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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’


Aug. 2009, Volume 7, No.8 (Serial No.71)

US-China Foreign Language, ISSN 1539-8080, USA

Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development
FAN Xian-long
(School of Foreign Studies, Central South University, Changsha 410083, China)

Abstract: Among the four kinds of language skills of Chinese learners of English, oral skills are found to be the weakest, which are certainly incompatible with the demands of the increasingly growing intercultural communication. This paper, based on a survey among a group of students and the author’s observation of the Chinese students’ English learning, studies the main problems Chinese English major students face in developing their oral skills: Lack of confidence and lack of practice, two major obstacles to their improvement. In effect, students’ lack of confidence is closely related to their fear of losing face, which, in turn, affects their motivation to seek opportunities to practice the target language. Learning the language this way has actually created a vicious cycle of learning, which explains why satisfactory teaching effects cannot be achieved. Following a detailed analysis of the students’ problems and related factors, the author presents some practical classroom strategies in a holistic approach, which has proved helpful in dealing with the problems. Those strategies effectively help lower students’ “affective filter” and overcome their fear of losing face so as to build up their self-confidence. Additionally, these strategies help provide students with adequate opportunities for oral practice of the language, thus transforming the previous vicious cycle into a virtuous one and eventually resulting in enhancing the students’ communicative competence. Key words: Chinese students; oral skills development; self-confidence; practice; communicative competence

1. Introduction
“For many people”, as Anne Lazaraton (2001, p. 103) observes, “the ability to speak a language is synonymous with knowing that language since speech is the most basic means of human communication”. Nowadays, speaking ability of English learners, especially English majors in China, has been drawing increasingly greater attention. For the speeding-up globalization and increasing contacts between China and the outside world have made it increasingly necessary for Chinese learners to be all-round English professionals who can directly contact native speakers, being able to engage themselves in political, economic, cultural and academic exchanges with westerners, using English as a serviceable tool in cross-cultural communication in their future career. However, “speaking in a second or foreign language has often been viewed as the most demanding of four skills” and “a formidable task for language learners” (Bailey & Savage, 1994, pp. vi-vii). This is especially true with English learning in the context like China, where no natural language environment is accessible to learners of the language. How to effectively improve students’ oral skills is of great concern to TEFL in the country. This paper, based on a survey among a group of students and the author’s observation, discusses the main
FAN Xian-long, professor of School of Foreign Studies, Central South University; research fields: applied linguistics, foreign language acquisition and teaching, pragmatics, discourse analysis, cross-cultural communication. 27

Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

problems—Chinese English majors face in developing their oral skills and some practical strategies in a holistic approach that may help deal with these problems so as to effectively better students’ oral skills.

2. English, English majors and English lessons in curricula in China
English has always been considered very important in China ever since the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, especially the early 1980s when the reform and open-door policy was widely carried out in the country. As is well known, China is now a country with the largest population learning English in the world. The importance attached to English learning can be seen not only from the number of people learning the language but also from the following facts: It is always a compulsory course in the curricula for middle school students, college or university students, post-graduate students and up to doctoral degree candidates no matter whether they are arts, literature or science majors. In cities, primary schools and even kindergartens put English in their curricula in spite of the hot debate on the controversial issue whether it is good to teach kids a foreign language as early as possible. Besides, much time is allotted on the course English—in effect, more time on it than on any other subjects in middle school education in China, especially in the last year of senior middle school. Moreover, English is always tested in entrance examinations of schooling at every level. With the increasing awareness of the importance of English learning and growing demand of qualified personnel in society, English major training in China has been a very welcome field and the enrollment of English majors kept expanding until recently. Besides producing teachers and linguistic researchers of the language, English major departments in colleges and universities also shoulder the important task of training personnel who will use English in their future career such as diplomats, interpreters and translators. Freshmen English majors in colleges and universities are senior middle school graduates who have succeeded in passing the higher education entrance examinations. During their following 4-year studies, English majors go through two stages of learning: Basic stage and advanced study stages, each of which covers 2 years. During the former stage, basic courses are scheduled aiming at developing students’ basic language skills, such as Basic English, Listening, Speaking, Extensive Reading, and Grammar and later on in the second year, Lexicology and Basic Writing. All the courses take two 50 (or 45)-minute class hours per week within one semester or four except Basic English, which is taught throughout the two years of the basic learning stage with six to eight class hours per week assigned on it. In the past two years, the author of this paper was teaching Basic English, which is also commonly referred to as Intensive Reading or Comprehensive English. As the last name of the course implies, the teaching of this course is supposed to cover all the language skills and aim at helping students gain all-round development of their language ability: Listening, speaking, pronunciation and intonation, reading and writing, etc. But in practice, it is quite common that more attention is paid to language understanding and grammatical analysis.

