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Oral Communication in teaching English as a foreign language in Syria

Mohammad Abdul-kareem Yousef
2019 / 7 / 22


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Mohammad Abdul-kareem Yousef (Syria)
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Abstract
The overall aim of this essay was to investigate what attitudes some English teachers and pupils in 9th grade in Syria have towards oral communication in the teaching of English. I wanted to find out why oral communication is an important part of the teaching of English, what factors teachers and pupils believe contribute to orally active pupils in the English foreign language classroom and what English teachers think of the assessment of pupils’ ability to express themselves orally in English. I have interviewed three English teachers, and 50 pupils in 9th grade have answered a questionnaire. The results show that the teachers and a majority of the pupils think that oral communication is an important part of the teaching of English, mainly because of the fact that being able to express yourself orally in English today is of great importance and because through this the pupils get to use the English language a lot themselves. Factors that contribute to verbally active pupils in the English classroom are a safe classroom atmosphere, pupils’ self-esteem, small groups, meaningful assignments, enthusiastic and encouraging teachers and motivated pupils. The results also show that the teachers believe that the assessment of pupils’ oral ability is hard because it is not as concrete as other skills that they assess in the English foreign language classroom. Other reasons why the assessment is hard are the problem of getting shy or unmotivated pupils to participate orally and lack of time.

