First Certificate Speaking: Part 2. Avoiding
"ermmm": Adding coherence to spoken discourse
using discourse markers
by Jonny Frank
Solutions & suggestions
Discourse markers can seem a daunting field since their classification is so unspecific. Parrot explains the importance of taking into account the text and context that markers are used in (Parrot, 2008: 302). In the case of the second part of the FC speaking exam markers such as those for attitude would be inappropriate. The learners are evaluated on their discourse management, thus markers for expressing coherence, contrast, cause, gaining time and comparison are more suited than those used to convey attitude.
b) Learner Strategies
Bygate suggests several learner strategies appropriate to the FC context to overcome the halt in discourse exemplified by Maria above. His strategies include Achievement strategies and Reduction strategies. Achievement strategies include the following guessing strategies (Bygate, 85: 44):
The encouragement of achievement strategies would show students how to avoid reduction strategies such as Maria's:
Okay, in this picture..erh.. these persons are doing like sort of climbing a tree, kind of trying to win, whereas this other, well both are doing sports…..
This demonstrates how discourse markers can be incorporated into communicative achievement strategies to help students avoid freezing as they search for the word they think they need.
Teaching learners these items in isolation or without a model would lead to the problem discussed previously: literal translation. By exposing students to a native speaker doing the same task students can "notice the gap", as pointed out by Thornbury (Thornbury, 97: 326). Supplying students with an authentic, or perhaps semi-authentic, example they can "attend to the linguistic features of the input that they are exposed to" (Thornbury, 97: 326 ). That is to say that by presenting the markers within a typical context they will notice that they do not carry specific lexical meaning, but are a useful exponent in spoken discourse.
d) Task difficulty
In order to heighten learners' awareness of how markers can help them in discourse, one could get them to re-write their own transcripts; by recording students, transcribing what they produce, and asking them to re-write it. Thornbury suggests that re-writing can be a "useful way of introducing new language features" (Thornbury, 2005: 68), so in this case students may benefit from restructuring their discourse after being presented with the linkers. Thornbury's idea complements that of Krashen, who believes that one of the conditions needed for learners' self-correcting is "allow[ing] learner time to refer to his conscious knowledge" (Krashen, 81: 118). So, if students are supplied with transcripts of their own spoken discourse, they will be able to analyse, process and review the language produced with a view to using it the next time they practice this part of the exam.
e) Textbook treatment
McCarthy suggests that the frequency with which discourse markers are used is perhaps one of the reasons they are "so often absent from concocted dialogues in language textbooks" (McCarthy, 98: 60). Perhaps teachers should try and incorporate markers in a more natural way, like "drawing their attention to how he/she uses markers to divide up the lesson" (McCarthy, 91: 130). Another way of raising students' awareness of this language feature is mentioned by Thornbury: "expose them to instances of speaking and have them study the transcripts for instances" (Thornbury, 2005: 43) of the language being focussed on. Having a native speaker do a similar task to that which the FC comprises would give students an authentic response, which would include discourse markers.
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