3. Speaking, the weakest among students’ language skills
In spite of the facts that competent users of the English language are in demand, great importance is meant to be attached to English teaching and much time is spent on English learning, the actual picture of Chinese students’ oral skills is far from satisfactory. There used to be in public those complaints about TEFL in China as “high marks, poor ability” and “high investment, low outcome”, referring to students’ poor language competence in terms of their ability of actual use of the language, especially oral use. The learned foreign language was

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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

commonly known as “mute English”. In recent years, things have improved, but how to fundamentally change the situation still greatly concerns TEFL professionals. For Chinese students, written exams may not be a problem. Most of them actually can do them very well. The students in the author’s class, for instance, did successfully on the English test in the college entrance examinations. Over half of the 26 students scored more than 120 out of the total mark 150 and one of them got a mark as high as 132. But when it comes to communication, things are not so optimistic. This was evidently shown by the students’ performance in the first class when they were asked to briefly introduce themselves in English. They appeared quite nervous and could not do it properly. In their hard-tried brief self-introduction, there emerged very simple errors which could have been avoided if they had had adequate practice. Later on, we found it not uncommon that many of them were reluctant to answer questions in class or had difficulty in doing so and in making daily conversations in English. Dr. Robert Ackerman, an American professor of East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., after teaching at the author’s university for a semester, once remarked in his e-mail to me, “The biggest need for English teaching in China is to improve speaking abilities”. The students themselves also admit that low speaking ability is the biggest problem to them as English majors. To obtain some general information about the students, a simple survey was conducted among the 196 newly-enrolled English major freshmen at the beginning of the author’s teaching program, which was carried out through getting a questionnaire anonymously completed by the students. The data collected from the simple survey have presented suggestive feedback for us to ponder over. When answering the question “What do you think is the weakest among your language skills: Listening, speaking, reading and writing?” 76% of the students admit that speaking is the poorest, though the majority of them (89%) are well aware of the importance of oral skills in such an era as today when economic globalization and international communication are household phrases and English is commonly accepted as a global language. Both the observation and the survey show that students’ productive skills are strikingly inferior to their receptive skills and their oral expressive ability is by far poorer than their understanding ability, while their reading is the strongest. This seems to indicate that the students have gained good grammatical competence, one of a foreign language learner’s four components of communicative competence, the others being sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence and strategic competence (Hymes, 1971). Obviously the backwardness of the students’ oral skills is incompatible with the requirements of the times and therefore requires teachers’ special attention. Greater efforts should be made in TEFL in China to enhance students’ speaking ability. But where do the students’ main problems lie in the development of their oral productive skills?

4. Students’ main problems for their oral skills development
We find that lack of confidence and lack of practice are students’ key problems, two major obstacles to their oral skill improvement. In effect, students’ lack of confidence is closely related to their mentality of being afraid of losing face. This is diagnostically indicated in the survey mentioned above. To the question “How often did you volunteer to answer questions in English in class?” only 5 students ticked the choice “Often” and 32% of them ticked “Occasionally”, while 66% admitted that they “Seldom” or “Never” did. When asked why if the answer to the previous question is the latter, 52% of them ticked the reason “Not sure of the correct answer”, 28% said that they are “Afraid of making mistakes”, 13% made their choice on

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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