Introduction
We live in an international world today where our ability to communicate in English is of great importance. The national syllabus for English in the Syrian compulsory school clearly emphasizes this by stating that English “is the dominant language of communication throughout the world. The ability to use English is necessary for studies, travel in other countries and for social and professional international contacts of different kinds”
In school within the subject of English it is vital that the pupils are given many opportunities to use their English and practice how to communicate verbally and express themselves in English. The national syllabus for English points out that each pupil at the end of year nine in The Syrian compulsory school should “be able to actively take part in discussions on familiar subjects and with the help of different strategies communicate effectively”
When teaching oral communication in English as a foreign language it is of great importance for the teacher to consider that our emotions, or the affective domain, have a significant impact on foreign language learning. One of the factors in the affective domain is self-esteem. Many Teachers in Syria examined how learners’ self-esteem affected their communicative activity in the target language and they noted that even though a language learner is communicatively competent it does not necessarily accord with “a high willingness to communicate”.
Over the years I have developed a sincere interest in the oral part of the teaching of English as a foreign language. In my teaching experience I have become aware of the fact that it is quite hard to get all pupils to take an active part in discussions and conversations in English. Many pupils in Syria , despite the fact that they have excellent English skills, are very quiet in class when practicing oral communication. To me it seems like a great challenge for an English teacher to motivate and encourage all pupils to be orally active in the English foreign language classroom. It also seems hard for the English teacher to assess the pupils’ ability to communicate orally in English because of the fact that the pupils’ oral activity is closely linked to their emotions.
The overall aim of this essay is to investigate what attitudes some English teachers and pupils in 9th grade in Sweden have towards oral communication in the English foreign language classroom.
More specific research questions are:
• Why is oral communication an important part of the teaching of English as a foreign language?
• What factors contribute to orally active pupils in the English foreign language classroom?
• What do English teachers think of the assessment of pupils’ ability to express themselves orally in English?
Communicative competence
The term Communicative competence was introduced by Dell Hymes in the 1970s. Hymes argued that besides having grammatical knowledge about a language the social and functional aspects of a language are equally important. Hymes explained the term communicative competence as “that aspect of our competence that enables us to convey and interpret messages and to negotiate meanings interpersonally within specific context” (Brown 2000:246). Communicative competence is a combination of four different competences. To be communicatively competent, according to Hymes, means that a person, apart from having grammatical competence, knows if an utterance is feasible or not, if it is appropriate or not and also if it is accepted usage (Tornberg 1997:40). The spoken communicative skill is complex. Since the utterances cannot be prepared in advance in a conversation a rather rapid usage of the language is required of the participants and what is being said must be right on a number of levels, that is “it must conform to the speaker’s aim, to the role relationships between the interactants, to the setting, topic, linguistic context etc” (Johnson & Morrow 1986:11).
Communicative competence and Syrian "English for Starters" series
Since the 2000s foreign language teaching in Syria has focused on communication where the pupils have been taught to use the language in a communicative context The current Syrian curriculum for the compulsory school states in its Goals and guidelines that school has to ensure that all pupils completing compulsory school “can communicate in speech and writing in English”. Further the current national syllabus for English in the Syrian compulsory school states that the school should aim for the pupils developing “an all-round communicative ability and the language skills necessary for international contacts”. The syllabus points out that the aim for pupils in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades should be that they:
(1)...develop their ability to use English to communicate in speech (2)...develop their ability to actively take part in discussions and express their own thoughts in English, as well as understand the views and experiences of others
(3)…develop their ability to use English orally in different contexts in order to relate, describe and explain, as well as give reasons for their views . The national syllabus for English in the Syrian compulsory school also contains goals that the pupil should have attained by the end of the ninth year in school in order to get a G in English. The goals which concern oral communication state that each pupil in school should:
(1)…be able to actively take part in discussions on familiar subjects and with the help of different strategies communicate effectively
(2)…be able to orally relate and describe something which they have seen, heard, experienced or read, as well as express and give their reasons on how they understand a topic that is of personal importance .
When it comes to the assessment of the pupils’ ability to interact verbally the national syllabus for English claims that the assessment of these interactive skills should be based on a pupil’s ability “to start, contribute to, develop and end a conversation”. Further a pupil should be assessed on his or her ability “to interpret different situations and adjust his or her language usage to the situation and receiver” . The statement in the syllabus, that pupils learn to communicate in and adapt their language to different contexts, is similar to the way Hymes described communicative competence . According to the national syllabus English teachers should not only assess pupils’ English skills when practicing oral communication but also how the pupils manage to solve various language problems when their knowledge of English is not enough. Here, the syllabus for English points out that English teachers should encourage their pupils “to compensate for this by using strategies, such as reformulating, or using synonyms, questions and body language”. The national test in English for pupils in 9th grade contains three parts where one (part A) tests the pupils’ ability to take part in a conversation and present something orally in English. The Ministry of Education claims that a pupil can pass the test even though he or she lacks relevant language knowledge as long as the communication works and the pupil is being understood .
Factors relevant to oral communication in the foreign language classroom:
The teaching situation
Lightbown & Spada point out two different ways of instructing pupils when teaching a foreign language, where the traditional instruction environment focuses on learning the target language itself and the communicative instruction environment emphasizes using the target language in conversations and other interactive language activities (Lightbown & Spada 1999:70). According to Lightbown & Spada (1999:73) the traditional structure-based approach to foreign language teaching emphasizes on practicing isolated grammatical structures and through this creating habits whereas the communicative approach focuses on communicating meaning. In the communicative approach teaching only focuses on grammar in order to make the communication work .
All language teachers should strive for pupils becoming communicatively competent. In order for this to happen the teacher should encourage the pupils’ own initiative to express themselves orally in the target language classroom (Ericsson 1993:217). A learner-centred activity such as group work, which forces pupils to talk to each other spontaneously asking each other questions and responding in a natural way, is one example of how this can be practiced. Through group-work “students produce not only a greater quantity but also a greater variety of language functions (for example, disagreeing, hypothesizing, requesting, clarifying, and defining)” (Lightbown & Spada 1999:85).
Motivation
Learning is an active process within the pupil and when acquiring new knowledge motivation has a decisive influence on the result (Ericsson 1993:74-75). With the increased emphasis on communication in the foreign language classroom a very challenging task for foreign language teachers is to get the pupils to take active part in conversations where they express themselves freely. A reason why this can be hard is the fact that pupils do not really have a real reason to talk to each other and the language classroom many times feels artificial to them. Ur (2005:5-6) claims that in order to get the pupils to communicate with each other and express themselves freely in the target language it is necessary to use interesting topics, but more importantly the discourse must have a meaningful purpose. A language can never be regarded as an isolated phenomenon but instead language should always be taught and practiced in a context (Ericsson 1993:49). In the 60s Ausubel distinguished between rote learning and meaningful learning, where he argued that different items of a language should not be acquired separately. According to Ausubel language should be acquired in a meaningful way. Brown explains this further by claiming that:
The foreign language classroom should not become the locus of excessive rote activity: rote drills, pattern practice without context, rule recitation, and other activities that are not in the context of meaningful communication .
Self-esteem
Our emotions, or the affective domain, have a significant impact on foreign language learning. Even though linguists agree on this it is difficult to describe the factors scientifically (Brown 2000: 142-143). In the 1960s Benjamin Bloom defined the affective domain in five levels which involve the notion of receiving, responding and valuing. This is explained as follows: Second language learners need to be receptive both to those with whom they are communicating and to the language itself, responsive to persons and to the context of communication, and willing and able to place a certain value on the communicative act of interpersonal exchange One of the factors of the affective domain is self-esteem. MacIntyre, Dörnyei, Clément and Noels examined the relation between self-esteem and a learner’s willingness to communicate in the target language. They noted that “a high level of communicative ability does not necessarily correspond with a high willingness to communicate.” Tornberg points out that pupils who study a foreign language usually think that it is important to be able to speak the language. However according to Tornberg to be able to communicate in the target language a certain amount of self-esteem is required: “The pupil has to more or less decide to dare to throw him-/herself into that uncertainty that limited language knowledge mean” Brown also mentions the importance of pupils being courageous in the foreign language classroom and points out that a pupil’s self-esteem is stimulated by a classroom climate where the pupils accept each other. This can also be related to Stephen Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis, where Krashen claims that foreign language acquisition will happen “in environments where anxiety is low and defensiveness absent” .
Method
The method of interviewing the teachers was chosen because I wanted to get access to their attitudes towards oral communication in the English foreign language classroom. Through this the subjects would be able to answer in their own words and it would enable me to ask follow-up questions. Here, a semi-structured interview form, where all the questions were prepared in advance and put together in an interview, was chosen to enable the interviews to be of the same kind and also because the answers would be easier to analyze and structure in the Result and analysis chapter of the essay.
Material
The three English teachers, who were chosen to be interviewed, all attended their language teaching training after 1994, which is the year when the current curriculum was introduced in the Syrian compulsory school. The three English teachers whom I interviewed for my essay are all female and they have been working as upper-secondary-level language teachers for about six-seven years. In the presentation of the results from the interviews the interviewed teachers are presented by the fictitious names Kholoud, Sara and Lina. Except for English they also teach Syrians at three different upper compulsory schools in the Syrian Coast. All three schools are public schools with about 200-250 pupils. The pupils who participated in my investigation come from three different classes in 9th grade from two of the schools where the interviews of the English teachers who participated in my investigation were carried out. None of the teachers whom I interviewed in my investigation teach the 85 pupils who participated in my investigation.

