Problems Facing First - Year English Majors In Speaking



In the acquisition of a second language, speaking is a vital skill to master. In spite of that, according to Baker and Westrup (2003), in many countries, because it is not assessed in tests, teachers usually disregard this skill and focus on other features such as grammar or vocabulary. This is especially true in the case of English education in Vietnamese high schools. However, in numerous colleges, students’ speaking skill is appreciated and becomes a criterion in evaluating linguistic performances. At the English Department of Hanoi University, during the first two years, speaking is a subject on the curriculum. Therefore, many first-year English majors struggle with their study. In order to examine this matter, we conducted this research. In this small-scale project, we wish to identify problems facing students before and during the speaking process as well as in their practice strategies.

Materials and methods

The purpose of this study is to determine problems in using and practicing speaking skill that students may confront during their first year at the English Department. To collect data for the study, a questionnaire (Appendix) was constructed due to various advantages. For instance, it provides a simple but very effective way to investigate on a large scale. Besides, it does not require any special apparatus or method. The questionnaire comprises eight questions divided into two parts. The first part, including questions one to six, identifies students’ perceptions of their own linguistic ability and problems first-year English majors might encounter before and while speaking English. The second part with two remaining questions investigates the suitability of respondents’ practice routines to improve speaking skill.

The subjects of the study are 50 first-year students of the English Department. They were selected randomly from different classes and varied in the level of English as well as speaking skill. Furthermore, in order to receive high response rates and great accuracy, we chose all the participants on a voluntary basis. The majority of the subjects is female and at the average age of 19.

Several versions of the survey had been conducted and compared in terms of resulting authenticity. After a pilot survey had been done with the help of 10 first-year students, we realized that open-ended questions do not gain as many revealing and reliable answers as multiple choice questions because they require much more time, while most respondents are not very patient. Consequently, in the designing process, we decided to use multiple choice questions as they could obtain instant and honest responses from participants. However, in case we do not provide adequate possible answers, some of the questions have open-ended options for students to express their own ideas.

The survey was administered at Hanoi University in March, 2010. After being edited properly, 55 questionnaires were distributed to the subjects. They were allowed to read the questions and raise queries first. Then the participants proceeded to complete the questionnaires. All the handouts were collected after 30 minutes, and 50 questionnaires were classified as appropriate. Within one week, we interpreted the findings for final results.

Results and discussion

1. First year English majors’ self-evaluation of English and Speaking skill

Figure 1 demonstrates how first year English students of Hanoi University assess their own ability to use English in general as well as in communication. A large proportion of respondents, comprising approximately 40 students, claimed that their English and speaking skill are poor or average. 12 first year English majors considered themselves competent linguistically. However, only 8 students rated their capability to speak English above average. This figure gives assurance on the assessment that “It [speaking skill] usually viewed as the most complex and difficult skill to master” (Tarone, 2005, p. 485). In a recent study, Bygate (2009) agreed with the aforementioned statement by claiming that learners with reading and writing proficiency do not always have fine speaking skills.

2. Findings concerning problems before and while speaking

2.1. Problems before speaking English

The pie chart compares how different methods of preparation are used by first year English majors in speaking. This stage is underestimated and neglected by 26 percent of students. In addition, 7 students stated that they only picture what to say in mind. As Turk (2001) insisted, this is not a wise strategy because without any written preparation, students may assume that they have more ideas than they truly do, forget crucial points or sometimes even freeze on the spot. Turk (2001) suggested that students should write down what to say in order to “focus and clarify your thoughts, and identify the points you want to make” (p. 90). However, they must understand that only key points should be written down, not the whole speech. According to Turk (2001), “ In many ways the most obvious thing to do, and often the first method chosen by inexperienced and nervous speakers, is to write the talk out in full, and read it out from the script” (p. 85). Unfortunately, it is exactly the method that the greatest percentage of first year English students adopts. As can be seen from the chart, the number of students writing down the full script before speaking constitutes 50 percent of all respondents, 5 times as many as those who only jot down some important notes. As a result, their performances in speaking are not satisfactory.

