and Conversation with a
Focus at Elementary Level
by Sam Smith
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
from all this, we need to help students as much as possible
when speaking. Firstly they need a large enough vocabulary
and sufficient grammatical knowledge to be able to speak,
but as the weight of evidence of the difficulty of communicating
shows, they need direct teaching and awareness raising of
features of speech and conversation. Firstly I will look at
some suggested ways of doing this and then at some suggestions
for improving the way we conduct tasks.
In an article in the ELT Journal (ELT Journal volume 48/1
January 1994) Zoltan Dornyei and Sarah Thurrell put forward
the view that the indirect approach of communicative language
teaching is not doing enough. I myself have recently thought
the same, i.e. just giving students to practice their speaking
through communicative activities falls short of actually teaching
them how to speak. Dornyei and Thurrell suggest a 'direct
planning a conversation programme around the specific microskills,
strategies, and processes that are involved in fluent conversation.......it
aims at fostering the students' awareness of conversational
rules, strategies to use and pitfalls to avoid, as well as
increasing their sensitivity to the underlying process.'
(Dornyei and Thurrell, Teaching conversation skills intensively,
ELT Journal volume 48/1 January 1994, 41)
recommend basing a conversation course on teaching:
Conversation rules and structure; openings, turn-taking, interrupting,
topic-shift, adjacency pairs, closings.
Conversational strategies; message adjustment or avoidance,
paraphrase, approximation, appeal for help, asking for repetition,
asking for clarification, interpretive summary, checking,
use of fillers/hesitation devices.
Functions and meaning in conversation; language functions
(e.g. expressing and agreeing with opinions), indirect speech
acts (i.e. in 'I wonder if you could post this letter for
me' no actual wondering takes place), same meaning - different
meaning ('What a nice car you have' could really mean 'I didn't
know you were so rich').
and cultural contexts; participant variables - office and
status, the social situation, the social norms of appropriate
language use, cross-cultural differences. They suggest doing
Adding specific input, for example by giving cue cards to
students or requiring students to use a set number of different
phrases in an activity.
Increasing the role of consciousness raising, by providing
a focus in the context of communicative activities, helping
learners construct their own internal grammar inductively
and providing learners with input containing the features
the teacher would like to focus on.
Sequencing communicative tasks systematically, for example
a role-play to practice agreeing and disagreeing followed
by adding interruptions, then looking at a formal and informal
version of it.
(Dornyei and Thurrell, 1994)
For some good ways of implementing these ideas see Conversation
and Dialogues in Action by Dornyei and Thurrell and for some
similar ideas see Conversation by Rob Nolasco and Lois Arthur.
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