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The Development of Interactive Oral
Proficiency in the Classroom
by Jake Haymes
- 2

Possible approaches

Activities which call upon the students' ''vast private store of knowledge, opinions and experience" (4) as a classroom resource have two major benefits. Firstly, we can be sure that the language the students are producing, or attempting to produce, is relevant to them. This language can be focused on subsequently and I would suggest that it is more likely to be internalised because a need or desire has already been demonstrated. Secondly, students are encouraged to relate to one another as people and not just language learners. Having this dynamic within the classroom creates the right conditions for realistic interpersonal communication (5).

Once this atmosphere has been established we need to look at how language performance can be enhanced. It would seem that an examination of what actually happens during interactive talk exchange via conversational analysis is the ideal starting point. If we use authentic discourse as the basis for learning then the student will be concentrating on use. De-contextualised structures can only demonstrate usage and although the linguistically competent learner may eventually be able to produce many language possibilities, he or she will be no nearer commanding probable language (6). The use of transcripts to focus on the features listed below allows "learners time to notice features that may not be noticed for a long time if only heard in the flow of real-time conversation." Willis, J & Willis, D (1996).

  • Fixed expressions / semi fixed expressions
  • Vague language
  • Discourse Markers
  • Openings, closing and adjacency pairs
  • Back-channelling
  • Pragmatic meanings

Once 'partially pre-assembled patterns' and 'formulaic frameworks' (Widdowson 1989) have been elucidated and analysed, suitable practice activities can ensue. Native speakers build discourse from multi-word items and encouraging our learners to do the same can go some way to developing fluency. The learner is able to minimise "the amount of clause-internal encoding work to be done and frees himself to attend to other tasks in talk-exchange." Ellis (1997).

Vague language, or language which enables the speaker to continue talking despite being unable to recall an exact word or expression is a common feature of native discourse and is an essential tool for the learner. If the students have access to a productive store of items such as the thing you use for… and it's a bit like… then they will have the confidence to attempt longer stretches of speech where they would otherwise finish the turn.

Dornyei and Thurrell (1994) highlight the value to the learner of other conversational strategies such as paraphrase, approximation, appeal for help, asking for repetition/clarification, interpretive summary (So are you saying that…?), checking (Are you with me?) and fillers. These provide "a sense of security in the language by allowing extra time and room to manoeuvre."

More focus on the communicative meaning creating potential of utterances could lead to a mushrooming of learners output capacity. I believe that learners at all levels have a store of fixed or semi-fixed expressions that they have assimilated and are confident in producing. However, they tend to limit their use to the meaning they were first exposed to. This meaning is usually the most literal although not necessarily the most frequent. For example, another meaning of I'd like to help you could be made available for almost immediate output with just a little focus on sentence stress. Pragmatic meanings and indirect speech acts seem to be common in interactive talk where speakers tend to share and assume most knowledge. The contexts provided by transcripts are invaluable in guiding learners to an increased awareness of the extent to which relatively simple and therefore accessible utterances can be used to convey a variety of functions and meanings (7).

Planning time can significantly aid both the quantity and quality of the language produced. Foster's (1996) study found that preparation time for narratives led to improvements in both syntactic complexity and fluency. While it may be argued that this does not replicate what would happen in 'real life' communication, I think that the effect on learner confidence is invaluable. Because the students have planned the output themselves they are more likely to be able to access it at the production stage. When this approach is combined with some teacher involvement, as advocated by Johnson's (1991) 'tennis clinic strategy', the student also benefits from being able to 'try out' and modify new output before the communicative activity is embarked upon.

(4) Jones (see bib.) quoting M Swan 'A critical look at the communicative approach (2)' ELTJ 39/2, 1985
(5)In these conditions, learners can speak to each other about things that matter to them without having to verbalise the co-text of situations. This replicates what happens in many native speaker conversations and discussions.
(6) Widdowson (1978) illustrates the difference between what could be said - language usage and what is said in any particular context - language use.
(7) e.g. What are you talking / on about? = I don't agree
I haven't got any money = Can you pay?
Is that the time? = functional exponent of preparation for leaving

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