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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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#qskills – What can I do to improve my students’ pronunciation and fluency?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: What can I do to improve my students’ pronunciation and fluency?

Tamara Jones responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.

 


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Enhancing learning – Using an app in class

Girl using mobile phoneVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at how technology can enhance a student’s ability to learn a language. 

I’m interested in how technology enhances a student’s ability to learn a language. Resources are plentiful, but incorporating them into the classroom is not always easy. So when I saw the “Headway Phrase-a-day” app by Oxford University Press, I became curious as to how it would help students enhance their learning.

Students get a phrase a day, such as “You’re pulling my leg”. To help them understand the phrase there is a picture, a sample sentence, and a similar expression that is easier, in this case, “You’re teasing me”. Students can search for a phrase, add certain phrases to their list of favourites, and play some games based on the phrases they have already learned.

All very well so far, but, how could a teacher use this to help their students learn more effectively? Here are a few ideas:

phrase a day

1. Sharing

Students come to each lesson with a new phrase. They must be able to use the phrase to communicate something about themselves. This should lead them to personalise their learning rather than simply memorising the phrases. The teacher can quickly go around the room with each student saying their sentence. Alternatively, students can write their sentence on a piece of paper and display it in class for everyone to see. By sharing their sentences with their classmates, students further strengthen their ability to use them meaningfully.

2. Favourites

Of course, some phrases will be easier than others. In order to focus on the phrases they find more difficult, students can move these into their “Favourites” folder. This will give them a list of those phrases they need to focus on.

To provide more work on these phrases, the teacher can provide some class time in which students discuss the phrases they have found difficult. The discussion alone may help many students overcome their difficulties. The discussion will also give students a chance to share their successful learning strategies with each other, giving students having difficulties alternative ways to improve.

As a phrase becomes easier, they can remove it from their favourites. In this way they can assess how well they are progressing. Their “Favourites” folder should never have more than 10 words.

headway phrase a day

3. Games

Every 15 phrases, a student will be able to open up one of the games. These games will help the student assess more closely how well they have learned the phrases.

Ask students to bring their digital devices to class. Tell them they are going to play the game at the “easy” level. This level gives them 3 minutes to match all the answers. Before they begin, ask them to establish a time they would consider successful. This gives them a personal goal to strive for.

Once they have played a game, ask them to register their times in a notebook. Get these times from them, and display the average in class. In this way, each student will then be able to compare their time with the class, increasing their confidence as they do well, or motivating them to do better.

The games can also be played at “medium” level, with 2 minutes to match all the answers, and at “hard” level, with 6 seconds for each phrase. Tell your students that their goal should be to do the “hard” level and match all the phrases. Any phrases they don’t match they should put into “Favourites” folder.

Summary

Using the phrase app as part of lessons gives students a structure to use it more effectively. It provides them with a space in which they can help each other. It provides the teacher with the opportunity to help them use it better.

The app enhances students’ ability to learn by giving them more contact with English outside the classroom. It allows each student to tailor their learning to their individual needs, taking a phrase and using it to communicate their own experiences and opinions.

The app also provides students with immediate feedback. They can quickly use this feedback to adjust their learning in order to make it more effective. Equally important, the app allows students to see their progress as they work through the different phrases, giving them a sense of achievement as they reach their goals.


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Speaking for fluency in public, and for accuracy in private

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English 2nd edition, looks at the concepts of accurancy and fluency in young English language learners.

If you think about it, we need to give children plenty of listening practice in order to help them speak. It’s logical. It follows the natural route of language acquisition: given the right conditions, input (listening) will become output (speaking).

So, one of the best ways to get children speaking English is to provide them with lots of listening practice and guide them into spoken production. Children may not see the point in learning another language: it has no reality in their world. But they have less of a problem in using or repeating another language when they are having fun.

How can we make this happen in the classroom? Let’s look at one way of doing this.

An animated story is a perfect vehicle for moving children from listening to speaking. For a start, most children like stories. They are fun and engaging and children enjoy them. Stories are part of their reality: storytelling is an activity to which children are accustomed. More than that, stories are based on real life and so they are relevant.

When they are trying to understand a story, the language has a purpose. It is given a context and it becomes meaningful. Participating in a story gives them a reason for understanding.

Above all perhaps, children love stories. They can listen to them again and again and never become bored. Stories often have strong repeated phrases. For example, how does this line from a famous children’s story finish: “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow….”? Small children will often join in and say these powerful, repeated lines. They are acquiring language.

In our context as language teachers we can take advantage of this strong human urge and the powerful human activity of storytelling. The stories in our coursebooks are often vehicles for the language we want to introduce to the children. The language that is repeated in the story is usually the language that we want children to “get”.

Helping children to act out a story can be a fruitful classroom activity. Most children enjoy it (but do keep in mind that not all children enjoy it). The specific language aim is to activate a piece of language.

Here are some thoughts about speaking and error correction. The idea of “private practice” and “public performance” may be worth bearing in mind. Or, maybe the concepts of accuracy and fluency.

As they practise, go around helping them say the language. If you like, this is private practice and so getting it right (and that means correction by you, the teacher) is important. They are not exposed in front of the whole class. They are in a private space with you and a small peer group. They are more likely to hear and respond to your correction when they are not exposed in front of the whole group.

When a group shows their story to the whole class I think the dynamic has shifted. I think it’s very important to give positive feedback as this is happening. Help them say the language if they need it, but avoid overt correction. This is now a public performance and so correction is probably inappropriate. Having fun and being motivated is far more important than language accuracy.

Correcting errors is an important part of our work as language teachers. But over correction will demotivate the children. I need to be principled about what I correct and, perhaps more importantly, when I correct it.

How do you encourage accuracy and fluency of language in your classroom?

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