“Afraid of losing face” and 7% said that they were “Not interested”. As a matter of fact, psychologically speaking, no matter whether the students attributed their reasons for not volunteering to answer questions to not being certain of the answer or to being afraid of making mistakes, it is, in the final analysis, a matter of face problem—being afraid of losing face is the biggest obstacle to opening their mouths to speak the target language. Shyness may be said a cultural characteristic of Chinese children. If that is true, it should be taken into consideration when teaching strategies are decided so as to help students overcome this unfavorable mental condition for foreign language learning. But it seems to be worsened by two factors in TEFL in China, one being objective and the other subjective. By objective factors, we mean the objective environment in the country mentioned above, which lacks natural target language spoken around and in which the learners have visual information as the sole or main language source. In such environment, the communicative function of the target language can not be exerted and the unfavorable condition makes students have very low internal learning motivation on the one hand. It, on the other hand, gives them little exposure to the language and few opportunities for their authentic use of it, a necessary condition for language acquisition. By subjective factors, teachers mean problems in the language teaching: The traditional teaching approach in English teaching is still prevalent in China. It is true that with advanced linguistic theories and teaching approaches introduced into the country, there has been some change in TEFL in China. But teachers regret to say that the deep-rooted translation-and-grammar approach would not give way easily, especially under the pressure of the two important tests: Senior middle school and college or university entrance examinations, the success of which mainly lies in test takers’ grammatical competence as no oral test is given in either of the tests except that in the latter for those students who students want to become English majors. Such test-oriented English teaching tends to resort to the comprehension approach rather than communicative approach, under which, excessive emphasis is placed on mastery of linguistic knowledge and receptive skills, whereas rather insufficient importance is attached to students’ oral work and their productive skills simply neglected. Students are instructed to receive so much training of reading, translation and grammar exercises that there is little, if any, time left for oral practice. Few opportunities for orally using the target language would inevitably result in students’ poor communicative competence. That would eventually make them lose interest and confidence in their oral skill development, lack of which would deteriorate their mentality of shyness. English learners’ shyness and nervousness is a problem of what is called high “affective filter”. According to Krashen’s (1982) “Affective Filter Hypothesis”, learning has much to do with learners’ affective factors, namely the learners’ mental state, such as their motivation, needs, attitude, emotional state, etc., on which the level of the imaginary “filter” depends much. With the learners’ high motivation and relaxed mood, the “filter” goes down, which in turn makes learning more effective. Conversely, nervousness, shyness and low motivation may make the “filter” go up and thus hold up learning. The students’ so high “affective filter” in learning to speak will inevitably affect their acquisition of communicative competence. The more they are afraid of speaking the language, the less they will practice speaking it. As a result, there appears the vicious cycle: Having little practice due to the fear of losing face leads to little progress in developing their speaking ability and little progress makes them even less confident of learning. Insufficient attention to oral skill training in classroom teaching also lies in the fact that class work is normally done in written form with little oral practice carried out in class. As a result, language teaching class, which should be very practical, often turns out to be a lesson in which linguistic knowledge is imparted and mechanically drilled.
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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

This can also be seen from the survey. To the question “Were there any opportunities for you to speak English in class at middle school?” Most of the students (80%) say “There were rare” and 10 % of them say “There was none”. Related to the traditional method is the testing system in the country, which has also exerted negative effect on students’ way of learning. It always attaches importance to testing grammar, vocabulary and reading, but neglects examining students’ oral skills. The survey shows that only six among the surveyed students (3%) have taken more than two oral tests, 25 % of them have taken oral testing once and another 28% twice, whereas 44% have never had a single oral test. Without the positive stimulus effect of testing, it is not surprising that TEFL in China, commonly known as testing-oriented, will not be so satisfactorily fruitful in terms of urging students to better their oral skills. There is no wonder that students could successfully pass tough written tests, but are still poor in oral performance. What’s worse, teaching in this way, obviously running counter to the principles of language acquisition, would unavoidably leave the harmful aftereffects on the students, that is, losing confidence and initiative in their English learning. This is reflected in the following fact: When answering the question “Have you ever participated in any outside class oral activities such as English Corner?” only one student said “Often” and 16% of the inquired students said “Occasionally”, while 83% of them said that they “Seldom” or “Never” went. With little practice both in and outside class, how can the students be expected to have strong oral skills?

