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Improving Students Speaking Skills Through the Use of Stories By Mohd Shahidan Hasan Basri Cohort 5, B. Ed.

TESL, IPG-KBA INTRODUCTION The Malaysian government has continuously encouraged graduates to master English for better chances of employment and to be internationally competent in the job industry (Utusan Malaysia, 2007). However, a government survey found that nearly 60,000 Malaysian graduates are unemployed because they have low command of English language (News Straits Times, 2005). This is made worse by the current trend where many companies tend to employ workers who have good command in English language. English has four major skills which are listening, speaking, reading and writing. I believe speaking is the most important skill that students need to acquire before they leave schools. Ministry of Education (2003) states that by the end of the primary school, learners should be able to speak clearly by pronouncing accurately and speaking with correct stress, intonation, and sentence pattern. Therefore, based on this statement, teachers should take responsibility in ensuring that students are capable of speaking properly as they leave primary schools. However, Mohd Sofi (2003) mentions that the speaking skills have been practically neglected by primary English Second Language teachers. Interviews with primary English teachers reveal that the schools and educational authorities are not bothered with the development of speaking and listening in the primary schools because pupils speaking and listening skills are not tested in primary examinations (Mohd Sofi, 2003). As such, teachers are more focused on teaching reading and writing skills as these skills would be tested in examinations. WHAT IS MY PROBLEM? I could still remember when I was in primary year five, the teaching of English language mostly involved the memorization of grammar rules. There was little or no chance for us to practice speaking skills in the classroom because most of the time, the teacher would be the one who did the talking. In addition, my teacher believed that drilling was the best and quickest method to ensure that students received as much input as possible. The teacher was left with very little time as he had to prepare us for the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) examination. 1

On the top of that, most activities in the classroom were mainly about the writing and copying teachers notes on the board. I had no chance to be involved in group activities that could encourage me to speak English in the classroom. When I was placed at Sekolah Kebangsaan La Salle Sentul for school based experience, I had an opportunity to observe a few English lessons. From my observation, I noticed that English teachers at this school still used teacher-centred approach when teaching the year four students. The teachers read the textbook to students and after that the teachers would write some important points on the blackboard. Moon (2005) believes that students need to use English language in order to survive and to conduct everyday lives such as making friends and travelling. Therefore, I can say that during this observation, students were indeed given the opportunity to speak and use the language in the classroom, but it only occurred at very minimum level. While I was studying in the United Kingdom, I had a chance to observe a few native speakers classrooms. The lessons that I observed were much more interesting and engaging. For example, in a lesson that I observed, the teacher was teaching students about verb. Instead of writing down the grammatical rules on the board, the teacher gave students a newspaper article and asked them to highlight the verb in groups. I believe that students enjoyed this activity more rather than when the teacher explaining the grammatical rules on the board. Moon (2005) highlights that it is important for teachers to provide activities which are enjoyable and interesting and which make students want to continue doing the activity so they get more practice. Apart from asking students to highlight verb in the newspaper article, the teacher asked students to write down the verbs that they found in the article on the board. Nonetheless, I think teaching too many verbs exposed to students at one time could lead to cognitive overload. In fact, some students did not understand the meaning of some words although they were native speakers of English language. Therefore, they just remained silent throughout the lesson and were reluctant to speak. Through my personal experience, observations, as well as interviews from some students both locally and abroad, I can say that there are two main reasons why students speaking skills do not improve. The first reason is the way the teacher teaches students does not encourage them to speak the language. The second reason is giving too much input to students at one time could discourage them from speaking about the topic discussed because they are experiencing cognitive overload.

