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The Development of Interactive Oral
Proficiency in the Classroom
by Jake Haymes
- 3

Anecdotes are useful, not only in the sense that the language produced is personalised but also because speaker is given the opportunity to engage in longer stretches of discourse. Labov's model (1972) (8) could easily be adapted to provide the learners with a structure to plan their anecdotes.

Abstract How does this relate to what has just been said?What is your story going to be about?
Orientation Who? Where? When? etc.
Complicating event What happened?
Resolution How was the situation resolved? What happened in the end?
Coda How does your story relate to yourself and your listeners now?

The ability to evaluate at all stages is the mark of a successful story. McCarthy (1998) suggests that this provides "interest" and "tellability". The problem is, however, that during a narrative most learners are fully engaged in recounting the events at the expense of personal reaction and comment. One way I have found to encourage students to produce anecdotes which are not devoid of the human element is to use picture stories as a starting point. The story can be told by the learner in either the first or third person. The central character is frequently rather exaggerated and/or unfortunate so learners can easily incorporate adjectives of feeling and embellishment into output. By allowing students the opportunity to practise this fundamental element of storytelling with a fictitious character before delivering their own stories, I have found affective barriers are lowered while subsequent personalised output is more genre appropriate.

I believe that recording and transcribing the learners' anecdotes provides an opportunity to develop fluency from a discourse perspective. The longer turns inherent in anecdotes can be used to draw attention to areas such as the need for variation (both lexical and syntactic), and the use of pronouns, substitution, ellipsis and determiners. These features are frequently overlooked when the focus is at sentence level. With just a little teacher guidance, most learners are able to improve their work. If the task is repeated, as proposed by Bygate (1996), these modifications do seem to become incorporated into fluent output. Firstly, because students see their relevance and secondly, because the changes have been made by the learners (and not the teacher), their interlanguage systems can cope.


If learners are to develop their interactive oral proficiency then firstly they need the confidence to be able to speak at length and negotiate naturally occurring difficulties. An awareness of conversational strategies can help to give learners more control here.

While good group dynamics are valuable in all areas of language learning, I think they are essential in the development of natural speech. Shared knowledge, a fundamental aspect of interactive discourse, can only be put into practice in the classroom if students really know about each other. Activities which can be personalised to incorporate the learners' opinions and experience are beneficial in establishing this environment. In addition, it is often the case that language which is personalised is more memorable.

Because speaking, unlike writing, is subject to time constraints, the integration of new language into fluent output will always be problematic. Therefore I believe more input in pre-communicative stages should be determined by students' existing output. This will necessarily involve reflection from both teacher and student and should lead to a situation whereby linguistic improvement can, in effect, be 'tacked on' to the learners' developing interlanguage systems. I am fortunate that the majority of my groups are quite small (3-5 students). I will, therefore, have the time to help individual learners develop their interlanguage in this way.

In the medium term, it would seem expedient to base both linguistic and skill development on authentic models. Widdowson (1978) states that "what learners ultimately need to acquire is an awareness of how the language being learned is used for talking." This awareness can most easily be facilitated by this type of exposure. I will therefore need to spend time accessing such materials and finding ways to exploit them effectively. The presence of natural speech in the classroom should also sustain learner motivation; it is the ultimate goal for many students and should be available for analysis whenever possible.

(8) Taken from McCarthy (1994)


Brumfit, C Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching CUP 1984
Bygate, M Speaking OUP, 1987
Bygate, M Effects of task repetition: appraising the developing language of learners (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996
Carter, R & McCarhty, M Exploring Spoken English CUP, 1997
Cook, G Discourse OUP, 1989
Ellis, N Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word- class, and meaning in Vocabulary ed. Schmitt,N & McCarthy,M CUP, 1997
Foster, P Doing the task better: how planning time influences students' performance (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996
Jones, R A consciousness-raising approach to the teaching of conversational storytelling skills ELTJ Vol. 55/2, OUP, Apr. 2001
Lewis, M Implementing the Lexical Approach LTP, 1997
McCarthy, M Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers CUP, 1994
Nunan, D Language Teaching Methodology Longman, 1991
Richards, J The Language Teaching Matrix CUP, 1990
Ur, P Teaching Listening Comprehension CUP,1984
Widdowson, H.G Knowledge of language and ability for use Applied Linguistics 10/2, 1989
Widdowson, H.G Teaching Language as Communication OUP, 1978
Willis, D Accuracy, fluency and conformity (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996
Willis, J & Consciousness raising activities in the language classroom
Willis, D (In Challenge and Change in Language Teaching) ed. Willis, J & Willis, D, Heinemann, 1996


Jake, originally from Nottingham in the UK, has been teaching in Madrid since 1997. During this time he has taught general & business English classes and been responsible for the planning & execution of residential courses for professionals.
In 2002 he followed the Cambridge DELTA at the British Language Centre in Madrid. He has been a teacher trainer since 2003.
His areas of interest include helping learners develop their presentation skills, phonology and TBL.


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