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Teaching Conversation

Two friends having a conversationDr. Jack C Richards is an applied linguist, writer, and teacher trainer. He is the co-author of Speak Now, a four-level speaking course that helps students to communicate with confidence. In this article, he looks at teaching conversational English.

Conversations are longer exchanges that may follow on from small talk and are the more meaningful type of interaction that results from small talk. They are a more serious type of exchange in which what is said and how it is expressed are both important. One of the most important aspects of conversation is managing discourse around topics. Whereas topics are only lightly touched on in small talk, conversation involves a joint interaction around topics and the introduction of new topics that are linked through each speaker’s contributions.

The skills involved include:

  • Initiating a topic in casual and formal conversation
  • Selecting vocabulary appropriate to the topic
  • Giving appropriate feedback responses
  • Providing relevant evaluative comments through back-channeling
  • Taking turns at appropriate points in the conversation
  • Asking for clarification and repetition
  • Using discourse strategies for repairing misunderstanding
  • Using discourse strategies to open and close conversations
  • Using appropriate intonation and stress patterns to express meaning intelligibly

Second language learners need a wide range of topics at their disposal in order to manage conversation as interaction, and developing topic fluency is a priority in my speaking classes. Initially, learners may depend on familiar topics to get by. However, they also need practice in introducing new topics into conversation to move beyond this stage.

Casual conversation between friends or people who know each other well has these characteristics:

  • Topics switch freely
  • Topics are often provoked by what speakers are doing, by objects in their presence or by some association with what has just been said
  • There does not appear to be a clearly defined purpose for the conversation
  • All speakers can introduce topics and no one speaker appears to dominate the conversation
  • Speakers comment on each other’s statements
  • Topics are only elaborated on briefly, after follow-up questions or comments from listeners
  • Comments in response to a topic often include some evaluation
  • Responses can be very short
  • Ellipsis is common
  • The speaker’s co-operation is often shown through speaker support and repetition of each other’s vocabulary
  • Vocabulary typical of informal conversation will be present, such as clichés, vague language and taboo language

Developing topics in conversation is a subtle process that requires skills in topic management.

Personal recounts are very common in conversation and serve to re-tell an event that the speaker was personally involved in. They often involve one person sharing a recent experience followed by the second speaker’s sharing of a similar experience as in this example:

A: Someone nearly ran into the back of my car on the freeway yesterday.
B: No way!
A: Yeah I was going down highway 201 when ….
B: That almost happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was ….

Students need practice in sharing personal experience and exchanging recounts, as in the example above.

Agenda management and turn-taking are also important features of small talk and conversation. The former refers to the participants’ right to choose the topic and the way the topics are developed, and to choose how long the conversation should continue. This includes strategies for opening, developing and closing conversation and for introducing and changing topics. This process is often jointly managed by the participants, depending on the social relationship between them (e.g. teacher-student; friend-friend; employer-employee).

Turn-taking involves providing opportunities for another person to take a turn in speaking and recognizing when another speaker is seeking to take a turn.

Teaching conversation

Ways of teaching conversation include:

  • Awareness raising activities: students examine examples of conversation, either recorded (audio or video) or transcribed examples, and look for examples of how such things as openings, topic introduction, back channeling, etc. are realized, and for indicators of casual or formal speech.
  • Dialog completion: students are given transcripts of conversations with selected features removed (such as opening, closings, clarification requests) and asked to try to complete them. They then listen to or read the completed dialogs, compare, and then practice.
  • Planning tasks: students are given topics to include in a conversation and asked to write dialogs that include them and that also include personal recounts. They then compare and practice.
  • Improvisations: students are given skeleton dialogs or dialog frames (e.g. containing a sequence of topics or functions they should use in a conversation) and use them to improvise conversations.

Both small talk and conversation have features in common:

  • They require being a good listener: this can be indicated through the use of back channel signals
  • They involve asking questions: conversation develops through the participants asking question and following through on the answers they get with further questions
  • They involve sharing of information: participants are expected to share information they have that is relevant to the topic being discussed

Don’t forget to read Jack’s previous post on Teaching ‘Small Talk’.


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Webinar: Reasons to use literature in English language teaching

Young woman readingGuy Cook, author of the award-winning applied linguistics book Translation in Language Teaching, considers why using literature to teach English is still worth doing. Guy will discuss this topic in more detail in his upcoming webinar on 14th and 17th January.

Let’s face it. Teaching literature to language learners can be a tough challenge!