Net surfing :
Since 2017 The Syrian Educational system added a move on in the learning process is to push pupils to surf the web for further information. This step will surely add a new step to the learning process so that the pupil shall try to find out what he needs in his learning from the web .
Results
In my presentation of the results I will analyze and discuss the answers from the interviews and connect the result to the previous work in my essay. The quotes from the interviewed teachers were translated into English.
Why oral communication is an important part of the teaching of English as a foreign language
All three teachers refer to the curricular documents when explaining why they think oral communication is an important part of the teaching of English as a foreign language. One of the teachers (Kholoud) says: “Practicing oral communication is important because the syllabus for English and the curriculum say that English teachers should provide the pupils with different assignments where they practice speaking English.” It is interesting to note that the teachers mention the curricular documents first of all when answering this question. This indicates that teachers nowadays are well-aware of how important it is to follow the directions of the curricular documents as a teacher. The teachers specifically refer to the goals to attend in the syllabus for English. As mentioned above the national syllabus for English in the Syrian compulsory school contains goals that the pupil should have attained by the end of the ninth year in school in order to get a pass mark in the course.
Factors that contribute to orally active pupils in the English foreign language classroom
The teachers mention that an important factor which contributes to orally active pupils in English is that the pupils feel confident in the classroom. One of the teachers (Sara) expresses this opinion by saying: “The key word is a safe classroom climate. If they believe in themselves, accept and trust each other and if they know me well that is of great importance.” The fact that a safe classroom climate is important in the work of creating a communicative language classroom is clear. All teachers mention the problem with shy pupils. One of the teachers (Sara) explains that: “In every class there are a few pupils who are very insecure of themselves and because of this they are very quiet in class and that is truly difficult to deal with.” In addition the teachers mention another significant factor: enthusiastic and encouraging language teachers. They all point out what an important part the teacher plays in the work of getting the pupils orally active in the foreign language classroom. One teacher (Linn) motivates her opinion by saying: “The teacher must inspire the pupils, encourage them and support them.” Another teacher (Sara) says that: “The teacher should try to make them accept each other and believe in themselves and their ability.” All teachers point out their own responsibility in getting the shy pupils to express themselves in the foreign language classroom. One teacher (Sara) explains that: “It is my responsibility to create situations where shy pupils can be able to show what they can. Smaller groups for instance. Sometimes I have to take them aside and talk to them alone.” The opinions about a safe classroom climate and the pupils’ self-esteem expressed by the teachers can be related to one of Stephen Krashen’s five hypotheses, The Affective Filter Hypothesis, where Krashen claims that foreign language acquisition will happen “in environments where anxiety is low and defensiveness absent”
The assessment of the pupils’ ability to communicate orally
The teachers answer that they think the assessment of the pupils’ ability to express themselves orally in English is harder than anything else they assess in the English foreign language classroom. One of them (Sara) explains this further by saying: “It’s harder to assess oral communication since it is not as concrete as for instance a listening comprehension or a written test that the pupils have studied for.” Another reason why the assessment is hard according to the teachers is lack of time. One teacher (Sara) says: “You never have as much time as you wish, it is not possible to talk to each pupil face to face. You simply can’t do that when you have 30 pupils in class.” Another teacher (Lina) says: “It’s hard to be able to listen to all the pupils when they sit and talk to each other in groups or in pairs. I walk around and try to listen to as many pupils as possible but it is difficult to get a clear picture of what every pupil said or how they participated in the assignment.”
Results of pupils’ questionnaire
Each question from the questionnaire was translated into English and will be presented separately with a table. After each table the data will be described a bit more thoroughly.
Do you think English is fun?
N %
Not fun at all 3 4
Quite fun 29 34
Fun 30 35
Very fun 23 27
Total 85 100