5. Strategies in a holistic approach to dealing with the problems
What are possibly feasible strategies to deal with those problems then? We believe that a foreign language learner’s speaking ability development is a kind of comprehensive project demanding efforts of all-round aspects. If there is any effective approach to it, that is the holistic approach. From the diagnostic analysis above, teachers can see that both the students’ poor oral skills and lack of confidence are, in fact, a two-facet outcome of the long time unsound teaching approach in their previous stage English learning. We realize that in order to effectively develop the students’ speaking ability, what the teacher should first and crucially do at the very beginning is try hard to help students build up confidence in their oral skill development. 5.1 Lowering students’ “affective filter” to build up their confidence Confidence is the key to success in doing anything, which is especially true with language learning. The teacher, therefore, should keep this in mind and try his/her utmost to build up students’ confidence by helping them lower their “affective filter” so that they become bold enough to open their mouths. At the very beginning, we started with great attention paid to the following things: Strengthening the students’ awareness of the importance of communicative competence, and analyzing with them the characteristics of their English studies so as to make them realize their great potential of developing oral skills and the advantageous factors to do so. The students were reminded of the fact that their English study of the previous stages has already laid good foundation for their oral skill development—the grammatical competence has paved the way for the development of their oral skills: They have studied basic English grammar, learned the English grammatical rules well, and have acquired an amount of vocabulary adequate enough for communication. Moreover, being university students, there are, after all, no more exams like before that would hinge their future and destiny of life. So they would not have such a mental load or worry on their mind. What they need do is, paying greater attention to their oral skill development while developing other skills, bring their great potential into full play so as to achieve a quicker improvement. By doing so, we aroused the students’ enthusiasm for speaking the target language.

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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

Meanwhile, constant encouragements were provided for the students by giving positive comments and timely compliments to those who participated in any oral activity and those who did anything correctly or made even slight progress. From such feedback from the teachers, the students are inspired and glad to see the fact—it is actually not impossible for them to speak English well. With perseverant practice, they are sure to improve gradually and steadily and achieve eventual success. In addition, attention was also paid to students’ different learning backgrounds, due to which students’ speaking abilities varied greatly; some even had problems with basic pronunciation and intonation. We were tolerant of such difference with main attention paid to transmission of information rather than to correcting pronouncing errors. When errors did occur that really would hinder understanding in communication, help was tactfully given individually afterwards to the person concerned, for frequent correction of students’ errors would risk threatening learners’ face. Such Face Threatening Acts (FTA) (Brown & Levinson, 1978) would frustrate and discourage language learners. Dampening students’ enthusiasm for practice would be the worst thing for oral skill development. While providing encouragement, we kept reminding students of the facts that mistakes are not as terrible as they think and making mistakes is unavoidable in foreign language learning. In fact, mistake making is a natural part of the learning process and we learn from and improve with mistake making and correcting (Lewis, etc., 1985, p. 90). Shyness and fear of losing face for making mistakes is, as it were, a most dreadful enemy to the development of oral skills. Only when casting aside such hindrance and being bold enough to open our mouths and sticking to practice, could we expect progress in facilitating our speaking ability. Moreover, to lower students’ “affective filter”, we paid close attention to the following things: getting students to know each other well as soon as possible and trying to build up a rapport between teachers and students and among students themselves. Psychologically, in an informal and relaxing atmosphere, learners feel more at ease while taking part in classroom activities (Lewis & Hill, 1985). To avoid face-threatening acts, we also made sure that the tasks for oral practice follow in order and advance step by step. Relevant to this is another point—it is desirable for the teacher to suit the tasks or questions to the students’ competence and not to ask individual students questions that may be too difficult for them to answer. Frequent frustrations and failures in fulfilling oral tasks or answering questions may make students feel embarrassed and retreat from trying any more. Conversely, any success in having oral practice and correctly answering questions will reward students with a sense of achievements, which, if increasingly enhanced, will help overwhelm their feeling of shyness and nervousness, a necessary step to confidence promotion. 5.2 Creating language atmosphere and providing opportunities for practice When students, by overcoming fear of losing face, are somewhat free from the worries and ready to open their mouths for oral practice, it is the teachers’ job to create an atmosphere in which they are stimulated to practice as much as possible. Like other language skills, speaking requires adequate practice and speaking ability can be developed only through frequent oral use of the target language. But as was mentioned above, in China English is learned in an environment without it being naturally spoken around the learners. Though such a situation could not be fundamentally changed, there is much we can do in class to make up for the disadvantage. For instance, teachers and students can make joint efforts to create the same or similar environment in the classroom as in a natural language acquisition context (Lightbown, etc., 1993, p. 69) so as to achieve sufficient exposure to the target language to the maximum. To do so, there should be a consistent rule that only English be spoken throughout the
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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

