Helping ESL Students to Make their Speech More Understandable


By John Kostovich

Miami Dade College

EAP / Foreign Languages Department

Hialeah Campus



One thing I have noticed having taught English as a Second Language over the years and in many different environments is the problem most teachers have getting students to improve their speech so that it is more intelligible to native speakers of English. I have tried all kinds of approaches and techniques when teaching speech ranging from tightly controlled mechanical drills to free and open conversations just to let students talk, etc. Actually, a little bit of all these drills and open-ended activities is good. What most pronunciation courses seem to be lacking, in my opinion, is a focused, deliberate, private practice called covert rehearsal (from Speech Craft, by Laura Han and Wayne Dickerson. University of Michigan Press.)  In the introduction to their book, Dr. Han and Dr. Dickerson describe covert rehearsal as “the activity of private, focused practice that is done by the students themselves, not in class.” They go on to say that “good language learners practice by themselves and do it a lot.” They give some suggestions on how this should be done.


1.       Spend time every day talking to yourself in English. When you are walking to and from classes, while you are doing your laundry, before you fall asleep at night, you should be talking to yourself in English. Think about the discussion you will lead the next day, imagine that you are in a seminar, and participate in made-up conversations with your co-workers.


2.       Make your practice effective. While you are thinking about the talking you may be doing, listen carefully to your articulations. Critique the accuracy and fluency of your language use. (Record yourself on audio or video) Examine your own speech to see if it follows the language rules you know. If it does, practice it again and again until it comes naturally! If it doesn’t seem right, analyze what you do and make improvements.


3.       Practice in a variety of ways. Talk aloud to yourself (even if you feel strange!). Write an outline of a short talk and “talk” it out loud. You can also tape-record yourself and listen critically to what you said. Some students also benefit from talking in front of a mirror, so that they can observe their facial movements and expressions.


I feel that several important implications can be made from the above three suggestions as to how we might make changes in what we do in the classroom and what kind of outside assignments we give to our speech students. By extension, it can also suggest to us how we should communicate with our students when we encounter them in the hallways and other areas outside of the classroom, giving them the opportunity to use English even there. I do recognize that dramatic changes in speech do not occur in the course of one semester, but over a few semesters there should be some noticeable improvements in the speech of our students. In one semester, there should be some change that has taken place even if it means recognizing the syllable stress in words of two syllables or more, or even pronouncing something correctly 50 percent of the time instead of 10 percent of the time. With the addition of covert rehearsal activities done by the students, I think their progress can be accelerated.


One covert rehearsal activity that I have my EAP 1501 and 1502 students do is to write journals. Here is how I do it.


So far, the reaction from my students has been fairly good. Most students appear to actually do it. There are some who do not. But I do see the students taking more responsibility for improving their own speech. That is always a good sign of progress being made.

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