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The Development of Interactive Oral
Proficiency in the Classroom
by Jake Haymes
- 1


I think speaking is special for two reasons. The first one is that most learners come to class and are prepared to invest a considerable amount of time and money in order to achieve the ultimate goal of speaking the language fluently. In this respect, we can say that the development of oral proficiency is the most important aspect of language learning (1). The second reason is that orally communicating one's ideas is personal and goes beyond the cognitive even for a native speaker, doing it in a code you do not yet command incorporates both affective influences and linguistic considerations.

I think it is also true to say that the success of most teaching and learning is evaluated in terms of our students' ability to speak. PPP methodology has been questioned and in many quarters rejected because its discrete item approach is an ineffective means of incorporating new language into fluent production. This methodology also fails to embrace the realities of talk exchange such as openings, closings, adjacency pairs, vague language etc. or the phenomena of real-time delivery such as "repetitions, false starts, re-phrasings, self corrections, elaborations, tautologies and apparently meaningless additions such as 'I mean' or 'you know'." Ur (1984).

Although people speak for many different reasons, these can be broadly categorised in two ways:
1. transaction - using language to get things done. e.g. requesting and giving factual information and service encounters.
2. interaction - using language for social intercourse. e.g. conversing, discussing, making friends and story telling.

This assignment will attempt to examine the second type of exchange. Brumfit (1984) states, "natural language use, for most people is primarily discussion and conversation." Despite this assertion, the focus of speaking activities in the classroom seems to be on transactional competence. Perhaps this is because it is easier to develop and assess. Transactional exchanges usually follow a fairly predictable pattern or routine. They tend to require shorter speaking turns and the functional language presented in course books is often more suited to this type of communication.

Some factors impeding the development of oral fluency

While a great deal of classroom time is spent on the perceived precursors to oral fluency; vocabulary, phonology, structures, functions and listening comprehension, it would appear that these alone are insufficient. Widdowson (1978) states "the acquisition of linguistic skills does not seem to guarantee the consequent acquisition of communicative abilities in a language." Bygate (1987) illustrates the difference between language knowledge and productive skill. He points out that, as native speakers, "we do not merely know how to assemble sentences in the abstract: we have to produce them and adapt them to the circumstances." While the value of linguistic knowledge should not be underestimated, it would seem that learners need something more in order to transfer the interactive speaking skills they possess in L1 to L2.

Fluent oral production is often seen as the final piece in the jigsaw. Nunan (1991) states that "course books, particularly those aimed at lower-proficiency learners, consist largely of manipulative, form focused exercises." I think this leads to two problems. Firstly, fluency isn't developed as learners are denied the opportunity to combine the disparate elements of their existing productive store to communicate authentically and secondly, the original structures themselves are not internalised (for possible production at a later date), as they are not used by the learners to create personalised meaning. While I will go on to argue that practice alone is not the most expedient means to oral proficiency, many learners become demotivated because they are not given opportunity to use the language communicatvely.

Although extended oral fluency practice is sometimes called free speaking, I would argue that most tasks are set in the hope that the learners will be able to incorporate some recently studied language items into production. While semi-controlled or bridging activities can, on occasion, help to effect this integration, I find the items selected by teachers and course books are sometimes inappropriate. Given the difficulties of real-time production they are frequently too advanced for learners' interlanguage systems to accommodate. With more advanced students, there is often no perception of need so that tasks are completed via their communicative competence. When a carefully chosen task does force the employment of the items, learners "do not treat the third stage of the lesson as an opportunity for fluent communication" but to "display the target form" and "as soon as they switch to circumstances in which the focus is on communication rather than conformity, learners will 'regress'." D Willis (1996)

Where genuine freer communicative speaking activities are to be found, the tendency is to set up the activity and then allow the learners to proceed. Richards (1990) outlines two major drawbacks to this "indirect approach". Firstly, that the type of language typically required is transactional rather than interactional (2); Students are only really practising the language of getting things done rather than conversing. Secondly, he cites Schmidt's (1986) research into the latter's own learning of Portuguese. This remained "deficient with respect to both grammar and appropriateness." While the second point concerns accuracy, I would argue that there is a clear link here to fluency. Many of my learners produce hesitant output and therefore do not develop fluency because they feel they are making too many mistakes. This approach is also limited in the fact that it neglects to draw the learners' attention to those features of talk exchange outlined earlier.

While most experts agree that prolonged exposure to listening texts is essential if oral proficiency is to develop, I suspect that these activities are rarely used in ways which actively highlight the connection. Many non-authentic recordings do not incorporate the phenomena of natural speech such as discourse markers, back-channelling, etc. and are therefore unsuitable for awareness raising activities. Additionally, the role of paralinguistics should not be underestimated in the tactical manoeuvring of talk exchange (3). While listening comprehension skills may well develop via the use of non-authentic, audio-taped texts, the switch to production remains arduous.

(1) "most learners are interested-whatever else they might want-in speaking the language." (Lewis 1997)
(2) Many British people complain that while they are capable of buying fruit and asking for directions in French, they could not begin to hold a conversation with a native speaker of the language.
(3)"We speak with our vocal organs but we converse with our entire bodies." Widdowson (1978) quoting Abercrombie in 'Paralinguistic communication' in ECAL Vol. 1 Ch. 6

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