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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 06, 2009

1. The image of MEXT and 2. Learning from open-ended conversation tasks

1. The Popular Image of the MEXT Headquarters:

On Tuesday Nov. 3rd The Daily Yomiuri newspaper printed my most recent article in which I outlined some positives (and negatives) found in Monkasho (MEXT) guidelines. One of my reasons for writing that article was to show that a lot of typical criticism directed at MEXT policy is unfounded- although there are clearly still aspects of policy very much open to criticism.

However, it seems that some people don't like any mitigation in the negativity expressed towards MEXT as I found out thereafter (looking at some responses). Hmmm. I get the impression that some people's image of the Ministry of Education's home base is something like this:

MEXT is made up of a pair of greasy bureaucrats in blue polyester suits, with bad combovers, chain smoking in a poorly-ventilated Nagatacho back office, plastic bags of dried squid covering their cluttered desks. One, Ukon, can be assumed to be a rabid nationalist, whose main aim is to keep the pernicious influence of foreign languages out of the grasp of the natives, while the other, Makoto, is an uptight nerd from Tokyo University whose hobby consists of compiling obscure English minutiae to be placed into the national curricula or entrance exams. Oh yeah- and they harass the poor OL's in the office.

In fact, many of those involved in educational decision making are well-established professors and other highly-regarded cosmopolitan professionals in the field (including, at certain levels, native English speakers). Policy and rationale behind guidelines are freely available online, and many have English translations.

2. Getting Something Out of Conversation Tasks:

I've written and stated elsewhere on several occasions that the idea of 'teaching conversation' seems daft to me. Conversation is a social skill- if you are a skilled interlocutor in your 1st language you can usually carry over those traits to the 2nd. It's not like you have to learn again to be good at conversation when take up a new language (although it's true that you will need to gain awareness of peragmatic norms, discourse markers and the like- but that's not what people normally mean when they talk about 'teaching conversation').

Teaching conversation spawns images of Cyrano De Bergerac coaching the inarticulate Christian in his attempts to seduce Roxanne. This is surely not what ELT educators have in mind.

The other aspect of 'teaching conversation' that comes to mind is that of inculcating formulas and mantras to be learned. Highly instrumental ready-made samples of how to order a hamburger or what to say at immigration. This is not language teaching. In such cases you might as well just use a Lonely Planet guide as a textbook.

Yet I do carry out conversational tasks or activities in my classes. Why, you might well ask? One reason is quite obvious. Students can feel constrained if too many activities are limited in scope and teacher or text controlled. They do not feel that the language being used belongs to them, they are not really actively producing communicative content, they are detached from the communicative process.

It's like being a sport coach. Yes, you have to work on muscle training and technique but sometimes you just have to let the athletes play too.

But the big question has always been: How can students learn from an open-ended conversation activity? Won't they just be using the same language forms that they already know, making the same mistakes and basically driving in the same linguistic ruts that they always do?

Maybe. But they can get better from conversation practice if you do the following (which obviously I try to):
After the open conversation section students should be aware of which words or ideas they could not express well in English, which grammatical or lexical patterns did not communicate well, where they got bogged down.

These must be fixed. Students should study precisely these areas after the activity (or ask a teacher). In other words, the goal is to learn from your weaknesses. Once you know your weak points you can focus on them and polish them for the next round. I tell my students to make notes on these points immediately after any and every open-ended conversation-based task.

Another thing students can do to learn from conversation tasks is to note vocabulary or structural patterns that were used well and succesfully by their partners. We've all felt the 'Yes! That's the phrase I often forget' moment of recognition and inspiration when talking to others in our L2. But if they are not explicitly noted these useful tidbits are likely to fade from memory quickly.

So, students can learn from conversation practice (which is, of course, very different from the notion of 'teaching conversation') but it must be done using explicit conscousness-raising and note taking in order to be effective.



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Comments

Dear Mike:

As for "Teaching conversation" I am involved in the same thing on a high school level and it seems like there is a lack of definition as to what teaching "conversation" or "oral communication" really entails. I am beginning to see that approaching it is more for fluency development ,which is hard do if the teacher is used to focusing only on grammatical accuracy and Yaku-doku (Grammar-translation).

Thanks for the advice,

Peter

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