects writing samples and engages his/her students in speaking activities to determine whether a student may need assistance. The student is then encouraged (required?) to make an appointment with one of the speech tutors at SACC (the tutors, by the way, are all professionally trained speech pathologists and ESL specialists). During the first meeting, a diagnostic conversation/reading takes place, and the tutor determines which speech patterns are the cause of he students comprehensibility problems.

While the student may already have an idea about some patterns (e.g., differentiating between /r/ and /l/), some problems are more difficult to determine. For example, many languages have a syllable-timed rhythm (i.e., syllables have the same length); English, however, is a stressed-timed language (i.e., the rhythm of a sentence is determined by the regular beat of the stressed syllables only). Try to say the following sentences out loud as you clap your hands on the stressed syllables. You will notice that the sentences take the same amount of time, although the first one is much shorter than the last one. This is because of the stress-timed nature of English.

The lion came.
The lioness came.
The lionesses came.
The lionesses arrived.
The lionesses have arrived.

Comprehensibility problems often arise from stress problems; e.g., when a speaker from a syllable-timed language used his/her native rhythm to speak English. A staccato delivery ensues that makes it difficult for English listeners–who are used to listening for word and sentence stress–to follow the speaker.

In any case, once the student is diagnosed, the tutor will help the student produce the speech pattern correctly in one-on-one tutorials. When the student can produce the speech pattern, he/she needs to practice to commit the new pattern to muscle memory. It is said that our body has to practice a new movement (including speech organ movement) 1,000 times before the movement becomes muscle memory. Please see the Accent Reduction FAQs at http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/esllab for more information.

Ideally, a student should see a speech tutor once a week and practice individually in the lab several times a week. With regular practice, significant progress can be made, even in the course of one semester. Please alert your students to these services. and remind them that, to change speech patterns, regular practice is necessary