ESL: Speaking

From the ESL Student Handbook, by Young-Kyung Min, PhD

Do you want to improve your English speaking abilities? Check out these resources and strategies you can use to improve your oral communication skills.

You will quickly find that class participation is an important part of coursework in most of your classes. Participating in class discussions can be quite challenging for many international students. The learning culture in the classroom across the world differs widely. In certain countries, students are not encouraged to speak up and ask their instructor questions; students are supposed to digest the delivered information from their instructor and to demonstrate their mastery of the material only through written tests. There is not much interaction between students and the professor in the classroom. The old saying in Asia “Silence is Gold” is deeply embedded in the learning cultures of some countries.

The classroom culture in the US can be quite different from that of your home country. Students in the US are constantly encouraged to participate in class by asking questions and making comments on professors’ statements and other classmates’ thoughts and reactions. A student’s verbal participation in class is valued as an important criterion to evaluate a student’s learning in the classroom. Thus, it is very important to improve your oral communication ability in English. There are several resources and strategies you can use to improve your oral communication skills.

Writing to Speak & Speaking to Write

Most classes have reading responses as course assignments. You can use your reading responses as springboards for your participation in class activities as well as for your writing assignments. You may have already found that when you write down what you want to say, you feel more confident (or at least less nervous) when you talk in class or make a presentation. This is the key idea of “writing to speak.”

So, you should be actively engaged in your reading process by writing in the margins or on sticky notes, which is called “annotations.” Annotating while you read can give you multiple benefits. As you write in the margins or on sticky notes underlining certain words or sentences, you become more actively engaged in your learning process. The annotation process can also help you stay focused during reading and recognize the patterns or methods of argument used by the author in the article, which will eventually help you develop your own argumentation style. See the section on "Reading Strategies" for further information.

Collaborative Learning

Another effective way to improve your oral communication ability is to work with your learning group members—the students you meet in your reading group, writing group, and conversation group. The group members can be a great audience for you to practice articulating your thoughts in English (e.g., summarizing the key ideas of an article you have just read). You can also ask for help to better understand certain concepts you are struggling with or simply check pronunciations of certain words. It is also a great idea for you and your group members to take turns rehearsing upcoming class presentations.

Listening to a variety of accented Englishes (really, it’s World Englishes) will greatly improve your listening skills. Remember that your group members can be a very important part of your enculturation process in the US.  So, try to engage in social and academic activities with them as opportunities arise. This will be helpful not only to expand your knowledge of the English language but also to enhance your awareness of the cultures of the US and the US university lives as well.

Oral Communication Skills & the Writing & Communication Center

  • The Writing & Communication Center can also be a very useful resource to improve your oral communication skills. The Writing & Communication Center offers a “Conversation Partners program” to provide international students with the opportunity to practice speaking English, expand their vocabulary, and gain confidence in their conversational skills. Please use our online schedule to make an appointment.
  • You can also utilize the Writing & Communication Center as you prepare for your presentations. The tutors can help you develop your ideas, articulate concepts or perspectives, or  simply pronounce certain words correctly. You can use the Writing & Communication Center not only for your class presentations but also for your job interviews, workshops, conference presentations, etc.
  • You will learn that the process of engaging other people in the preparation of your speaking assignments can also help you become a better writer (this is the key idea of “speaking to write”). Therefore, you should approach your speaking assignment as an interrelated task to your writing assignment; the idea of “writing to speak” is deeply interconnected with the idea of “speaking to write.”

Campus Events & Workshops

You can also utilize the campus events and resources to enhance your oral communication skills. A variety of events and workshops take place each quarter to facilitate international students’ language acquisition process as well as enculturation process. Please try to attend some of the events and workshops in your first year (e.g. Intercultural Coordinators, Dine & Dialogue Series, World Languages Café, Cross-Cultural Engagement Retreat, and so on). Further information about these events will be available on the website on Student Life & Diversity. Your active participation in the events and workshops can help not only improve your speaking abilities but also help you better understand US university life and culture. In addition to the campus resources and events, you should also utilize various toastmaster clubs that are available in your community. When it comes to improving your oral communication skills, remember that “practice makes perfect.” The more you practice, the more confident and fluent you will become as a speaker and presenter.

Oral Presentations & Key Points to Remember

Here are more practical strategies you can use when you prepare for your presentations. The key considerations of written communication—your awareness of audience, purpose, topic, genre, and style—also apply to oral communication. When you begin to prepare for your presentations, ask the following questions:

Purpose What is the purpose of my presentation? What is the main message that I want to deliver to the audience? How can I achieve the main purpose of my presentation?

Topic: How much do I know about the topic? Where can I find more information about the topic? Who can help me to enhance my understanding of the topic?

Audience: How much knowledge does my audience have about my topic? What should I prepare to help my audience better understand my topic?

Style: What style (or format) am I going to use for my presentation (e.g. PowerPoint, Poster, Performance)? How much time do I need to prepare my presentation on the chosen style?

If you think that you do not have a good understanding of the topic of your presentation as of yet, you should do more in-depth research about the topic and talk with your instructor, librarians, classmates, or writing center tutors. If it is a group presentation, you should go through the list with your group members and check each group member’s work in relation to the assignment goals.

Just as there are different genres in written communication, there are also different genres in oral communication (e.g. seminars, class presentations, group discussions, conference presentations, colloquiums, workshops, job talks, role plays, interviews, etc.). Mini-workshops to improve your English pronunciation as well as presentations skills for your job interviews, workshops, and conference presentations may be offered in the future, so please visit this website for additional information.

Created by Young-Kyung Min, Ph.D.

For More Information on this Handbook

Contact Young Min, PhD
Lecturer, Education Program