  • The language can be difficult, unusual or just old-fashioned (you wouldn’t want your learners saying ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”).
  • It can demand a lot of background knowledge – from an unfamiliar time and place.
  • It deals with controversial topics, which may be very personal, embarrassing or culturally divisive.
  • It needs a close focus on written text, which may be alien to the ‘internet generation’.
  • Lastly it is supremely useless! There are not many jobs demanding an understanding of poetry!

To make matters worse, an inappropriate choice of texts may be forced upon you by an exam syllabus. Or, if you can choose your own, you may end up teaching a text that you love but the students hate – an excruciating experience.

HOWEVER, if  you still feel strongly, as I do, that despite all these problems and pitfalls, literature remains supremely worth teaching, and can be very successful in the classroom, then this is a webinar for you.

First, we shall discuss ways of presenting a poem, dealing with its difficulties and subleties, and getting learners to engage with its sound, language and meaning. Next we shall consider what kind of literature is best for the language learner, depending on age, stage, and context. Finally we shall debate some of the cultural and personal issues which arise.

Literature is inspiring, beautiful, eloquent, and memorable. It deals with the big universal experiences of human life: love, death, sexuality, sickness, religion, childhood, friendship, and so forth. As such, it is certainly more interesting than the bland inoffensive materials favoured in ELT classes and textbooks!

I hope you will leave the webinar agreeing with me that, despite its difficulties, literature in the language classroom:

  • has a unique educational value;
  • is relevant to student contemporary lives and experiences;
  • can improve English language knowledge and use;
  • is enjoyable and stimulating for both teacher and students.

In short, my webinar argues strongly for the teaching of literature in ELT, but also candidly address the problems that come with it. I look forward to seeing you there, hearing your comments and opinions, and to benefitting from your own insights and experiences, too.

To find out more about using literature in English language teaching, register for Guy’s webinar on 14th or 17th January.


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Teaching ‘Small Talk’

Office workers making small talkDr. Jack C Richards is an applied linguist, writer, and teacher trainer. He is the co-author of Speak Now, a four-level speaking course that helps students to communicate with confidence. In this article, he looks at small talk in conversational English.

Small talk refers to communication that primarily serves the purpose of social interaction. Small talk consists of short exchanges that usually begin with a greeting, move to back and forth exchanges on non-controversial topics such as the weekend, the weather, work, school, etc., and then often conclude with a fixed expression such as See you later. Such interactions are at times almost formulaic and often do not result in a real conversation. They serve to create a positive atmosphere and to create a comfort zone between people who might be total strangers. While seemingly a trivial aspect of speaking, small talk plays a very important role in social interaction.

Skills involved in mastering small talk include:

  • Acquiring fixed expressions and routines used in small talk
  • Using formal or casual speech depending on the situation
  • Developing fluency is making small talk around predictable topics
  • Using opening and closing strategies
  • Using back-channeling

Back-channeling involves the use of expressions such as Really?, Mmm, Is that right?, Yeah, etc., and very commonly short rhetorical questions such as Do you? Are you? Did you?. The use of expressions that show exaggeration such as Way out, Awesome, Fantastic is usually a sign that the two participants are friends, as in the following example:

A. Look at what my dad gave me for my birthday.
B. Fantastic.
A. He got it in Italy.
B. Awesome!

Echo responses are another type of back-channelling and involve echoing something the speaker said. For example:

A. So where are you from?
B. Chicago.
A. Chicago. That’s interesting.

Ways of teaching small talk include:

  • Modelling and creating: students study examples of small talk exchanges and create similar exchanges on the same topic.

For example a lesson can start by giving students a model of  a small-talk exchange, such as the following example from a teacher in Japan, that shows a conversation between two friends in Japan who meet in a shopping mall:

A: Hi.
B: Oh hi, how’s it going?
A: Good, good, fine.
B: Are you, er, doing some shopping?
A: Yeah, just a few things really, you know.
B:Yeah.
A: Yeah, …actually I’ve been looking for a present, for Hiroko, but it’s difficult to.. you know..
B: Yeah, umm, what kind of thing?
A: Oh, something like, umm, a present… something like… it’s her birthday tomorrow actually. [laughs]
B: Tomorrow?
A: Yeah, tomorrow. So I’ve looked in Hamaya, like, at the makeup and stuff, but it’s not very exciting.
B: Tomorrow? How about Amu Plaza, they’ve got Tower Records and some kind of new shops.
A: Yeah. OK, great, Tower Records might be good. I might give that a go. I’ve got to go over to the station, anyway. So, anyway, good to see you and thanks for the tip.
B: That’s fine. Say happy birthday to Hiroko from me.
A: OK I will. Bye.
B: Yeah, bye.
A: Bye.