class so that it is used as a genuine tool of communication. The students are guided to make spontaneous daily conversations in English, such as “small talk” at the beginning of each class, including greeting each other, reporting the attendance, talking about the weather and/or incidents that have happened around, etc. At first, students may not be used to that and might subconsciously respond in their mother tongue. The teachers should not let go of such an opportunity to give guidance and could remind the students concerned of responding in English by deliberately but naturally saying “Pardon?” Sometimes, they may not be aware of the teachers’ intention and go on talking in Chinese. At this moment, the teachers may directly put forward the demand by requiring “Could you try saying that in English?” It is true that students may find it hard to express themselves all in English at first. Thus, to demand them to do so would be too harsh and unrealistic. The requirement could be that students try their best to speak English as much as they can. If they get stuck, they may use the mother tongue and the teacher or their fellow students may help them out. By persistently doing so, students will be helped to heighten their awareness of using the target language and gradually cultivate the habit of speaking it for their genuine communicative purposes. On the other hand, the students will be exposed to the language at work and in communicative interaction in a created “English World” in class. Besides, during the implementation of the teaching, every means should be employed to provide students with more opportunities to practice speaking. The writer’s own teaching experience has proved it effective to persistently implement a mandatory talk-and-debate program throughout the course. It goes as follows: Students take turns making a speech or giving a short talk at the beginning of each class. In doing such oral work, different tasks are fulfilled in each semester. In the first semester, after self-introduction and getting to know each other through English, students are let to tell the whole class an unforgettable incident, such as something they saw, heard or experienced in their childhood or middle school life. As can be seen, such an oral assignment, being narrative, is not hard. Students are normally willing and, more importantly, able to tell what have really happened to them to share with others their own experiences and feelings. In the second semester, they are asked to work in pairs and, presupposing a special situation or special relationship between them, have a three to five minute conversation on any topic they find interesting and worth talking about. The regular speaking activities in the third and fourth semesters become more challenging and demanding: also being let to work in pairs, students decide before hand on a topic, a controversial or provocative issue, prepare a speech either defending or refuting it, and finally make the speech or have a face to face debate on the issue in the front of the classmates. After that follows a short evaluation session, in which both teacher and other students make comments on and suggestions for the speakers’ oral performance. If the topic in question is found very thought-provoking and relevant to the students, the whole class is let to join in the discussion. Time permitting, students form pairs or groups to discuss the topic. In doing so, every one has a chance to air his or her views on the issue. Classroom activities of this kind connect language learning to real life and so give full play to the essential function of language through using it—transmitting information and exchanging ideas. As students decide on their own topics, what they talk about is relevant to their life and in their interest. In addition, they are allowed to get themselves well prepared in advance. That normally ensures success in the oral work done with a lot of genuine communication as well as quasi-communicative practice. From the success of such practice, the students gain a strong sense of achievements, which is to consequently help promote their confidence in learning to speak. At first, some students may need to be in a way supervised to follow their turns giving duty talks, but gradually, many of
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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

