You may be wondering, five? Well, once you understand AND implement these steps, and start seeing the results you get, you will come to know why each of them is essential. To improve any skill, in fact, takes 5 steps. Improving English (or any other language) speaking is no different.
How to Improve English Speaking Skills
It is curious that most traditional ways of teaching or even of learning English concentrate on reading and writing. Odd isn't it? It's a bit like saying that I can learn to play piano by reading and writing music. I think the vast majority of people get that is not possible. That is why if you want to know how to improve English speaking skills, then you must focus on speaking. Here are 5 steps that will show you precisely how to improve English speaking skills
Speaking and listening are skills, in the same way that playing piano or golf are, or for that matter driving a car or dancing are. Of course speaking a language is far more complex but the principles are exactly the same.
So what are the core steps in learning a skill:
- have a need or just decide to learn it
- become aware of something that can be done or improved to learn that skill
- work at the way you do that skill (taking it on or adjusting it)
- remain present to what you observed and what you are doing
- keep returning to 2 and going through the steps until you are performing at a level that requires no further improvement
Lets now have a look at these 5 steps in a little more detail in relation to speaking English.
Step 1. Have a need, make a decision or just do it for fun!
This step can take many forms. You may need to learn English as you may have moved to an English speaking country or you decide one day you might so you decide to learn it.
Or you may have a much more immediate need because someone didn't understand you, or because you know your level is too poor for what you want to do. Maybe get a job, talk to your friend, etc.
Alternatively, you may just get engaged in the process of learning for the sake of itself...just seems like a bit of fun!
Whatever the reason, improvement can ONLY happen if you go through the following 5 steps.
The ones who achieve native like proficiency are the ones who have mastered all the steps, especially Step 5. The ones who get stuck don't fully get one or more of the steps.
Sometimes it is not a need or a decision that has you learn. It just comes from an observation, Step 2.
Step 2. Become aware through listening
Here is where a lot of problems start showing up. Listening is the skill you need to develop if you are to master this step. Understanding something is very different to becoming aware of something. I can understand that:
- putting too much salt into my soup will make it yuk. But it is not until I taste it and notice that it is terrible will I start to know how much salt is needed to make it nice. Or
- that cold weather means I need to put on more clothes or turn up the heating. However it is not until I become aware of the temperature that I can know just how much I need to change.
So too an understanding of how the articles ( a / an / the) work in English (gained from some textbook or teacher) is VERY different to noticing how they work.
We can put it simply like this:
Awareness comes from our perception and our senses making sense of the unknown.
An awareness we can only come to for ourselves. We may be able to explain it. However until you experience it for yourself, what you heard or read about remains an understanding.
Whereas Understanding comes entirely from the mind.
We can communicate an understanding in words. Explaining to somebody about a grammar point may help them understand it but of itself will not help them use it.
In life of course, it can get more complex and the distinction can become a bit grey sometimes. However, this distinction can help us understand a lot about what can go wrong in this step.
An example of reaching an awareness is realising that when it is cold and I put on a coat, I am less cold. Once I realise that, then I don't have to remember that I need to put on a cold when I get cold. I just do it.
Whereas, if I am told to do it and have not yet noticed the change that happens when I put on my coat, it means I have to remember to put on my coat when it gets cold.
It is exactly the same in learning English. When you learn something through understanding, you need to remember what you learned.
When you learn through awareness, it becomes a part of who you are, so having to remember is not really a problem. Who needs to be reminded to put on a coat in winter? All that needs to be triggered is the awareness, not the whole understanding.
Having an awareness triggered will prompt you to recall.
In the video clip above is an example of having an awareness triggered by a teacher. This student already knows at one level what she needs to do. She just needs to have certain realisations triggered, for her to say what she needs to to make herself more easily understood.
An example of coming to an awareness by yourself may be noticing a new sound said in a word you already knew about but before you hadn't noticed. Noticing that sound can set of a whole train of thoughts in your mind:
- what is it doing there?
- was it always there?