This exchange can be used to highlight some of the features of casual language, such as the use of ellipsis (e.g. doing some shopping?), phrases such as you know, idioms (give that a go), and bye as a closing routine. Like many interactions of this kind, the exchange opens with a friendly greeting, moves towards small talk, and then closes with an exchange of greetings. The teacher provides worksheets in which the students identify the different sections of the conversation and the discourse functions and practice writing their own dialogs using the same discourse features. They later enact role-plays to further practice the appropriate sequence in a small talk exchange.

Other activities to practice small talk are:

  • Class mingles: each student has one or two topics on a card. The class mingle, students greet, introduce their topic, make small talk for one or two exchanges, close the conversation, and move on to a different student.
  • Question sheets: students have a worksheet with 10 different small talk questions. They move around the class and take turns asking and responding to their exchange in small talk format.

Don’t forget to visit this blog on Thursday 16th January to read the second part in this blog series written by Jack C Richards: “Teaching Conversation”.


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Pronunciation Matters – Part 2

Continuing from last week’s post about teaching pronunciation, Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, talks to us about the challenges of teaching and learning pronunciation.

Q: What are the challenges for teachers when teaching pronunciation?

RW: The main challenge is the need to gain and maintain an adequate level of pronunciation knowledge and competence in each of three areas:

  • your own competence in the pronunciation of English. This doesn’t mean having a perfect accent (whatever that means), but there is obviously a minimum competence with pronunciation, just as there is with grammar or vocabulary.
  • your knowledge of how the pronunciation of English works. Obviously if you don’t understand this, it’s unlikely that you’ll be very effective in helping your learners to improve their pronunciation.
  • your competence in terms of teaching strategies and techniques. It’s not enough to know ‘about’ pronunciation, or even to be a native speaker. You also need to know as much as you can about teaching pronunciation to others.

Q: What challenges do students face when learning pronunciation?

RW: The first challenge is to do with the distance between their mother-tongue pronunciation and that of English. In that respect Dutch, Polish, or Scandinavian students, for example, have a lot less of a mountain to climb than Spanish, Greek, or Japanese learners.

A major challenge for most adult learners of English, however, is to ‘re-tune’ their ears so that they become sensitive to sounds and other features of English that don’t exist in their mother tongue pronunciation. I’m struggling right now with some of the consonants of Polish precisely because we don’t have these sounds in English. And if you can’t hear a sound, you’re not going to be able to pronounce it.

And an increasing challenge now that English is a lingua franca is the variation in accents – both non-native speaker and native speaker – that learners will encounter as they travel around the world and put their English to use.

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Pronunciation Matters – Part 1

Pronunciation could be a tricky area for both students and teachers, but it is a vital skill for students if they wish to be understood in the real world. Pronunciation expert, Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, gives his views on teaching pronunciation.

Q: How has the attitude to teaching pronunciation changed recently (if at all)?

RW: I don’t really know, but if I think about pronunciation at teacher’s conferences, I have to conclude that the attitude most prevalent today is lack of interest. There are very few talks on pronunciation at conferences now, and attendance at these talks is too often closer to ten than to a hundred and ten. Similarly, if you browse through teacher’s magazines, you don’t find too many articles or regular features on pronunciation.

Q: Does pronunciation matter?

RW: Teachers know from experience that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get the words out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce. Then of course, if your pronunciation is poor, listening can be a nightmare, either because you simply don’t hear key sounds or words, or because you have to dedicate so much processing power to listening that your brain very quickly overloads and blocks.

Less obvious is the impact of poor pronunciation on reading and writing. At the level of writing, the impact might be merely anecdotal. My students would often write ‘crap’ instead of ‘crab’ because of limitations in their pronunciation. But at the end of her talk on L2 reading at the 2008 IATEFL Conference, OUP author Catherine Walter told the audience that if their learners wanted to read better, they would have to improve their pronunciation. She was not being facetious here. She was basing this invaluable piece of advice on serious academic research into how we read.

Speaking, listening, writing, reading – competence in all four skills is closely related to competence in pronunciation. The same is obviously true for vocabulary, and even for grammar, as is witnessed by the pronunciation CD that accompanies the Oxford English Grammar Course.

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