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


Most efl-esl training programs around the world try to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Depending on the department, some leans towards the theoretical, others towards practical classroom application. Indeed, the move away from theory in the United States has transformed applied linguistics courses into narrowly focused teaching methodology courses, and prodded many colleges and universities to move applied linguistics from the linguistics department to the English or education department.

In a previous paper [see Schackne, 2002] I argued that there was a lot of relevant research on second language acquisition that was not being applied in the classroom. However, if we accept that successful learning strategies and styles differ depending on personality, educational and cultural background, and personal preference, then applying a theory may only benefit some of the students. The missing component is a knowledge of the students, specifically their current academic, political, and socio-economic pursuits, and, just as importantly, their attitudes towards, and experience in, language learning. While a needs analysis can shed light on student attitudes and desires, actual teaching experience might be the most crucial variable in intuitively tapping into what approaches will both benefit and satisfy language students. Bearing in mind these three crucial factors--second language acquisition theory, classroom practice, and student insight--let us now use a common sense approach to develop an oral skills class.


In the fall of 2002, a Chinese university asked me to teach speaking-listening to about 200 graduate students (4 sections x 50). There were no materials, no guidelines, simply the general goal that the students "learn something" from the course. The students ranged in age from 21 to 50, and came from various departments, including hard sciences, social sciences, liberal arts and fine arts. They were evenly divided between Masters students and Ph.D students. They were in class approximately 90 minutes a week over the course of 2 semesters (approximately 30 weeks). Their levels ranged from low intermediate to low advanced.

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].

A Common Sense Approach--Groupings

In an oral skills class, manageable size is essential if the class is to advance beyond an audio-lingual stage. Using a common sense approach, students are divided into 10 groups (A-J), 5 students per group. Class meetings can either be whole group (50) for 100 minutes; split groups A-E (25) for 50 minutes followed by groups F-J (25) for 50 minutes; or each individual group (A through J) separately for approximately 10 minutes.

The whole class grouping is used to outline class guidelines; give directions; discuss meta-language issues; pre-teach and clarify discrete language elements, such as grammar points, lexical items, pronunciation, collocation, and usage; and make special announcements. These classes are most often found at the beginning of a semester when students must hone listening abilities and, adjust to the pace and speaking style of the instructor [see Krashen; Krashen and Terrell].

The split groups rotation is used for both discovery queries and, especially, problem solving queries, with groups spending 50 minutes in in-group discussion, trying to solve a problem or make a choice. The teacher occasionally circulates to check progress, answer student/group questions or otherwise facilitate.

Individual group rotation is most often used for presentation, when students, through both in-class and out-of-class discussion, have solved a problem, reached a decision, or made a choice.

Whole class sessions tend to emphasize listening skills more than speaking skills. Split groups depend both on listening and speaking, with students taking turns, often paraphrasing and code-switching, trying to hash out a solution. Individual group work emphasizes one-to-one, teacher-student interaction with students presenting solutions and choices. This is an intense, English-only 10 minute session which stresses both fluency and accuracy.

A Common Sense Approach--Evaluation

A common sense approach here would be to simply interview the students, one-to-one or in pairs, and grade them on a set of sub skills, e.g., pronunciation, vocabulary, usage, structure…. The larger the set of sub skills chosen, however, the longer the interviews would have to run for objective evaluation. With 200 students, this could run to over 40 hours of evaluation. I have used both individual and pair interviews and, while I find them practical for rating oral skills, large numbers of students render the process inconvenient for busy teachers.

An alternative would be to have students write and perform a role play. While not as authentic as face-to-face communication, the role play has its own set of pluses.

It is a group project offering a pleasurable social activity for the students. Furthermore, by assuming a different persona and performing a set piece, students generally experience less anxiety than they would in a spontaneous, personal interview with the teacher [see Appendix B].