- does everybody say it like that?
- do I?
- what do I need to do to say it that way
And sooner or later, action is required. Once you start experimenting, you will not need much to remind you to do that tomorrow. The stress on remembering may not be entirely removed but VERY considerably reduced, as now the sounds you hear or say will trigger the memory, not your effort. This is a critical step in learning how to improve your English speaking skills.
Step 3. Adjust what you do
Without adjusting what you do, no improvement is possible. It doesn't matter how good your understanding is or how aware you are. Without exercising your will to change what you do, no improvement is possible. It does not really matter whether you are successful or not here. Step 4 is designed to help you sort that out. What matters here is that you do something. Anything is preferable to nothing!
There are people who want to be right in what they do. Many times that is not possible, especially as you start out. It is just the way it is. Improvement to an acceptable standard typically takes a number of times. Try cooking the perfect roast or dumpling the first time. Not going to happen. If it does, it is a fluke and most likely will not be repeated the second time.
Not only do you need to adjust what you are saying, you keep need to doing in different situations. Learning to improve this skill needs you to keep speaking it in different ways and situations.
Then, there are other people who just get stuck at this step because they don't get that there is a step 4. Or if they do, they just don't act. This can happen for a variety of reasons. No matter what the reason, for the person who wishes to improve their speaking, action is non-negotiable!
Step 4. Remain present in your listening
What this means is that you have to stay aware about what YOU do.
With noticing you can see:
- if what you said in step 4 is closer to what you noticed in step 2.
- if what you noticed in step 2 has changed. A change here can happen because your awareness can be heightened through the action you took.
The pleasure in mastering saying something, or the disappointment in "mucking it up" can cause you to lose sight of the goal here. The goal is to notice what is going on, pure and simple. Be present to what you did.
Improving how you listen and what you listen for is critical. Just by putting more of your attention into your listening will help you improve your listening. Sometimes there is more needed or maybe you want to go faster. This is where some outside input can really help here.
A problem as a teacher that I see time and time again are learners who don't trust themselves and look to the teacher for guidance. Learning to trust yourself and your perceptions are a key. When you are playing piano, most people can hear if they hit the wrong key. You don't need a teacher for that. The same needs to be developed in your relationship with how you speak English
(A teacher does have roles, BUT they should not do what the learner can do for themselves. Once they do that, they weaken the student.)
A key here is the understanding that you can only become aware of things at the level you are at. So it is unrealistic for you to expect to be aware of what a more advanced speaker might know. It is MUCH better to focus on where you are at and work from there, a step at a time.
This step is all about being present to what you did, whereas the next is deciding to do something about it.
Step 5. Return to Step 2
This step is a key to anyone who wishes to get to the very highest of levels. In step 4 you may have noticed some things. In this step it is all about recognising if there is anything else you can see that needs to be changed or improved. Then making a decision to do something about it, that is return to step 2.
As long as you keep going back to step 2 and working through the steps to step 5, you will keep improving. One day, you may well get, "No, there is nothing else I can improve here!". You may then realise that you are at the level you want to be.
In Step 3 you now need to drive your awareness a bit deeper about what it is that separates what you hear yourself say from what you hear another say. As long as you can keep working in this way and improving, great.
However, you may decide to get some outside assistance to check if there is anything else you can become aware of. Either, because you have come to an end of what you can notice or because you wish to go a bit faster.
The skilled teacher/coach, if they have learned to distinguish awareness from understanding and know what each takes, may say something to you like,
"Put some more attention in to how you are connecting words." or
"The way you are stressing that word is non standard" or
"There is something about how you go from one idea to the next...? etc
Then they will let you explore that by yourself.
Once you master the 5 steps I have outlined here, you will be well on your way to knowing (in theory and in practice) how to improve your English speaking skills. Working at awareness, rather than understanding will drive your understandings deeper and make the different awarenesses you come to factors that have you want to change. It will also reduce the sense of forcing and of struggle which so many unsuccessful English language learners talk about. Wouldn't that be something!