The examination of languages used by students in thinking while speaking English reveals poor choices among first year English majors. A significant number of students, amounting to 67 percent, reported that they think in Vietnamese when they communicate in English. In a research, Wenden (2005) concluded that designing a speech in the native language and then translating it is disadvantageous to second language learners. Alternatively, they should think in their target language (Wenden, 2005). This is the tactic employed by only one third of respondents.

2.2. Problems while speaking English

As shown in figure 3, students meet a lot of difficulties in speaking English, and the most serious problem is the lack of confidence. Indeed, shyness is very likely to occur when students speak English (Baker & Westrup, 2003). Consequently, student involvement in studying, a crucial factor contributing to success (Ellis, 2003), can be discouraged. Offner (1997) shared the same opinion as he stated that being active is essential when studying speaking. Problems relating to the contents of a speech like ideas and grammar are the second and third most common as about 20 respondents selected them. 5 students added vocabulary difficulties to this set of problems. These phenomena were also reported by Baker and Westrup (2003), “They [learners] may have little idea about what to say, they may not know the words to use, or they may not be sure how to use the grammar” (p. 16). In addition, pronunciation is another major obstacle to 33 percent of students. This fact confirms the following opinion, “The acquisition of good pronunciation…is commonly held to be the most difficult of all tasks in second language learning” (Carrasquillo, 1994, p.136). In brief, these findings should be highlighted and carefully considered by both students and teachers of the English Department.

Figure 4 shows how students handle two other common obstacles regarding speaking English- running out of ideas and lexical problems, i.e., not knowing or forgetting words (Poulisse, 1990). Of the 50 students that participated in this survey, 26 students claimed that they would hesitate and try to think until they find the words or ideas. Only the minority of participants implements one of the following strategies stated by Poulisse (1990): “avoidance/ reduction strategies” (p. 59)- skip and move on to the next point, “interactional strategies” (p. 59)- let the interlocutors help, and “compensatory strategies” (p. 59)- find another way to express themselves. These strategies are very helpful if speakers wish to avoid communication breakdown (Poulisse, 1990).

3. Findings concerning rationality of current Speaking practice routines

Figure 5 indicates how often first-year English majors practice to improve their Speaking skill. Despite their incompetence in Speaking, the students tend to spend very little time on it. 60% of respondents either never or rarely practice Speaking. This is very disturbing because without practicing, language learners cannot develop their ability to speak (Offner, 1997). Additionally, only 5 students responded that their practicing Speaking English was frequently done. Chapelle (2003) suggested that spending time practicing English outside the classroom was essential to improve communication skill. Besides, Offner (1997) recommended “it is important that the time spent be done on a daily, or a near-daily basis as short sessions daily are much more effective than cramming all at once.” To sum up, unless first-year English students change their practice routines, little progress will be made in their speaking skill acquisition.

Figure 6 illustrates the popularity of different practicing tactics used by the students to improve their Speaking skill. Surprisingly, although 42 students indicated that their level of speaking skill is below good (as revealed in Table 1), more than a quarter of 50 respondents do almost nothing to improve their Speaking skill. Therefore, they do not see much progress in learning Speaking. On the other hand, it can be clearly seen that indirect practice strategies such as accessing sources to enrich background knowledge, e.g., television, newspapers, the Internet or building a bigger stock of vocabulary varied substantially in prevalence. However, in general, they are more preferred than those involving actual speaking. In fact, practicing with friends, the most common direct method, was chosen by only 9 participants, whereas the number of students selecting listening to English was twice as many, making it the most widely used strategy. This particular method can positively influence learners’ speaking skill. Ellis (2003) declared that listening skill can foster speaking competence. Nevertheless, students should not apply only one or two particular methods. Since each strategy has certain benefits and advantages, it is advisable to be flexible in choosing and combining different tactics (Ellis, 2003).


In conclusion, this research demonstrates numerous problems in applying and practicing speaking skill that many first-year English majors at Hanoi University encounter. It implies that inadequate knowledge of English features, e.g., structure, lexicon, pronunciation is a common problem facing many first year English students. Their lack of strategic approaches to preparing, using and improving speaking skill can also result in low communication ability. Thus, students should enrich their understanding of the target language as well as identify and employ suitable learning methods to improve their academic performances. Furthermore, it is hoped that learning strategies will be included in the curriculum of the English Department so that teachers can help their students design effective plans for acquiring advanced speaking skill.