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The Uni-Files

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

May 23, 2011

Putting conversation in its proper place- a few ideas and practices

Imagine paying good money to go to Tennis School and having the coach tell you, “Don’t worry about your technique or skills. Just go out there, hit some balls, and have fun”. Wouldn’t be much of a “school”, would it? Smacking a ball against a wall or just going down to the local courts with your buddies and whacking the ball around would be equally productive- not to mention a lot cheaper. Nor would it be apt to describe such a person as a “coach”, especially if this coach believed that just batting balls around would significantly improve the students’ tennis skills.

This scenario doesn’t seem to me to be too far removed from the teacher who simply uses the classroom as a chat session- as if holistic English skills will magically evolve out of holding a conversation.

On the other hand, having a coach demonstrate swinging technique over and over while the students imitate him/her isn’t of much use if this technique isn’t soon put to use in some type of game situation. The most technically beautiful tennis swing in the world won’t mean much if the player has no game skills, if he or she can’t adapt to the dynamics of the game, to think—and react—on their feet. Likewise with the English teacher who merely has student repeat sentences orally, read set scripts out loud, or has students do single-word information gap exercises and considers it to be ‘conversational practice’. Reading other peoples' dialogues is about as far from conversation as AKB48 is from Chopin.

There is a place for conversation in the classroom (and I'll give you some examples of what I do later) but we first have to divorce it from the notion of idle chat. Perhaps if we label it all as Oral Discourse we can start to get a better perspective. Why? It seems to me that the entire notion of education, of a classroom, should imply that learning is taking place, that skills are being developed. This further implies some type of direction or target is guiding the conversation-- that discourse, and not just sonic clutter, is taking place. What exactly does this mean? It means:

Is casual chat in the classroom really meaningful?

1. The conversation or rather discourse, must have a purpose that is meaningful to students- it should encompass something that they really need or want to convey. A lot of casual chat fails in this regard- good friends can riff with each other on nothing in particular over coffee but those dynamics don’t translate well to classroom settings with people who you wouldn’t normally be shooting the breeze with.

This is why students who seem to improve little in classes in Japan take a huge leap in competence after they go abroad for awhile. Abroad, simply having oral discourse helps them improve because they need it for everyday life, for survival, to make the event meaningful. These parameters don’t exist in the standard Japanese classroom and cannot be easily replicated. What to do then? Well, let’s look at point #2

Adding a diagnostic function

2. The ‘conversation’ should have some diagnostic function attached. If the speakers aren’t conscious of what is working and what’s not working and make no room to note, improve upon, or study those shortcomings then they’ll just repeat the same mistakes over and over and, more likely a) use Japanese or b) not say anything. Since the latter options are not legitimate choices while abroad, such a student has a higher degree of consciousness regarding what’s working (which leads to the reinforcement of successful ventures) and what needs to be fixed. This element needs to be added to the classroom situation.

To inculcate this is my own classroom I give students a few minutes post-conversation to make a note on anything that they couldn’t express well- vocabulary, grammar patterns, strategies, useful hints they picked up from their speaking partners, and tell students to check these as self-study. These are to be kept as a list and submitted later in the year and often form a discussion element in final oral interviews. One positive is that when students choose to make their own notes on their own items of significance they are ‘owning’ the language and thus taking responsibility for it. This is crucial as point #3 is…

Language ownership and subsequent responsibility

3. Giving students ownership over the language they use. I don't think I have to tell anyone reading this website that repeating written sentences out loud or even 'saying' the individual words that make up an information gap exercise constitutes anything that could remotely be considered conversation or oral discourse. When the student doesn't have to engage any cognitive skills to produce English we can't expect much to occur in terms of deep internalization. They also need an emotional or propositional investment in the language they are producing. Engaged cognition makes for deeper embedding. And cognition is enaged more when #4 occurs-- which is...

Choosing stimulating topics

4. Topics need to be stimulating and meaningful. I admit, this a pretty banal bit of advice, right? You don't need a PhD from the Sorbonne to come to this intellectual epiphany. Yet all too many conversation activities involve students asking questions or otherwise discussing something they really have no interest in.

This extends to those, "What kind of movies/music do you like?" motifs. Frankly speaking, very few people care what kind of movies/music others in their class like. Movies and music are fun. So is food. Shopping is for many. But talking about these things isn't necessarily so. The conversation here is artificial-- the topic is given not so that students will be emotionally or intellectually engaged but more to fulfill a 'talking quota' or perhaps to draw out (awkwardly, in most cases) some discrete teaching point. The only person I might normally ask these questions too would be someone I'm planning to go to the movies with, when setting the proper musical mood for a party or, hey, if prepping for a hot date. Without the environment that gives meaning to these topics they usually seem static and forced.