I present 7 scenarios, all describing a problem or conflict that must be resolved. The scenarios incorporate personalization/localization [see Harmer, p. 102], so the students have either experienced the situations described or know someone who has experienced them. Students can choose partners within their group or outside of their group. They are given a week to write a dialogue for the role play. The class, of course, does not cover writing, but some skill integration is more common than not in general esl-efl courses today. Once the dialogue is completed, I will go over it and correct it, explaining commonly occurring errors. After corrections are made, the students have a grammatically correct, colloquial dialogue which they can practice for a week and present in the final class. For evaluation, I chose to emphasize pronunciation and general comprehension (pronunciation being the weakest sub skill), but also factored usage, stress and intonation, and general creativity. Teachers, however, have the option to focus on different sub skills.

A Common Sense Approach—Grading

Oral skills efl is not a core content course and, hence, is not usually a high priority amongst Masters and Ph.D students. A common sense approach here would be to simply offer a pass(p)-fail(f) grading system, with a high pass(hp) for exceptional work. The problem, of course, is many schools demand a numerical grade. The pass-fail designation could be converted to numbers, e.g., 80-65-90, but this would leave an unacceptable spread amongst the largest group—pass. Rather, I chose 6 numerical equivalents with the following key: 68-fail, 75-low pass, 78-low average, 82-average, 85-high average, 90-exceptional. The range was arrived at based on grad school standards, and reflects a general level of student progress, while avoiding hopelessly fine numerical distinctions.


The field of English language teaching has been extraordinarily atomized—programs in universities, high schools, and language institutes often have little in common, and teachers, often recruited from various backgrounds, can offer different content within the same course description. The ed schools keep plying us with different theories and classroom approaches but, if the students really do have different learning styles, as well as different goals and purposes, and if they are motivated in different ways, then a common sense approach would involve several factors—an understanding of how second language is acquired; practical hands-on experience in teaching a second language; and understanding of human nature; and a knowledge of student backgrounds and prevailing conditions.

A good tefl program offers a theoretical foundation and, perhaps, a bit of practice teaching; the rest must be learned by the teacher through keen observation and real-world encounters.


Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman, 1991-2000

Krashen, Stephen. The Input Hypothesis, Longman, 1984.

Krashen, Stephen and Terrell, Tracy. The Natural Approach, Pergamon Press, 1982

Schackne, Steve. “Language Teaching Research—In the Literature, but Not Always in the Classroom,” in Journal of Language and Linguistics, 2002.


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning.

He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau. His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

Appendix A
Appendix B
Appendix C

Appendix A (Topics Selected, 2002-2003)

Academic Corruption, America in China's Eyes, AIDS

Buying a Car in China, Body Building

Chinese Tea, Current Events, Cloning, Chinese and Western Lifestyle, Chinese Medicine, Campus Violence, Cultural Differences, Campus Life, Chinese in America, Chinese TV

DINKS(Double Income No Kids), Drinking, Dreams for the Future, Differences Between North and South China, Divorce, Domestic Violence

Environment, Educational Reform, English Songs

Food, Family, Friends, Female Beauty vs. Brains, Foreigners' Lives in China, Fashion

Government Corruption, Generation Gap, Government Elections, Global Warming

How to Write an Academic Paper, Honesty, Hobbies, Hometowns, High Tuition Costs, History, How to Relieve Stress, Health and Diet

Iraq War, Internet, Interesting Books

Juvenile Delinquency, Job Hunting

Love and Marriage, Love on Campus

Marine Resources, Movies, Music, Middle East, Media Freedom

Natural Resources, NBA(National Basketball Association)

Overpopulation, Over-enrollment of Graduate Students in China

Ph.D Lifestyle, Pollution, Privacy, Pop Music, Part-time Jobs for Students, Psychological Problems, Pets

Religion, Rich and Poor

Sustainable Development in Western China, Smoking, Space Exploration, Study vs. Work, Shopping, Social Skills, Sex Discrimination, SARS(Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Studying Abroad, Sports, Sino-U.S. Relations

Teachers and Students, Taiwan, Travel, TOEFL(Test of English as a Foreign Language), Terrorism, Transportation Problems in China



War and Peace, World Cup(Football), Weekends, World Wonders

Appendix B (Role Plays)

4 people: 2m/f, 1m, 1f

You are a graduate student who has been offered a job with a Chinese company. To take this job you would have to drop out of school. Your parents disagree; they want you to stay in school, graduate, and then join a multinational firm or go abroad for study. Your best friend agrees with you. You and your best friend have to convince your parents to accept your point of view.

