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An action research project with Greek
teenagers at intermediate level

by Costas Gabrielatos

This is the report of an action research project on oral communication and interaction strategies I conducted in February and March 1992 for partial fulfilment of the RSA/Cambridge Diploma for Overseas Teachers of English. The report was submitted in April 1992. In this version I have made some changes in wording, reference conventions and the numbering of sections. I have also incorporated some footnotes in the text and combined some extremely short sub-sections. Unfortunately, the transcripts of activities and feedback discussions, as well as the tasksheets and handouts are not yet available in electronic form, as they were either hand-written, or typed on a 'traditional' typewriter.


The choice of this project was greatly determined by the fact that very little attention had been given to fluency and student interaction during the previous years of tuition of the group of students concerned. As a result, students had developed inhibitions towards using the target language which had a negative impact on their oral performance. It would, therefore, be an opportunity and a challenge for me to examine the effectiveness of certain activities and techniques in helping students shed their inhibitions and become more fluent communicators.


1.1. Aims

•To help students become more confident and fluent communicators and encourage risk-taking.
•To make students aware of certain communication strategies (Bygate 1987: Ch. 5; Ellis 1985: 180-188), notably achievement strategies (paraphrase and co-operative strategies) (Bygate 1987: 44-46, Ellis 1985: 184-185) and their importance in facilitating oral production, as well as to provide the students with opportunities to use them consciously.
•To make students aware of the reciprocal nature of oral interaction and certain features of "interaction routines" (Bygate 1987: 34-35).
•To elicit and present expressions through which the above strategies and features can be realised.
•To make students aware of the benefits of assuming joint responsibility for the negotiation of meaning.
•To provide opportunities for free practice in certain routine types of interaction, notably informal discussion and informal planning and decision making (see Bygate 1987: 35).

1.2. Procedure

•Lesson 1 dealt with the strategy of circumlocution.
•Lesson 2 dealt with the following aspects of oral interaction: signalling (lack of) understanding / interest / participation through asking for repetition / clarification / elaboration / confirmation.
•Lesson 3 dealt with time gaining devices, showing interest and participation through expressing and asking for opinions and ways of signposting a discussion.
•Lesson 4 dealt with ways of expressing agreement / disagreement (and their level of formality).
•Lesson 5 was a consolidation and awareness-raising lesson.
•Lesson 6 focused on helping students to become aware of strategies they (do not) use, and provided more opportunities for practising the strategy of circumlocution.


2.1. Characteristics of Spoken Language

Apart from instances when listeners are unable or not expected to respond overtly (e.g. news broadcasts, lectures) speakers have to take the listeners' feedback into consideration, for instance they will have to rephrase their message or answer to questions. Bygate (1987: 34-35) mentions features of interaction routines involving feedback. The ones relevant to the aims of this project are: "asking the other person for information or language that he or she has forgotten", "asking the other person's opinion", "responding to requests for clarification from the listener(s), for instance by rephrasing, repeating, giving examples or analogies", "indicating uncertainty about comprehension", "indicating comprehension", "asking for clarification", "expressing appropriate agreement, reservations or appreciation of speaker's point", "interrupting where necessary to express any of the foregoing". Speakers will also have to take into account the listeners' knowledge of the world and/or of the particular topic of the interaction. This reciprocal nature of the interaction facilitates communication as both speaker and listener co-operate to ensure mutual understanding (Bygate 1987: 12-13).

Speakers have also to decide on what they are to say next and how to express it while they are speaking. This fact may affect the structure of the speakers' utterance and the density of communicated information.

2.2. Functions of Spoken Language

Brown & Yule (1983a: 1-3; 1983b: 11-16) mention that language can be seen as having two functions: transferring information (transactional function) and establishing/maintaining social relationships (interactional function). Interactional spoken language is characterised by shifts of topic and short turns. The accuracy and clarity of information in not of primary importance, and facts/views are not normally questioned or challenged. In transactional spoken language longer turns are the norm and there is a clear topic. Since the effective transference of information is the goal, interlocutors are actively engaged in the negotiation of meaning. Brown & Yule summarise the above stating that whereas interactional language is "listener oriented", transactional language is "message oriented".

2.3. On Native Oral Production

As regards native oral production, one can distinguish some general features of the spoken language (as opposed to the written one). These features are the result of the speakers' efforts to facilitate their speaking production and/or the time constraints imposed on them by the nature of oral communication (Brown & Yule 1983a: 15-17; Brown & Yule 1983b: 4; Bygate 1987: 14-21; McCarthy 1991: 143-144).

a. The syntax tends to be less complicated than in written language (Brown & Yule 1983b: 4). Speakers seem to favour parataxis (i.e. phrases linked not by subordination but by coordinating connectors ('and', 'or', 'but'), or phrases that are understood by the listener as being related to each other only by the way they are uttered by the speaker), and ellipsis (i.e. omission of elements of the sentence).
b. Instances of "ungrammatical" utterances are common (if one considers the written medium to be the norm of grammatical correctness). McCarthy (1991: 143) provides an example: "There's another secretary too who I do not know what she's responsible for."
c. Pauses, repetition and false starts are rather frequent.
d. The use of "time-creating devices" ("filters", "pauses", "hesitations") (Bygate 1987: 18).

Based on these facts, Brown & Yule (1983b: 22 & 26) propose that it would be irrational and unnatural to expect the EFL learner to produce full, grammatically correct sentences when speaking.

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