What I'm driving towards here is point #5 which deals with the question...

5. Which forms of oral discourse have the greatest value in most classrooms?
And the answer is: Guided and/or prepared discussions. Here's where it all comes together.

First of all, although anything prepared in advance cannot by definition be spontaneous, prepared discussion treats the classroom and its members as, well, as classrooms with students, and not as makeshift bars or coffeeshops. Allowing for preparation also lets students gather the vocabulary, strategic and grammatical items they need in order to participate. This raises consciousness of form and usually makes for a better product. When students know they have to produce purposeful language in advance they will aim for a prestige form- much in the same way that any sensible NJ would carefully compose an double check say, a wedding speech before stepping up to the podium at a Japanese wedding.

This doesn't mean that everything need be written down- scripted like a professional wrestling match. In fact, I would discourage this in favour of general notes. Max.

Students feel ownership and thus, responsibility for this language. Advance preparation allows (demands?) that content be researched, which should raise the interest/involvement level for all. Giving students guidelines (e.g., to provide background info, explain keywords, include three new or interesting comments of substance, prepare commentary or questions) means students will not be intimidiated as they are at free-for-all open-ended chinwags and yet not feel so dominated restricted by teacher-centered activities as to lead to the passivity endemic to most teacher-dominated assignments.

One of the most succesful examples I've used with my own students (university medical students, small groups) is this:
Explaining the Japanese Medical System

The steps (and how they reflect what I think is sound methodology):

- With a colleague, I collect and write down 36 questions that are typically asked about the Japanese medical system by NJs. Obviously, these should be motivating topics to medical students who may not only may know the answers themselves but shouldalso kindle interest given the fact that this discussion allows them to prepare explanations to non-Japanese.

- The questions are sent to the students in advance by email. They can choose which questions (generally, 4 each) they'd like to tackle, as long as they make sure there isn't any overlap. This element of choice heightens the sense of ownnership and thus, responsibility. Again, with the students having the questions in advance they can (must!) not only research the topic so as to say something interesting-- and with confidence-- about it but can prepare a prestige form of the language, raising consciousness about grammar, strategies/rhetotical forms, vocabulary. Consciousness is raised-- deeper learning occurs.

- At the actual sessions I ask students one-by-one to give the answers to the questions they chose (they can make general notes but must not be read from a set essay form). Having prepped, this usually goes smoothly with very little hemming and hawing. However, all other students must listen closely because with each answer I will choose one to student to subsequently summarize it and another to add a comment or further question. This keeps them all actively involved- not only with the topic but also maintaining an awareness of the language being used to express the topics. This answer-summary-comment/question pattern eventually revolves among all the students. Open commentary on any other student's answer is also encouraged.

I think you'd agree that this amounts more to guided discussion than what we normally consider to be 'conversation'. It works. But it might beg the following question:

"Mike, do you ever employ more standard, spontaneous conversation activities in your classes?"

I do-- but I'm very careful with how I structure those activities. I usually do it with the following parameters in mind:

- I use it as a starter to wake students up, to get them actively involved, act as an appetizer for the rest of the lesson.

- The topics are always connected to the theme of the lesson.

- I have the topic written on the board in advance. Some examples are: "Have you ever been injured/very sick/hospitalized? When? Why? What happened? Talk about it" (this precedes a lesson on taking a patient history) or, "Your body: strong points/weak points-- What are they?" (before an anatomy-centered lesson). These topics are usually of interest to medical students and help to generate language (and cognition) that will be useful in the lesson.

- I usually give my own story/response in advance- about 3 minutes long. I don't want to overload them with teacher talk but nonetheless want them to understand the topic clearly. This short teacher-story time also allows them to think about their own responses before they get a partner and start speaking themselves.

- I give them one minute to look up and vocabulary they might want to use in the upcoming conversation, since they've had time to think about the content.

- I have them partner with students they don't normally talk to. This helps them focus on the topic at hand and not the upcoming nomikai.

- I give them about 10 minutes to discuss and I monitor the pairs.

The diagnostic function in 'free conversation'

- *This is crucial. After closing down the free conversation but before segueing into the main lesson theme I tell the students that they must write down any of the following that occured during the conversation:

1. Any Japanese that they coudn't express well in English (words or patterns)

2. Any words or patterns their partner used which they thought skilled or possibly useful for the future. Here we see the diagnostic function of the free conversation at work.

