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The Common Sense Approach
How One Teacher Organized A Speaking Course
For 200 Chinese Graduate Students
Steve Schackne
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A Common Sense Approach--Content

A speaking course starts from the premise that the students have to have something to talk about, so the question of content was the first issue that had to be resolved. Harmer [see Harmer, 1993-2000, p. 182] classifies real-world language engagement as motivated by usefulness or interest. While practical usefulness of content is manifested over the course of a semester or school year, interest must be spurred at the very beginning, so I let the students choose the topics they wanted to discuss. Individual students came up with 20-40 suggestions, and the class voted for their favorites, the top 12 being adopted for the semester. While pushing students into areas which interest and motivate them, topic selection also offers insights into their attitudes and opinions about their world. In addition, it offers (as opposed to a structural, functional, or situational approach), an element of student autonomy, a concept often trumpeted by concerned efl-esl professionals. [see appendix A]

A quick scan of Appendix A reveals many topics that are too broad for in-class dialogues, so questions that focus the discussion must be developed. These focus questions can be divided into primary level questions and secondary level questions. The primary level questions are classified as discovery queries and opinion (value) queries, while the secondary level, or more advanced questions, are classified as problem solving (option) queries. These focus questions all evolve from the natural progression of real-world conversation.

A discovery query is generated by an information gap [see Harmer, 1993-2000] and the need to discover to clarify information:

Topic: Academic Corruption, Discovery Query: What do you mean by academic corruption? Could you give me some examples of that?

The student would respond with an attempted paraphrase or an example(s).

A value query offers the student an opportunity to express an opinion about some aspect of the topic:

Topic: Food, Value Query: Do you prefer Chinese or Western Food? Why?

Here the students respond by offering an opinion, supporting it with examples, details and description, personal experience, and facts and statistics.

A problem solving query forces the student to use critical thinking skills to solve a problem or make a choice:

Topic: High Tuition Costs, Problem Solving Query: What would you do to reduce tuition costs at this university?

This query leads students into extended discourse, prolonged discussion, and higher level rhetoric, such as argumentation and persuasion.

The topics can all be adapted to illustrate particular styles of organization and specific associated language elements. Take the general topic, Food. Opinion queries could naturally progress to recipes, which would model the process style of organization. Process would lead to more discrete language elements, such as the use of imperative (chop, slice, fry, boil) verb forms and the use of listing signals (first, second, next….).

Similarly, a discussion of high tuition costs could generate opinion queries such as: why do you think tuition costs are so high? What effects does high tuition have on students? These queries would clarify cause/effect organization, which in turn could showcase cause/effect structures (therefore, because, consequently….)

What we have is a top-down, funnel progression—general topic >>> narrowed topic >>> focus queries >>>language organization >>> syntactic-lexical elements, all couched in simulated-authentic discourse generated by student-selected topics. An added advantage is flexibility—focus questions determine the relative difficulty and the lessons can be seamlessly abbreviated or expanded [see Appendix C].

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