The Development of Interactive Oral Proficiency in the Classroom
by Jake Haymes
I think speaking is special for two reasons. The first one is that most learners come to class and are prepared to invest a considerable amount of time and money in order to achieve the ultimate goal of speaking the language fluently. In this respect, we can say that the development of oral proficiency is the most important aspect of language learning (1). The second reason is that orally communicating one's ideas is personal and goes beyond the cognitive even for a native speaker, doing it in a code you do not yet command incorporates both affective influences and linguistic considerations.
I think it is also true to say that the success of most teaching and learning is evaluated in terms of our students' ability to speak. PPP methodology has been questioned and in many quarters rejected because its discrete item approach is an ineffective means of incorporating new language into fluent production. This methodology also fails to embrace the realities of talk exchange such as openings, closings, adjacency pairs, vague language etc. or the phenomena of real-time delivery such as "repetitions, false starts, re-phrasings, self corrections, elaborations, tautologies and apparently meaningless additions such as 'I mean' or 'you know'." Ur (1984).
Although people speak
for many different reasons, these can be broadly categorised in two ways:
This assignment will attempt to examine the second type of exchange. Brumfit (1984) states, "natural language use, for most people is primarily discussion and conversation." Despite this assertion, the focus of speaking activities in the classroom seems to be on transactional competence. Perhaps this is because it is easier to develop and assess. Transactional exchanges usually follow a fairly predictable pattern or routine. They tend to require shorter speaking turns and the functional language presented in course books is often more suited to this type of communication.
Some factors impeding the development of oral fluency
While a great deal of classroom time is spent on the perceived precursors to oral fluency; vocabulary, phonology, structures, functions and listening comprehension, it would appear that these alone are insufficient. Widdowson (1978) states "the acquisition of linguistic skills does not seem to guarantee the consequent acquisition of communicative abilities in a language." Bygate (1987) illustrates the difference between language knowledge and productive skill. He points out that, as native speakers, "we do not merely know how to assemble sentences in the abstract: we have to produce them and adapt them to the circumstances." While the value of linguistic knowledge should not be underestimated, it would seem that learners need something more in order to transfer the interactive speaking skills they possess in L1 to L2.
Fluent oral production is often seen as the final piece in the jigsaw. Nunan (1991) states that "course books, particularly those aimed at lower-proficiency learners, consist largely of manipulative, form focused exercises." I think this leads to two problems. Firstly, fluency isn't developed as learners are denied the opportunity to combine the disparate elements of their existing productive store to communicate authentically and secondly, the original structures themselves are not internalised (for possible production at a later date), as they are not used by the learners to create personalised meaning. While I will go on to argue that practice alone is not the most expedient means to oral proficiency, many learners become demotivated because they are not given opportunity to use the language communicatvely.
Although extended oral fluency practice is sometimes called free speaking, I would argue that most tasks are set in the hope that the learners will be able to incorporate some recently studied language items into production. While semi-controlled or bridging activities can, on occasion, help to effect this integration, I find the items selected by teachers and course books are sometimes inappropriate. Given the difficulties of real-time production they are frequently too advanced for learners' interlanguage systems to accommodate. With more advanced students, there is often no perception of need so that tasks are completed via their communicative competence. When a carefully chosen task does force the employment of the items, learners "do not treat the third stage of the lesson as an opportunity for fluent communication" but to "display the target form" and "as soon as they switch to circumstances in which the focus is on communication rather than conformity, learners will 'regress'." D Willis (1996)
Where genuine freer communicative speaking activities are to be found, the tendency is to set up the activity and then allow the learners to proceed. Richards (1990) outlines two major drawbacks to this "indirect approach". Firstly, that the type of language typically required is transactional rather than interactional (2); Students are only really practising the language of getting things done rather than conversing. Secondly, he cites Schmidt's (1986) research into the latter's own learning of Portuguese. This remained "deficient with respect to both grammar and appropriateness." While the second point concerns accuracy, I would argue that there is a clear link here to fluency. Many of my learners produce hesitant output and therefore do not develop fluency because they feel they are making too many mistakes. This approach is also limited in the fact that it neglects to draw the learners' attention to those features of talk exchange outlined earlier.
While most experts agree that prolonged exposure to listening texts is essential if oral proficiency is to develop, I suspect that these activities are rarely used in ways which actively highlight the connection. Many non-authentic recordings do not incorporate the phenomena of natural speech such as discourse markers, back-channelling, etc. and are therefore unsuitable for awareness raising activities. Additionally, the role of paralinguistics should not be underestimated in the tactical manoeuvring of talk exchange (3). While listening comprehension skills may well develop via the use of non-authentic, audio-taped texts, the switch to production remains arduous.
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).
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.
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.
((1) "most learners
are interested-whatever else they might want-in speaking the language."
Brumfit, C Communicative
Methodology in Language Teaching CUP 1984
Time: 60 minutes
The lesson can be divided into six main stages, the first four aim to prepare students to be able to achieve the speaking activity.
In stage one, the students are given the opportunity to start the anecdote checklist with their L1 knowledge of the skill. By allowing the learners to express their feelings towards the subject, I hope to engage their interest and make them receptive to the later stages of the class.
By showing how this class fits in with previously acquired knowledge it is hoped that students will see the relevance of the following stages. The students are then asked to consider important first experiences. This should prepare the group for the listening activity which follows and provide ideas, should they be required, for their own anecdotes.
In order to be successfully exploited, the coursebook listening (pp 22-23 Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate) requires vocabulary input, lead-in, intensive and extensive questions. As the main aim is extended oral fluency I feel the focus of the lesson may become confused were the class to follow the material in the students' book. The home-made listening text is intended to provide students with an anecdote model.
By starting the language focus at a text level the learners should become aware of a fairly typical pattern of anecdotes and this may well be copied by the students in their own anecdotes thereby extending speaking time. While moving directly from aural to oral skills is perhaps the most natural approach, I feel there is a greater possibility that students will grasp the key ideas if they are given the opportunity to analyse the features of an anecdote on paper. Having them mark past tenses and intensified adjectives with highlighter pens should facilitate the transfer of these language areas to their own anecdotes
Students' attention is then drawn to intensifiers such as really, quite and very. I feel that learners could easily combine these words with the adjectives of mood to substantially increase their active language.
While students will be made aware of fillers, I believe that drilling at this stage could be counter-productive and may lead to stilted and unnatural production
Interaction between speaker and listener will be the next focus. In order to be truly communicative the anecdotes must include listener reaction and perhaps some negotiation of meaning. Indeed the learners will be made aware that communicative interaction is a vital part of the activity.
The preparation time affords the learners an opportunity to combine all the relevant components of an anecdote and include any areas of language they feel are necessary for the following activity. I will monitor progress and provide help when required. If students appear slow to start, I may encourage them to discuss ideas in pairs.
The students will be reminded of the importance of the communicative element before beginning the fluency activity. This should promote more interaction.
During the production stage I shall unobtrusively monitor performance and I will not intervene unless there is a complete breakdown in communication.
After completing the activity students will be encouraged to evaluate their own performance via an exchange of views with other learners. The final stage, in which the learners reflect on the morning's work is essential to show what has been achieved and the place of the lesson in their learning programme.
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