Developing Teachers.com
A web site for the developing language teacher

THE IMPLICATIONS OF TEACHING CONVERSATION IN THE CLASSROOM WITH SPECIFIC REFERENCE TO ADVANCED LEARNERS AND GENRE by Emma Metcalf
- 1

[Speaking] is the skill by which [learners] are most frequently judged and through which they make and lose friends. It is the vehicle par excellence of social solidarity, social ranking, of professional advancement and of business. It is also the medium through which much language is learnt.
Bygate, 1987

Bygate highlights the importance of speaking, not only for performing basic transations, but also for establishing and maintaining social relationships. These are the two different kinds of conversational interaction. The former is the exchange of information. The latter is the interactional function of conversation. (Brown & Yule, 1983) Yet he goes on to state how speaking is a skill that is taken too much for granted because 'we can almost all speak.' This is especially true of advanced learners . But being able to speak and being able to converse are two different things. What does conversation involve?

Grice (1975) establishes four conversational principles which all relate to co-operation. The Co-operative Principle comprises of the following maxims:

¨ Quality (telling the truth.)
¨ Quantity (contribution is the right length.)
¨ Relation (contribution is relevant.)
¨ Manner (avoiding obscurity.)

Along with these maxims the speaker also brings their general knowledge of the world. Grice points out that these maxims can be deliberately violated or 'flouted.' For example, I might flout the maxim of quality if I say, 'I´ve got tons of work to do.' This does not mean I am lying but using a 'figure of speech.' Flouts of the quality maxim could also be using metaphor, irony and sarcasm. However, if the sender does not intend violations of the principle or if the receiver does not realise that they are deliberate, then 'communication degenerates into lying, obfuscation or simply breaks down altogether.'(Cook, 1989,p.31) This is particularly relevant to non-native speakers of English (and children) as they often take the literal meaning and therefore, 'through our misjudgement, metaphor becomes a lie.' (Cook, p.31) The quality of maxim can also be flouted and not just by non-natives. If a speaker talks for too long then communication can break down because the receiver gets bored, irriated or distracted. If the speaker is too brief it can sound terse. Yet, simultaneously, when we talk about people following the co-operative principle, 'this does not mean that they can consciously and explicitly formulate it themselves.' (Cook, p.31) So where does this leave the learner and what are the implications of teaching conversation in the classroom?

Richards points out how the conversation class is, 'something of an enigma' (1990, p.67) because surely conversation is something that is acquired 'simply by doing it.' (ibid.) Dörnyei et al. outline two types of approaches to the teaching of conversational skills. One of which is an indirect approach, where 'conversational competence is seen as the product of engaging learners in conversational interaction' (1994, p.41) such as role plays, problem solving tasks and so on. This approach points to Hatch´s idea that, 'one learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this syntactic structures are developed.' (1978, p.404) Swain also argues how, 'just as the research suggests that we learn to read by reading, so also do we learn to speak by speaking.' (Cited in Nunan, 1995, p.51) This is very much the ideology behind the communicative approach. It is also interesting to note that a class which produces masses of conversation is deemed successful. Many times in my staffroom I have heard comments from teachers along the lines of, 'That was a good class, they spoke loads.' Indeed, speaking in class is crucial particularly for my students at my academy because it is the only opportunity that they have to converse. However, are students actually learning anything just by speaking?

This is one question posed by Johnson when she discusses the issue of fossilisation. Johnson blames communicative language teaching for 'fluent-but fossilised' students. She states how these students, encouraged to follow the communicative path, have become, 'hapless victims of their own success at achieving the goals we set up for them.' (1992, p.180) Johnson also describes these 'victims' as 'tediously inaccurate chatterers,' (ibid.) and encapsulates the frustration of the teachers by stating how:

In despair, at the end of another seemingly pointless lesson where much was said and all of it wrong, we may even question the whole wisdom of allowing communication in the classroom if you are to get the students to improve. (ibid.)

Johnson goes on to describe the 'deep end stategy,' first discussed by Brumfit (1979) (See appendix A.) She identifies its major flaw because, if the initial goal is to communicate, then students, drawing on their highly developed stategic competence, achieve success, 'to early in the game.' (p.182) As she quite rightly argues, students are under no pressure to improve because, 'if you are told that the main aim of swimming is merely to stay afloat, you are unlikely to bother to learn the butterfly stroke.' (p.183) This is one problem I have had when dealing with advanced groups. Students do not need to resort to reduction strategies* because they can express themselves articulately, though not necessarily accurately. The importance of correction feedback is therefore paramount. Johnson suggests that any incorrect forms that elicit positive feedback will tend to fossilise. Therefore, praising students, which is what every teacher is encouraged to do in order to boost students´confidence, is probably ultimately detrimental to students´ language acquisition. ** (For further discussion of errors, see appendix C.)

* See appendix B
* * Examiners in the Cambridge speaking exams cannot say 'goo'd or 'well d one' to studnets because it may be misleading. The same principle should perhaps be applied in the classroom. Praise when it is due, but not for the sake of it.

To page 2 of 7

To the lesson plan

Back to the articles index

Back to the top


Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page


Copyright 2000-2016© Developing Teachers.com