According to the website at freeenglishnow.com, “Students universally complain because ESL does not teach them to speak English. It can’t. ESL principally teaches two things (language memory and visual memory) and only one of these is required in speech. At its very best, ESL partially teaches only one of the three essential elements required in spoken language.” (http://freeenglishnow.com/why-esl-does-not-work)
Despite this claim, English as a Second Language (ESL) is taught in schools around the world without any serious challengers to its status as the default method for training those whose native tongue is not English to reach proficiency in English in the shortest period of time possible. Part of the reason why ESL is the undisputed method leader is because there is no standardized ESL curriculum. All ESL classes are different as teachers often edit their curriculum to deal with the specific language needs of their students.
Does the claim that ESL doesn’t teach students to speak English hold any weight, and if it does, does it matter? In my professional opinion, the claim is legitimate but the purpose of ESL is not to train students to speak the language in the first place.
Learning a language is hard work. I lived in Brazil for two years and did the best I could to learn to speak Portuguese (I didn’t speak a word of it before moving there.) I found that it was much easier for me to understand what others were saying around me and to read the language than it was to speak it back to my Portuguese-speaking neighbours. In fact, by the end of my time in Brazil I was able to have limited conversations with Brazilians who had some knowledge of English if they spoke to me in Portuguese and I spoke to them in English. There is just so much more to speaking a language than knowing the vocabulary, as the folk at freeenglishnow.com are quick to point out.
When it comes to ESL classes, the objective is to get the student to the destination of being able to pass a written language test such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) which is generally required for students to be able to attend classes in a way that is similar to native-English speakers. Since students spend most of their energy listening to others speak and responding back to the teacher in written form, the need for speaking skills is not as high as for listening, reading and writing skills. English conversation classes which emphasize the speaking portion of the ESL program are often included in a good ESL curriculum, and standardized tests like the TOEFL have a spoken part to them, but a standardized test is poorly equipped to test the wide range of factors involved in ensuring quality spoken language.
If one accepts that an ESL program is primarily focused on allowing a student to get maximum return-on-investment for the time spent in the program, it becomes clear that the time spent on mastering the speech element is the least productive in the short-term. One would do well to accept that ESL is not a comprehensive language training program in most cases. Increased emphasis has been given to the speech portion of the program over the years, but it is still the fourth pillar of the four (listening, reading and writing being the other three.) Most educators accept that the speech portion of a language will come in time as students are exposed to the language and as they become more comfortable with the language in other ways.
Most people would benefit greatly from having one-on-one tutoring or English conversation classes which allow for detailed pinpointing of speech deficiencies in a supportive environment. Speech is almost universally accepted as the most difficult and time-consuming part of language acquisition for those older than twelve years of age. ESL classes can help get a student started with good English speaking skills, but it is likely not going to be enough to make them sound like a native English-speaker.