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE PROBLEM? In order to understand this problem better, I have read some literature regarding the problems experienced by Malaysian students. According to Mohd Hilmi and Ting (2006), to solve speaking problems among foreign language learners like Malaysian students, teachers have to prepare students to use the language based on classroom activities. Moreover, Duncan (2009) believes that suitable activities in classrooms would be able to create opportunities for students to speak the target language. He also added that students are likely to gain confidence to speak and work with other people if they can express themselves in the target language. I also learned that in helping students to speak the target language to share understandings with other people, attention to precise details of the language is required (Cameron, 2001). It means that teachers should plan activities carefully and use the most appropriate words to convey messages to students. When students understand the meaning of words and sentence patterns, they will be able to speak in the English language. Based on the findings mentioned above and on my personal experience, I believe that activities carried out in the classroom play an important role in improving students speaking skills. Personally, I believe that activities carried out by teachers should allow students to practice and use the language. This is important for students because when they can communicate with foreigners, they will have a bright future. More importantly, the objective of the English syllabus in primary school clearly states that learners should be able to speak and respond clearly and appropriately in common everyday situations using simple language (Ministry of Education, 2003). Apart from activities carried out in the classroom, exposing too much vocabulary to students at one time can be a contributing factor to students lack of participation in the classroom activities. According to Chitravelu et al. (2005), students are likely to remain passive in classroom activities if too much vocabulary is being delivered at a given time. Low-ability students especially, cannot cope with too much input. If this happens, they tend to ignore what the teacher been explaining in the classroom. Such situation can bring students to a level where they feel that they cannot speak English properly because they are confused with all the vocabulary presented.

WHAT IS MY PROPOSED ACTION? Referring to the problems that I have discussed above, I proposed the use of stories in helping students improve their speaking skills. Stories can serve as a platform for students to practice their speaking skills in the classroom. Moon (2005) highlights that young learners in general have strong desire and enthusiasm to interact and carry over into foreign language learning as they immediately try to use the language to express their thought and feelings regardless their limited mastery of the language. This is likely to happen because students do enjoy telling stories to friends and responding to stories. Meanwhile, Halliwell (1992) claims that students can always learn the language, but the only way to learn the language and to be fluent in it is by practicing using the language. Without speaking, students will not be able to master the language and therefore will never become good and fluent speakers of English. In relation to this, stories can serve as a focal point for a range of activities that would promote speaking among students in Malaysia classrooms. This is supported by Cameron (2001) who argues that stories can create a world of characters who communicate with one another and this discourse world offers opportunities for interactive activities and work that may promote the development of speaking skills. Throughout six consecutive English lessons (refer to table 1 below), I will start the lesson by telling students a story. The story that I choose must contain a number of repetitive sentences. This is important because students will use the chunks of language in speech as whole phrases when they have very little language (Moon, 2005). I believe this is a good start for low-ability students to talk in the classroom because they will use the language in the story to speak with their friends. Then, for the next stage, I will invite students to predict what will happen next in the story. Personally, I feel that when students are encouraged to predict sequences of events in the story, they will improve their speaking skills because they will share their ideas with one another. Also, asking students to predict events in the story would develop students thinking skills as they need to think what will happen next in the story. Shatzer (2008) believes that young learners are excited to make predictions in the story and they will listen intently to see if their predictions are correct. Finally, I will ask students to discuss and present the event in the story in groups. During the discussion, I will go come around to prompt students with words while they are telling the story

in their groups. For example, if students are describing characteristics of Si Tanggang, I will help them by giving some words such as ungrateful, smart, and rich to help them describe the characters effectively. I believe that by doing this, students will feel more comfortable to talk in groups as they have some ideas to talk about. I will also invite a few selected students to share the story with the whole class so that all students can listen to pronunciation of words and have some ideas about the storylines. Table 1: Proposed activities using six different stories Lesson 1 2 3 4 5 6 Story Si Tanggang the Ungrateful Son The Very Lazy Ladybird Thumbelina Hansel and Gretel The Fox and the Crow The Happy Prince Activities 1) Teacher tells the story to students. 2) Teacher stops in the middle of the story and asks students to predict what will happen next in the story. 3) Teacher asks students to discuss events in the story in groups. 4) Teacher asks some students to present the events in the story to the whole class. 5) Teacher tells moral values from the story.

