Dr. 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.
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’.