3 people: 2f, 1m

You have decided to marry a boy from another province, who you knew from university. He is considered a genius in the computer field, but so far has no job prospects. You love him and feel he will be successful in his career and a good husband. Your parents disagree. They want you to marry a government administrator from your home province. You know this man and like him. You know that he has a secure position, but you don't feel you would be happy marrying him. Persuade your parents that your choice will be the best.

2 people: 1m, 1f

You want an LOA (leave of absence) from your job to attend a 2-week long course in Hong Kong called "E-Marketing in Asia for the 21st Century." You are willing to pay your own tuition, and you have a place in Hong Kong to stay. However, your boss, Marketing Director for Xia Tech Company , doesn't want to release you for 2 weeks; he says he needs you on the job. You have to convince him that you can make up the work and that the course will make you a better marketing employee, and a more valuable team member of Xia Tech Company.

2 people: 2m

Your best friend's girlfriend has "made a pass" at you. You are not interested in her, but you feel you have to tell your best friend that his girlfriend is not to be trusted. You are undecided about telling your friend that the girl tried to seduce you because you think that might either hurt him or anger him, and maybe make him feel like you are trying to "steal" the girl. How do you protect your friend without ruining the friendship?

2 people: 2f

Your best friend's boyfriend has "made a pass" at you. You are not interested in him, but you feel you have to tell your best friend that her boyfriend is not to be trusted. You are undecided about telling your friend that the boy tried to seduce you because you think that might either hurt her or anger her, and maybe make her feel like you are trying to "steal" the boy. How do you protect your friend without ruining the friendship?

2 people: 1m, 1f

You have to miss 2 weeks of school to take care of your sick mother. You have to convince your (night school) teacher that this is a real family obligation you have to take care of. The problem is you are only an average student, and the teacher doesn't trust you because last time you missed class, the teacher discovered you were at a music pub with your friend. How do you deal with this situation?

5 people: 5 m/f

You want to attend Cambridge University in England to pursue graduate studies. Only the best Chinese students in all of China make it to Cambridge, so you know that your competition is going to be stiff. Cambridge has four professors who will interview you and decide on your application. This interview is very important, so you must show poise, intelligence, and confidence.

Appendix C (Sample Class Module)

Topic: Divorce

Grouping: 5 groups x 5 students per group (50 minutes)

1. Warmup—5 minutes
Ask simple yes/no questions to focus student attention and get them used to the class topic.

a) Do you think divorce is on the increase in China?

b) Do you feel, in an unhappy marriage, divorce is sometimes justified?

[Listing—10 minutes] —In groups

  • List all the causes of divorce you can think of
  • List all the effects divorce has on society
  • Alternate(if answer to Ia was yes)—List all reasons why divorce is increasing in China

2. Direct Teaching—10 minutes
Whole class
Demonstrate and model cause/effect teaching elements:

  • so
  • therefore
  • consequently
  • as a result
  • since
  • hence
  • because
  • due to
  • leads to
  • results in
  • causes

How they are used: formal-informal; written-oral

3. Consensus15 minutes
In groups

  • Agree on the two major causes of divorce in China

  • Agree on the two major effects divorce has on society

  • Alternate(if answer to IA was yes)—Agree on the two major reasons divorce is increasing in China

4. Presentation—10 minutes
In groups

Present results from group work in stage IV; attempt to utilize caue/effect teaching elements in stage III.

5. Expansion —Optional class expansion
personal values—to be discussed in next class

  • Would you seek a divorce if you had an unhappy marriage?

  • Would children make a difference?

  • What should be done to reduce high divorce rates?

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