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Teaching Interaction Management Directly:
Helping Learners with Part 3 of the
CAE Speaking Exam
by Greg Gobel
- 1

Discovering an opportunity

While my learners were recently practicing the CAE speaking exam I noticed they struggled most in Part 3, involving ‘[t]wo-way interaction between candidates’ and ‘negotiating and collaborating; reaching agreement or “agreeing to disagree”’(1). Perhaps I should have noticed this problem earlier in the course, but we had been focusing more on Part 2 because the learners had expressed that they felt speaking for one minute was more challenging than the interactiveness of Part 3. Although, we have practiced Part 3 at times, in the context of doing an entire practice speaking exam in class there was a clear discrepancy between their effective Part 2 performance and their less effective Part 3 performance. These areas were somewhat problematic:

  • saying too much about one aspect of the task, thus not allowing enough time to discuss the other aspects,
  • not being comfortable bringing up new topics or knowing when to bring up new topics relevant to the task,
  • being selfish in the conversation, i.e., not giving up the floor to their partner at appropriate times, and
  • not being comfortable to take the floor from their partner with relevant points.

This paper addresses these by looking into interaction management to help learners to improve their conversational skills in preparation for the CAE.

Relating Interaction Management to CAE Speaking Part 3

Cook says there are differences in types of spoken language, i.e., ‘between “one-way” speech (for example, a lecture) and “two-way” speech (for example, a conversation): a division, in other words, between speech with a high degree of reciprocity and speech with a low one.’ (2) In Part 2 of the CAE speaking exam, each candidate speaks for one minute comparing and contrasting pictures. They do not interact with their partner, so this demonstrates a low degree of reciprocity. However, Part 3, which my learners now struggle more with, involves a high degree of reciprocity challenging them to work together discussing and ultimately agreeing on a decision in three to four minutes. Part 3 fits best into Littlewood’s communicative task category called ‘processing information,’ where the ‘stimulus for communication comes from the need to discuss and evaluate…in order to solve a problem or reach a decision.’(3)

This task type makes it necessary ‘for learners to develop skills in managing the interaction at the interpersonal level…’ (4) Bygate proposes focusing on two main areas of interaction management: agenda management and turn-taking. ‘The first refers essentially to control over the content, that is, the choice of topic of an exchange, while turn-taking relates to the obvious aspect of who speaks when and for how long.’ (5) Bygate’s starting point is the idea of the interlocutor’s freedom in the conversation, being able to ‘exercise their rights over many aspects of the interaction directly, and without the intervention of anyone else’ (6) . From observing the learners attempting Part 3, it seemed they were uncomfortable with or unsure of how to make the most of this freedom to help them navigate through the conversation.

Agenda management is ‘the basic freedom to start, direct, and end a conversation without conforming to a script and without the intervention of a third party’ (7) . It involves several rights of the participant: to choose a topic, to choose the way the topic is developed, and to choose how long the conversation will be.(8)Thornbury ‘loosely’ defines a topic as ‘what is being talked about over a series of turns.’ (9) Bygate suggests five useful skills for managing topics (10):

  • knowing how to bring up initial topics
  • developing a topic
  • bringing a new topic as an extension of the previous one
  • switching topics
  • opening/closing conversations.

My learners struggled with bringing in new topics as extensions and with switching/shifting topics resulting in time management problems – none of them ended on time agreeing or agreeing to disagree. Encouragingly, they wanted to continue discussing the task for much longer than the very short four minutes allowed in the exam. They expressed that this time limit was too short to go into any depth. In other words, in the real world these learners would be very willing to participate in lengthy conversation. But, they will have to learn to exploit their freedom of interaction to manage their topics within this imposed time limit. The task provides the general topic, but learners have control over how to manage each smaller topic of the task as extensions from, or contrasts to, each other and how to move from the general discussion to the specific decision-making phase.

To be effective at turn-taking, Bygate says a speaker ‘has to be efficient at getting a turn and to be good at letting another speaker have a turn.’ (11) Rost points out, ‘In most conversational settings, interlocutors switch back and forth between the roles of primary contributor and primary interpreter.’ (12) The underlying problem learners may have is identifying appropriate transition points to allow for the switching back and forth that helps move the conversation beneficially. This is difficult primarily because the exchange structure ‘is worked out during the conversation rather than being pre-planned.’ (13) This element of unpredictability is surely a challenge but learners can work at overcoming it by developing the following skills (14):

  • signaling to speak
  • recognizing the right moment to get a turn and knowing contextually appropriate ways of interrupting
  • using ‘turn structure’ to hold a turn and not lose it before finishing
  • recognizing other people’s signals to speak
  • knowing how to let someone have a turn

1.CAE Handbook: 49
2. Cook, 1989: 115-116
3. Littlewood, 1981: 36
4. bid: 38
5. Bygate, 1987: 36
6. bid: 35-36
7. id: 36
8. bid: 36
9. Thornbury, 1997: 260
10. Bygate, 1987: 36
11. ibid: 39
12. Rost, 1990: 92
13. ibid: 93
14. summarized from Bygate, 1987: 39

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