The majority of the pupils are positive towards the subject of English. 62% of the pupils answer that English is “fun” or “very fun”. Only 4% of the pupils who participated in the investigation refer to English as “not fun at all”. This result agrees to some extent with a national survey which established that many Syrian pupils think that English is one of the most important subjects in school.
Are you good at English?
N %
Not fun at all 7 8
Quite fun 17 20
Fun 38 45
Very fun 23 27
Total 85 100
A clear majority, 72% of the pupils, view themselves as “good” or “very good” at English. It is interesting to compare this to the fact that 62% of the pupils say that English is “fun” or “very fun” in Table 1. These results agree with the general attitude among Syrians and people outside Syria : that we are good at English in Syria.
Conclusion
The overall aim of this essay was to investigate what attitudes English teachers and pupils in 9th grade in Syria have towards oral communication in the teaching of English. I wanted to find out why they believe that oral communication is an important part of the teaching of English and what factors they believe contribute to orally active pupils in the English foreign language classroom. I also wanted to know what English teachers think of the assessment of pupils’ ability to communicate orally in English. For my investigation I have interviewed three English teachers, and 85 pupils in 9th grade have answered a questionnaire. The results show that the teachers and the majority of the pupils believe that oral communication is an important part of the teaching of English as a foreign language. The teachers think that practicing oral communication is important because through this the pupils get to use the target language a lot themselves.






Bibliography
Brown, H Douglas. 2000. Principles of language teaching and learning. 4th edition. White Plains, NY: Longman. Ericsson, Eie. 1993.
Johnson, Keith & Morrow, Keith. 1986. Communication in the classroom. 7th impression. Essex: Longman Group Limited.
Lightbown, Patsy & Spada, Nina. 1999. How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Littlewood, William. 1992. Teaching oral communication. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Rivers, Wilga. 1992. Interactive language teaching. 5th printing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




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