WHAT IS MY RESEARCH QUESTION? Throughout this research, one question will guide me: Can the use of stories improve students speaking skills? WHO WILL MY STUDENTS FOR THIS STUDY BE? For the purpose of this action research, I have selected a weaker year four (4) classroom as weaker students tend to have poor speaking skills. Also, these proposed actions can act as a form of remedial action. Moreover, low-ability students from low socio-economic background will be given a priority in this study. The reason behind this is a few studies conducted have shown that there is a correlation between socio-economic backgrounds and school achievements where well-to-do students of all ethnic groups seem to portray higher level of school success than poor students (Woolfolk, 2010). Another finding by Chtravelu et al. (2005) show that the

majority of students who come from low socio-economic background have limited exposure to English in their daily lives and also their motivation to learn English is relatively low. Thus, this study is aimed at improving speaking skills among low-ability students from low socio-economic background. WHAT INSTRUMENTS WILL I USE? To determine whether my action has succeeded or failed, I will record data on three fronts. First, I will use a short five-item questionnaire (refer Appendix A, page10). An example of the item is I feel my command in English has improved. Students need to respond to the items based on 5point rating scale from Totally Disagree (1) to Totally Agree (5). The questionnaire will be administered twice. The first distribution is before the implementation of action which is before students participate in stories activities during the English lesson. In other words, students will respond to the questionnaire based on their experience of the usual Chalk and Talk lesson. After the two weeks of using the story in the English lesson, students will then be asked to respond to the questionnaire again. Next, the second way to collect data is by observation journal. I will record what I observe, hear, and talk about with students. In particular, I will focus on what students feel about their speaking skills after doing story activities. Finally, I will record students speaking using the audio tape. I will select six students comprising two low-ability students, two medium-ability students, and two high-ability students and ask them some questions (refer Appendix B, page 11). I will do this recording before the implementation of teaching using the stories and after the implementation of teaching using the stories. HOW WILL I RECORD AND ANALYSE MY DATA? In order to determine the success of this study, I will distribute questionnaires to students. I will find the mean of students responses before and after the implementation of story activities as in the table 2 below:

Table 2: Comparison of Students Perception towards Speaking English Before and After the Use of Story No. Item Mean Responses Before 1 2 3 4 5 I find the English lesson is enjoyable. I feel my command in English has improved. I feel more confident to speak in the classroom. I think learning using the story helps me to speak English. I manage to explain events in the story to my friends. Mean After Diff

From the table above, I will be able to tell if there is a change in students perception towards speaking skills through the use of story. If the mean responses are higher both for the individual items as well as for the overall item, then, it can be said that the use of story has helped students to improve their speaking skills. If otherwise, it will indicate that the action has failed. Moreover, I will support my findings through the entries in my observations journals and with short reports where applicable. For instance, I would write a short observations journal such as: Today, I observed Linda who was sharing her ideas on what would happen next in the Very Lazy Ladybird story with her friends in the group. Linda looked so excited to share her prediction about the story although previously she was a passive student. She has limited number of vocabulary to explain the events in the story, but she tried her best to explain the events by using gestures. Also her friends were very supportive and prompted her with some words. As I came along to the group, Linda called me and she explained to me in English what she felt about the ladybird story. To my surprise, Linda managed to speak English quite well and used words in the story correctly when explaining characteristics of that ladybird such as lazy, stubborn, and keen. I also asked Linda what she felt about her English language and she told me that she is now capable of explaining things in English quite well as compared to previous lessons. She also added that she enjoyed every moment during the English hours. An example of observation journal

Regarding the audio taping students speaking, I will determine the success of my action when students are able to provide me with good explanations towards my questions. If they cannot respond well to my questions, it shows that this action has failed. WHAT OUTCOME(S) DO I EXPECT? I am positive that this action would be successful. Obviously, there are several points that I might overlook in this action research. I hope that I can identify and improve them. Whatever the outcome, I believe that I will gain some useful insights about improving students speaking skills though the use of stories. Therefore, learning more about the ways to improve students speaking skills would be the central aim of my study. The next course of my action will depend on the result of this first cycle. Possibly, the use of stories to improve students speaking skills needs refining. If that is the case, my next cycle would still be on the use of stories but with some adjustments. Nonetheless, if I find that the use of stories is inappropriate, I might use another strategy such as using games or using role plays. I always look forward to finding new strategies that can help students in learning.

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