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Speaking and Conversation with a
Focus at Elementary Level
by Sam Smith
- 2

Of course, at lower levels we must keep in mind that students need the vocabulary to deal with the topics to be talked about, but I believe that practice in the mechanics of conversation can go along way to helping students cope both receptively and productively and the ability to handle conversation shows the learner as someone to be talked to and therefore provides them with valuable input.

My last point to mention is that of the formulae that spoken language follows or of routines. Bygate (1987) talks about information routines, such as narration, description and instruction, and interactional routines such as in a restaurant or on the telephone where as well as your business to discuss you need a greeting and a way of finishing, not just saying 'bye' and hanging up, which would seem very rude.

For the sake of space I will give only one example from McCarthy of the elements found in a narrative routine: Abstract 'I'll always remember the time..'; orientation 'we were..'; complicating event 'next thing we knew..'; resolution 'so we had to..'; coda (or the bridge between the real world and the story) 'and ever since I've..'. An important part of this routine which is present throughout and often lacking in students' speech is evaluation, or making the story worth telling by devices such as exaggeration, recreating noises, by simply telling the audience 'you'll love this one' or by personal orientation 'which made me feel..' As we can see, all this is a tall order when we take into account that the student has to also think of the other motor perceptive and interactional skills mentioned above that have to be employed at the same time.

Ways of helping

Following from all this, we need to help students as much as possible when speaking. Firstly they need a large enough vocabulary and sufficient grammatical knowledge to be able to speak, but as the weight of evidence of the difficulty of communicating shows, they need direct teaching and awareness raising of features of speech and conversation. Firstly I will look at some suggested ways of doing this and then at some suggestions for improving the way we conduct tasks.

Direct Teaching

In an article in the ELT Journal (ELT Journal volume 48/1 January 1994) Zoltan Dornyei and Sarah Thurrell put forward the view that the indirect approach of communicative language teaching is not doing enough. I myself have recently thought the same, i.e. just giving students to practice their speaking through communicative activities falls short of actually teaching them how to speak. Dornyei and Thurrell suggest a 'direct method' which:

'involves planning a conversation programme around the specific microskills, strategies, and processes that are involved in fluent aims at fostering the students' awareness of conversational rules, strategies to use and pitfalls to avoid, as well as increasing their sensitivity to the underlying process.'
(Dornyei and Thurrell, Teaching conversation skills intensively, ELT Journal volume 48/1 January 1994, 41)

They recommend basing a conversation course on teaching:

Conversation rules and structure; openings, turn-taking, interrupting, topic-shift, adjacency pairs, closings.
Conversational strategies; message adjustment or avoidance, paraphrase, approximation, appeal for help, asking for repetition, asking for clarification, interpretive summary, checking, use of fillers/hesitation devices.
Functions and meaning in conversation; language functions (e.g. expressing and agreeing with opinions), indirect speech acts (i.e. in 'I wonder if you could post this letter for me' no actual wondering takes place), same meaning - different meaning ('What a nice car you have' could really mean 'I didn't know you were so rich').

Social and cultural contexts; participant variables - office and status, the social situation, the social norms of appropriate language use, cross-cultural differences. They suggest doing this through:

Adding specific input, for example by giving cue cards to students or requiring students to use a set number of different phrases in an activity.
Increasing the role of consciousness raising, by providing a focus in the context of communicative activities, helping learners construct their own internal grammar inductively and providing learners with input containing the features the teacher would like to focus on.

Sequencing communicative tasks systematically, for example a role-play to practice agreeing and disagreeing followed by adding interruptions, then looking at a formal and informal version of it.
(Dornyei and Thurrell, 1994)

For some good ways of implementing these ideas see Conversation and Dialogues in Action by Dornyei and Thurrell and for some similar ideas see Conversation by Rob Nolasco and Lois Arthur.

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