ESOL speaking strategies
These tips will help you to
- understand the difference between formal and informal language and when to use these different styles
- develop your speaking skills
- contribute to tutorial and other group discussions
Informal and formal language
Knowing the difference between informal and formal language will help you to say the right thing, in the right place, at the right time, to the right person!
You are most likely to find formal language in most lecturers, academic writing, and formal presentations. If the language presented to you has the following elements, it is formal.
- Formal vocabulary: E.g. ‘commence’ rather than ‘start’ (see a good English-English dictionary).
- The grammatical structures: E.g. The passive is used to avoid personal pronouns - “The experiment was completed in June” rather than “We completed the experiment in June”.
- The avoidance of absolutes (will/is) for possible modals (might/may/could).
- The avoidance of contractions, e.g. ‘Don't’ instead of ‘Do not’.
- Longer, more complex sentence structures.
You are most likely to find informal language in conversations between friends, and in study groups and tutorials. If the language presented to you has the following elements, it is informal.
- The vocabulary: Slang or colloquialisms.
- Short sentences: E.g. “Speak up.”
- Directness or impoliteness: “You obviously didn't know what you were doing.”
Appropriate language with your tutors/lecturers
- While many will approach you as an equal, you are expected to be friendly but respectful.
- Many tutors and lecturers prefer you to call them by their first name.
- Find out the most appropriate way to communicate with tutors/lecturers (make an appointment in advance, fixed drop-in times, email, or phone).
- Do not leave it until the last minute to ask questions.
If you know you need to improve your pronunciation so that people can understand you better, you may like to try the following suggestions:
- Speak clearly and appropriately.
- Slow down and articulate your sounds.
- Use stress, rhythm and intonation to convey meaning.
- Compensate for misunderstanding by offering alternative vocabulary.
- Check the appropriate style for the situation.
Pronouncing new vocabulary correctly
- Step 1: Look at the IPA symbols (phonetic symbols) section of your dictionary and any accompanying notes. For example, see page xxii in the Collins cobuild advanced learner's English dictionary (2003).
- Step 2: Match the phonetic symbols for your word in your dictionary to the IPA symbols table.
- Step 3: Check the stress symbols for your word.
- (If you have a good monolingual (English-English) dictionary with a CD-ROM, continue to Step 4. If not, either borrow one from the Massey library or go to Step 5).
- Step 4: Use the accompanying CD-ROM for sound recordings to match your word. The CD-ROM will also record your pronunciation and match it against the sound recording. You can also do this for word stress (see below).
- Step 5: Practice the word regularly in your speech with native English speakers to test you are making the correct sounds, and for practice. Add the word and its pronunciation (with phonetic symbols and stress marks) to your vocabulary notebook.
Stress is when a syllable or word is said with more force than the words or syllables around it.
You can find word stresses in the dictionary. The stress sign usually looks like this ( ' ) or this ( ).
Intonation is the rise and fall of your tone of voice. This is important because it shows
- the end of your ideas;
- a question or a statement; and
- how you feel about what you are saying.
For example, a falling intonation means a statement has ended, while a rising intonation generally indicates a question or uncertainty.
Including yourself in discussions
Different cultures have different ‘wait times’. ‘Wait time’ is the time delay between someone speaking and someone responding. If you have a long wait time you may often feel as though people are talking ‘over the top’ of you. Consequently, you may feel left out of discussions. If you do feel left out, try these suggestions:
- Make eye contact with the speaker or the leader of the discussion.
- Lean forward slightly and raise a hand.
- Try to speak early on. This will indicate you are keen to contribute.
- “Could I just make a point?”
- “Could I say…?”
- “Ah, I'd like to say…”
- “Yes, that's quite right. And I'd like to add…”
- “May I add something?”
- “May I come in here?”
- “Can I ask…?”
- Ask someone to repeat what they said or to explain more about it.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, explain your dilemma to your study / tutorial group. They may be more sensitive to your situation if you do explain.
- Discuss course and assignment content in tutorials and study groups (brainstorm). You need to talk about material in order to become an active user of it.
- Try to speak in tutorials right at the beginning to show you are interested in contributing.
- Be creative in finding ways to speak in English with other native English speakers.
- Talk to yourself in English! (This is especially useful when simplifying sentences and paraphrasing).
- Ask when you do not understand.
References and further reading
Cruttendon, A. (Ed.). (2014). Gimson's pronunciation of English (8th ed.). Arnold. [Massey Library link]
Hancock, M. (2003). English pronunciation in use pack. Cambridge University Press. [Massey Library link]