In noting what they couldn't do well, and any resultant personal frustration, the students are challenged and motivated to study, or ask me, about these weak points themselves. A year-long list of these items is kept and is shown to me (for discussion) later in the year.

And you???

All of which makes me want to ask--
How do you manage conversations productively in your teaching situations? The floor is open...

« A response to Tim Murphey's criticism of Japan's university entrance exams- and more on Kumiko Torikai | Main | Unsolicited advice- a small group project that hits all the right buttons »


Good commentary on managing conversations productively in the classroom. I think it also helps to have a curriculum in which language targets (grammatical patterns, vocabulary, etc.) come out in a logical and progressive sequence (difficult in textbooks that are topic-based but lack a progressive grammatical sequence). It's very possible to have a class that is largely conversation-based but have that conversation interesting, meaningful, and productive. But it must be planned, prepared for, and managed well to be effective. (Though as Mike writes, it works better if the students don't feel this is what's happening--to them if it feels like a spontaneous, engaging, and achievable conversation, then they can take ownership of it.) The better the teacher knows what the students know, and understands the curriculum and the students' place in it, the better she can guide a conversation in which the students are able to successfully communicate using the language patterns they have discovered in the class.

In this case, the teacher speaks in language consistent with patterns known to the students (does not talk over their head) and gives them adequate chance to express themselves with language they can handle. New language comes in little bits basically one at a time so they can handle them. The teacher (or students) can ask questions that have easy answers using the patterns the students know, have studied, or are currently studying. In most free conversations, especially for beginner students, they don't have enough command over enough language patterns to express themselves well, resulting in mostly silence on their part and a lot of frustration, sometimes hidden with a smile (which often encourages the teacher to say more since no one else is talking--a downward spiral into a lecture).

This issue is a constant challenge in language classrooms here; a very relevant and interesting topic, thank you!

Thanks for your comments Tristan.

I find your point about a logical order for grammar teaching/learning interesting. In fact, I plan to blog on it after brushing up a little on curent theory (I used to be up on the topic but haven't searched it out for awhile).

I like the content-based approach because it assumes that grammatical details are acquired in a non-linear fashion, which is in accordance with a descriptive view of grammar- that grammar is primarily a matter of framing sensibilities rather than a matter of applying rules (which is why things like tenses don't translate directly across languages- sensibilities about semantics and time differ.

But I'm getting away from the issue of conversation here...

I'm looking forward to the new blog post you mentioned. In the text series I use, each unit has a basic topic (content-base) as well as specific language targets (grammar). In this case, there is a nice logical order to the grammar. Of course it's not the only logical order possible, but I think it does make the learning a lot easier than just a random collection of popular topics to study--for beginners. This would be in contrast to students who can already handle long conversations on their own. In that case, when they have a large matrix of grammar at their disposal, I think they can handle discussion classes based on topics better.

For beginners (both adults and children here), I think it's helpful to have a sequence grammatically that progresses from easy to more complex, introduces only a few new language targets per unit, constantly recycles the targets, and is matched with content that the students are interested enough to engage and practice using the targets they've discovered.

Hi again Tristan.

I think the notion of not throwing too many curveballs at students who are not yet prepared to swing at them, the point you make above, is a good idea. The teacher has to help build a certain comfort zone.

At the same time, I think that some students, including very young learners, can develop so-called difficult grammatical awareness when these items appear repeatedly in meaningful content. In fact this blogpost coincides/segues with my most recent Yomiuri piece (shameless plug warning) in which I talk about my 2 year old daughter starting to grasp the past perfect.

Yes, it's possible to develop grammatical awareness when the items appear repeatedly in meaningful content. It's important to remember that with the majority of students in Japan that don't have a native-speaking parent or (especially for children) much in the way of engagement with English outside of class. The example of your daughter and Curious George is right on, though I wish students had more opportunities like that--going through the book with a native speaker many, many times. It's a concept that is well understood by those in the Extended Reading field--encountering key language many times over the course of a book or series of books. On top of that, though, there is a huge gap between grammatical awareness and being able to produce the language well, which is where the teacher is perhaps needed the most.

I think it would be beneficial for teachers to give more thought to the steps needed to help students get to the level of producing the target language naturally and flexibly in accordance with what they personally want to communicate. Simple exposure to a lot of English works better in an ESL-like situation (say, a Japanese in Canada), where they have ample opportunity and motivation to engage with the language and produce it. Here, in and EFL situation in Japan, students need a lot more structure and work to get there. A well-planned, long-term approach can really assist in helping them.

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