them become so highly motivated and confident that they volunteer to make contributions in the classroom activities. 5.3 Integrating oral practice with other aspects of TEFL Making students talk, as described above, is one way to give them opportunities to speak the English language. But that is not enough, as such opportunities are after all limited and some class time has to be allotted to other aspects of language learning, such as listening and reading. But there is not necessarily conflict between the development of oral skill and that of other skills, as language skills are in fact interrelated and thus should and could be developed in an integrated way (FAN, 1999). Speaking is sure to be more effectively strengthened if the emphasis on it is always permeated throughout the classroom work. Integrating the training of speaking with the exercise for receptive skills serves another way to greatly increase opportunities for students to orally use the language. After reading or listening to some materials, for instance, the teacher could check students’ reading and listening comprehension by asking them “wh-questions” (following yes-no or multiple-choice questions if there are in the teaching materials) to get students to talk more. Additionally, follow-up work for reading and listening sessions would be desirably done through oral work on the input. The students could be asked to do role play (acting out the text) or retell the story if what they have heard or read is narrative, to discuss what they have learned from it or what they think of the idea(s) of the author, i.e., their reflections on reading or listening materials after studying an interesting and instructive piece of exposition. Getting feedback this way also increases classroom interaction, in which students will benefit a lot in terms of developing both receptive and productive skills. Classroom teaching like this is, so to speak, killing two birds with one stone. 5.4 Utilizing the positive testing effect As pointed out above, English teaching in China is commonly test-oriented. The impact of testing, an invisible stimulus for students’ external learning motivation can not be neglected. To ensure students’ consistent efforts to develop their oral skills, we might as well make good use of the positive effect of testing. So we decided to implement oral tests side by side with tests on other skills. To ensure the positive effect of testing, we take into consideration the results of students’ oral tests when evaluating their term work, which is decided on both continuous assessment and the results of the oral test at the end of each semester. By continuous assessment, students’ performance in oral work throughout the course is closely observed and evaluated. The evaluation is longitudinally rather than horizontally done; that is, instead of comparing the differences in oral abilities between students, attention is paid to how much progress an individual student has made during the course. Such reform in the testing system is made known to the students at the very beginning so that they are not only encouraged to take an active part in classroom activities but also extend their enthusiasm and interest in speaking the target language to their spare time. More and more oral practice outside class, which itself is a good sign indicating a change in students’ attitudes towards oral work, helps overcome the limitation of classroom teaching. As a result, students are sure to make greater progress in developing their oral skills.

6. Conclusion
Language learning is a matter of practicality. The development of learners’ oral skills, like that of any other skills, requires the learners’ own active participation and initiative practice. Chinese students’ lack of confidence hinders them from doing so, which results in lack of practice and consequently leads to their poor performance in communicating in the target language. As expounded above, by trying to help lower students’ “affective filter” and

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Problems and strategies for Chinese English major students’ oral skills development

build up their confidence, the first step to language learning, we are getting students mentally prepared for practice. By providing students with more opportunities for oral practice and integrating such practice with other aspects of language learning, we are creating language environment in which students’ practice orally using the language to the maximum. Classroom teaching this way will surely effect satisfactory teaching outcome, as it helps transform the previously mentioned vicious cycle into a virtuous one, which can be illustrated with the following Figure 1:

Figure 1 Cycle transforming in the teaching

The teaching program has proved that training students like this is effective, which can be seen in the students’ performance in the standard test TEM-4 (test for English majors conducted nationwide in colleges and universities): All the 26 students who received our training successfully passed both the written and oral tests except one, who did pass the oral test but failed in the written one. The passing rates of both the written and oral tests of the experimental group were much higher than the average. Moreover, one of the students won a second place prize in the English Speaking Contest held in the university. We are glad to see that the teaching strategies we used have turned out to be so helpful and effective in training students to be more communicatively competent users of the target language.
References: Bailey, K.M. & L. Savage. (Eds.). 1994. New ways in teaching speaking. Alexandria, VA: TESOL. Brown, F & Levinson, S. 1978. Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In: Goody, E. (Ed.), Questions and politeness, strategies in social interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 58-289. FAN Xian-long. 1999. Integrated approach to foster language competence. The Language Teacher, 23(3), 21-23. (in Chinese) Hymes, D.H. 1971. On communicative competence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Krashen, S. 1982. Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon. Lazaraton, Anne. 2001. Teaching oral English. In: Marianne Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language(3rd ed). Heinle & Heinle. Lewis, M & Hill, J. 1985. Practical techniques for language teaching. London: Commercial Colour Press. Lightbown, P. M., etc. 1993. How language are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(Edited by Cathy, Nicole and Sunny)

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