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Speaking and Conversation with a
Focus at Elementary Level
by Sam Smith
- 1

Introduction

In my experience of teaching English I have often noticed that my students have been continuing to commit the same errors again and again with little being gained from my focus on speaking practice.

This problem has been particularly noticeable in the last 2 years while I have been teaching 'conversation classes' at various levels. I have wondered if what I have been doing with my students has been helping my students to improve anything but their spoken fluency and communication strategies without making any real advances in accuracy, syntactic and lexical complexity and range, lexical selection or collocation and particularly in conversational structures, strategies and the use of functions and meaning in conversation.

I have decided to look at this problem from the point of view of elementary students to try and attack this problem from the beginning, in an attempt to get my students off on the right path. While I will be looking at improving speaking in general, I shall try and relate this to my students' needs at this level.

I will begin by looking at the complexities of speaking, particularly conversation, then go on to look at some problems before suggesting some solutions.

Why Conversation is Not So Easy

Speaking and conversation in particular is a very complex thing to do, especially in a foreign language. Bygate (1987) draws a distinction between knowledge and skill. Knowledge being knowing what to do and skill being how to do it, and doing it well therefore needs practice. The skill side, he says is very complicated. As well as motor perceptive skills, i.e. 'perceiving, recalling and articulating in the correct order sounds and structures of the language' (Bygate, 1987, 5), students need interactional skills which involve 'making decisions about communication, such as: what to say, how to say it, and whether to develop it, in accordance with one's intentions, while maintaining the desired relations with others' (Bygate, 1987,6).

These interaction skills are affected by 2 conditions according to Bygate: processing conditions due to time, meaning that we think as we speak and therefore leading to features of speech such as shorter sentences, mistakes, repetition and clarification; and reciprocity conditions or having to adapt your message due to the listener's feedback and the level of shared knowledge.
These conditions give rise to specific features of speech, particularly conversation that make it different to other forms of communication. For example, less complex syntax or parataxis such as 'and', ellipses, use of a lot of fixed phrases, and fillers or devices to gain time such as 'you know', all of which can be referred to as facilitation skills. As well as facilitation skills we use compensation skills, like the reformulation of our message and the fact that speech occurs in short bursts back and forth between the speakers, allowing understanding to be negotiated between the people who are speaking.

Discourse Analysis and Students' Problems

Discourse analysis can give us an insight into how a learner's lack of awareness of the features of spoken language, or of the cultural norms of how the language is used, can cause problems for learners. Michael McCarthy (1991) gives us some good ideas.

He mentions 'adjacency pairs' or that an initiating remark and a response are interdependent, for example 'Change at Peterborough' in form is an imperative but when we see it with the response 'thanks' we realise that it is in fact an informing utterance. Students need to understand and use the correct language in context. McCarthey highlights invitations, where students are often too blunt, and apologies, where students often use ritualised apology structures, as places where discrepancies occur between real and student language.

He develops adjacency pairs to talk about exchanges, i.e. initiation, response and follow up, and to say that this last part, the follow up can often be missing from student language. This could be due to the way we teach. If the students are mainly involved in the situation where the teacher initiates or elicits an initiation, the student responds and the teacher follows up with something like 'very good', then how can we expect students to get practice in initiating and following up. A solution would be group or pair work, but we must make sure the activity will provide a chance for these features to naturally occur. A journalistic interview, for example, would not, whereas more open, less restricted conversation hopefully would. From my personal and professional experience, this is an area which does not transfer from one language to another, here in Spain I find my students, particularly at lower levels are silent and do not follow up, simply because they do not know the correct phrases in English to do so.

Closely related to this is that listeners are usually active and provide some sort of comment on what they hear. I again have noticed that my students do not do this, and the particular case of me and my wife could show why this again does not transfer from language to language. When we speak in Russian, my desire to hear some sort of response such as 'uh huh' or 'yeah', which is not forthcoming, has made me use similar noises to elicit the response from her. This my wife assures me sounds terrible in Russian, as would her response if she gave it. Language norms are just not the same in different languages.

McCarthy goes on to highlight turn - taking as another problem area. Students need to be aware of lexical, syntactical and intonational (i.e. a drop in pitch) ways of signalling the end of a speaker's turn. Taking or rejecting a turn is also a difficult thing to do and also needs teaching e.g. lexically interrupting 'Can I just come in here', lexically urging the speaker to continue through back channel 'mm', 'aha' and even paralinguistically by inhalation, head movement, eye-contact and intonationally through pitch. These features again may not transfer linguistically, for example silence is much more tolerated by Finns than by English native speakers.

Another area that needs attention is topic and topic shift. Again realised lexically by markers such as 'incidentally' to open a topic and 'right', 'still' or by an evaluative comment 'sounds awful' to close a topic and intonationally by a high pitch for opening and low pitch for closing, it is something that students need drawing attention to. Similarly the logical sequence of one topic being related to another and one story sparking off another related one is something worth highlighting. McCarthy suggests raising students' awareness through listening activities, adding a beginning and ending to a decapitated dialogue (thus also providing useful practice in openings and closings of dialogues), setting a time limit for students to cover a set number of topics, recounting anecdotes to spark off related ones and finding things in common or differences from a list of subjects as ways of helping students practice.
Of course, at lower levels we must keep in mind that students need the vocabulary to deal with the topics to be talked about, but I believe that practice in the mechanics of conversation can go along way to helping students cope both receptively and productively and the ability to handle conversation shows the learner as someone to be talked to and therefore provides them with valuable input.

My last point to mention is that of the formulae that spoken language follows or of routines. Bygate (1987) talks about information routines, such as narration, description and instruction, and interactional routines such as in a restaurant or on the telephone where as well as your business to discuss you need a greeting and a way of finishing, not just saying 'bye' and hanging up, which would seem very rude.

For the sake of space I will give only one example from McCarthy of the elements found in a narrative routine: Abstract 'I'll always remember the time..'; orientation 'we were..'; complicating event 'next thing we knew..'; resolution 'so we had to..'; coda (or the bridge between the real world and the story) 'and ever since I've..'. An important part of this routine which is present throughout and often lacking in students' speech is evaluation, or making the story worth telling by devices such as exaggeration, recreating noises, by simply telling the audience 'you'll love this one' or by personal orientation 'which made me feel..' As we can see, all this is a tall order when we take into account that the student has to also think of the other motor perceptive and interactional skills mentioned above that have to be employed at the same time.

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