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Speaking and Conversation with a
Focus at Elementary Level
by Sam Smith
- 3

Improving the Task

Finally I would like to briefly draw attention to 3 ideas for improving students' speech related to task based learning. The ideas have their root in the idea that having to do too much at one time can have a negative effect on students' language and therefore reinforce errors and more importantly deny students the necessary time and resources to consciously or unconsciously fully practice and therefore hopefully improve their existing language.
Firstly, Helen Johnson in an article in the ELT Journal criticises the traditional PPP method of teaching and the Deep End Strategy (1st do the task, 2nd the teacher sees what language is needed and 3rd teaches it), saying that they both lead to the fossilisation of students' language as the teaching takes place at the wrong time. With PPP students don't have an internal need for the language taught and with the Deep End Strategy, students have already done the task with their flawed but coping language before the teaching takes place and therefore do not, again have a need for the language taught.
She suggests instead the 'tennis clinic' approach, where 1st the students are set the task, then they work alone to prepare what they want to say and can interact with the teacher, using their communication strategies to tell him what they need, 3rd they work in pairs to practice their individual input and lastly work in small groups to do the task. Thus the learning of new language comes from the students' needs, is put in at the right time, i.e. before communication, is practised and finally is used for communication. (Helen Johnson, ELT Journal 46/2 April 1992, 180)

Johnson suggests this strategy to be used with intermediate students but I see it as valid at lower levels too as the same problem of students not using their full range of language still occurs and if introduced earlier will start students off on the right foot when learning.

Secondly, Pauline Foster, in Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, suggests simply giving students some planning time in an effort to encourage students to use their liguistical resources to the full. In a study carried out on 3 groups of learners of the same level, one group with no planning time, a 2nd with 10 minutes planning time and a 3rd with planning time and a list of suggestions on how to use their planning time (considering vocabulary, grammar and content of the task). The students were to do 3 tasks, exchanging personal information, a narrative and a decision making task. The results, for me, were highly enlightening and their implications are having and will have a great effect on my teaching of speaking. In summary, planning time meant: fewer pauses and less silence; syntactic variety greatly increased; greater syntactic complexity; planners were more accurate than non-planners though unguided planners were more accurate than guided planners; lexical variety greatly increased. The effects of planning time also had more significance as the complexity of the task increased. (Pauline Foster, Doing the Task Better: how planning time influences students' performance, Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, 1996, 126)

Thirdly, in the same publication, Martin Bygate takes the point that due to the pressure of conceptualisation of the content, formulation of the words and phrases, grammatical markers and the sound pattern, and articulation of the phrase, errors occur. He suggests solving the problem by repeating the task so therefore less planning work is needed. Familiarity with the content allows learners to pay more attention to its formulation. In his experiment, a learner watched a scene from a Tom and Jerry cartoon and was asked to recount what he/she had seen. The task was repeated in the same way a few days later with no prior warning given to the learner and again some interesting results were found: fewer errors; increased use of lexical verb forms; greater grammatical complexity; increased use of cohesive devices; increased evaluative comment; improved lexical selection and collocation. (Martin Bygate, Effects of Task Repetition: appraising the developing language of learners, Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, 1996, 136)

A Very Short Conclusion

To improve my teaching of the speaking skill, I am putting into practice the methods of direct teaching of speaking skills outlined above and experimenting with preparation time and repetition of tasks and finding encouragingly positive results.


Martin Bygate: Speaking, Oxford University Press, 1987
Michael McCarthy: Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, Cambridge University Press, 1991
Rob Nolasco and Lois Arthur: Conversation, Oxford University Press, 1987
Zoltan Dornyei and Sarah Thurrell: Conversation and Dialogues in Action, Prentice Hall, 1992
Pauline Foster: Doing the Task Better: how planning time influences students' performance. & Martin Bygate: Effects of Task Repetition: appraising the developing language of learners.
Both above articles in: Jane Willis and Dave Willis (editors): Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, Heinemann, 1996
David Nunan: Language Teaching Methodology: a textbook for teachers, 1991, Prentice Hall
Zoltan Dornyei and Sarah Thurrell: Teaching Conversation Skills Intensively: course content and rationale, ELT Journal Volume 48/1 January 1994, Oxford University Press, 1994
Helen Johnson: Defossilizing, ELT Journal Volume 46/2 April 1992, Oxford University Press, 1992


Sam Smith, 31, originally from Bradford in the UK, has been teaching for 5 years, in Ukraine (2 years), Poland (1 year) and Spain (2 years) and also at summer schools in Folkestone and London. He currently lives lives & teaches in Madrid.

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