In order to improve any skill quickly, it is important to first understand where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Once you know, you can create focused goals and develop a clear plan to achieve them.
Many clients say they want to improve their speaking skills but different clients have different needs.
The first step is always to identify which aspect of their speaking they need to improve: fluency, pronunciation, grammar or vocabulary.
By identifying strengths and weaknesses in these areas (or sub-skills), you can create clear goals to work towards.
Here are some questions to ask yourself so you can self-assess your skills:
1. Do I often hesitate and pause when I speak?
If you do this often, you need to focus on improving fluency.
Fluency refers to how smoothly and extensively you can speak on a variety of topics without too much pausing and/or hesitating.
Even if what you say is accurate, frequently pausing, ‘umming’ and ‘eerring’ or repeating yourself, can make you difficult to understand.
Tip: Low confidence can really affect your fluency so exercises in confidence-building, as well as discussion and conversation practice, can really help to improve this sub-skill.
2. Do people often mishear what I say?
If people you speak to often mishear what you say, you should focus on improving your pronunciation.
Pronunciation refers to how clear and understandable your speech is to your listeners (not how good your British accent is!). It includes the way you say individual sounds, as well as the stress, intonation, and rhythm of your speech.
You may speak fluently and accurately but if your pronunciation is unclear, this will lead to misunderstandings.
Tip: Listening and repeating what you hear can really help pronunciation. This could be by listening and repeating individual sounds and/or words in an online dictionary or by imitating the speech of native speakers in videos, podcasts or online listening activities.
3. Can I find the words to express what I want to say?
If you don’t have the words to express what you want to say, you need to improve your vocabulary.
Vocabulary refers to the range of different words you use when talking about different topics.
A small vocabulary will limit what you can say in conversations and discussions. You may know the meaning of lots of the words but you need to ‘activate’ themm in order to have them in your mind when you speak.
Tip: Keep a vocabulary notebook where you can note down new words. Write down any new words or phrases and review them often. Try to use these words in conversation as soon as possible. This will help to keep them fresh in your mind and activated.
For more tips on how to increase your vocabulary, read this article.
4. Do I make grammar errors when I speak?
If you make errors in the rules of English, even if you have studied them many times, you need to work on your spoken grammar.
This refers to not only how accurate your spoken grammar is but also the range of different tenses and structures you use in speaking.
You may get 100% on a grammar test or be able to use grammar flexibly and accurately in writing but to do this in spontaneous speech can be difficult.
Tip: Recording yourself speaking and listening back can help to highlight any mistakes or gaps in the grammar you use. Once you are aware of these mistakes and gaps you can make a conscious effort to correct them.
5. Do I know what is appropriate to say in different situations?
If you are unsure what is appropriate to say in certain situations such as when meeting someone new, when making small talk or when speaking in a business meeting, you should work on pragmatics.
Pragmatics refers to what is appropriate to say in certain contexts. This is often influenced by culture so what is ok to say in the USA may be different in the UK.
For example, in the USA it is common to start a conversation with a stranger by offering a compliment like “I like your t-shirt”. In the UK, this can make people uncomfortable when you very first meet them. It is better to talk about something more neutral first, like the weather or the event you are at.
Tip: When you are watching a T.V. series or listening to people in real life, notice how they interact and what phrases they use in different situations.
Which areas of your speaking do you need to improve?
Once you have a better understanding of which of these sub-skills needs work, you will be able to set focussed goals and develop a clear plan to achieve them.
If you are a business professional and would like to better understand your current English speaking skills and create a plan for improving them, sign up to my 121 Business English coaching programme.