IMPLICATIONS OF TEACHING CONVERSATION IN THE CLASSROOM WITH
SPECIFIC REFERENCE TO ADVANCED LEARNERS AND GENRE
by Emma Metcalf
kinds of conversational strategies that are employed can depend
on the genre. Nunan states how the term genre refers to, 'a
purposeful, socially-constructed communicative event,' whereby,
'each has its own distinctive linguistic characteristics,
and its own generic structure, (that is, its own internal
structure.') (1998, p.44). Carter & McCarthy describe
genre as, 'episodes of speech of which participants (if interaction
is successful) have a shared view of their nature as a social
encounter.' (1997, p.8) In their book, Exploring Spoken English,
authentic conversations are recorded, transcribed and analysed.
These make up part of the CANCODE project. (See appendix F
for more details.) The books looks at eight main genres:
Narrative: a series of everyday anecdotes told with active
¨ Identifying: people talk about themselves.
¨ Language-in-action: People doing something while speaking,
¨ Comment-elaboration: people giving casual opinions and
¨ Service encounters: people buying and selling of goods
¨ Debate and argument: people take up positions, pursue
arguments and expound on their opinions.
¨ Language learning and interaction: institutionalised
and informal learning.
¨ Decision-making and negotiating outcomes: people work
towards decisions/consensus or negotiate their way through
problems towards solutions.
all these genres are treated separately, genres can become
embedded. For example, a professor giving a lecture might
tell an anecdote or, a group of friends may be casually chatting
and somebody tells a joke. The genre of narrative, anecdote
and joke telling is an area I want to disucss. McCarthy points
out how, 'the ability to tell a good story or joke is a highly
regarded talent - probably in all cultures.'(p.138) Yet it
is notoriously difficult to do - a lot of people cannot do
it in their native language. Therefore, story telling is an
area that can be looked at with advanced learners because,
as McCarthy points out, lower level students have, 'the usual
problems of moment-by-moment lexico-grammatical encoding at
clause level,' which, 'interfere with the discourse-level
skills, so that we get the bare facts of stories.' ( 1991,
p.140) Furthermore, oral story telling is an area that has
been largely ignored, most of the emphasis being on written
story telling which differs greatly. So what does a good story
& McCarthy state that, besides the basic ingredients of
time, place, setting, characters involved, an interesting
or funny plot and conclusion of events, a good story needs
¨ Embellisments or decorations by the teller (eg exaggeration,
intensification, suspense, amusing details.)
¨ Features which make the story more vivid (eg dialogue,
changing of tense from the past to the present.)
¨ Comments on the events (eg telling how the characters
¨ Some sort of relevance to the conversation in which
the story is told (eg linking it to an earlier story or something
someone has just said.)
¨ A suitable opening and closing.*
(1972) gives an alternative model which contains more or less
the same elements. (See appendix G.) One of the reasons telling
stories in class can be beneficial is because it provides
students to talk for a 'long' turn.** In addition, Holmes
points out that story telling tasks, 'allow subjects to construct
more integrated utterances, which have been largely thought
out and organised prior to their expression.' (1984, p.129)
Most stories are told and re-told which allows the teller
to add further embellisments each time s/he re-tells the story.
Therefore, the 're-telling of stories is a departure from
the usual "one shot only" constraint of the typical
oral classroom.(McCarthy, 1991, p.63) The teller is given
an opportunity to improve each time. Another benefit of story
telling in class is that it emphasises the role of the listener.
Firstly, if somone has a story or joke to tell, most people
want to listen thereby fostering a genuine desire for communication.
Secondly listeners are involved because they are constantly
predicting what the teller is going to say. Thirdly, the expected
responses of the listener are highlighted normally in the
form of backchanneling such as okay, uhuh and paralinguistic
features such as nodding, smiling, looks of astonishment,
disgust etc. The end of the story will also provoke a reaction
(a joke normally laughter or groaning.) Finally, story telling
in the classroom recreates the reciprocity of typical conversation
in that if one one story or joke is told, it likely to trigger
off a series of them by the other people present.
Spoken English can give teachers a real insight into what
we should be looking at with our advanced students. (McCarthy
says himself that we have to 'resign ourselves to the inevitability
that most coversational data will have ordered, non-overlapping
turn-taking,' (1991, p.128) for lower levels because the pitch
would be too high. With reference to storytelling McCarthy
has suggested activities where a short anecdote is recounted
and partners of groups have to develop a conversation based
on some element within the anecdote. (p.135) He also suggests
using videoed interviews eg Parkinson*** when guests often
have an amusing anecdote to tell. Flim clips where characters
are narrating can be used to look at different strategies.
(See appendix H.) Linder also discusses the benefits of using
urban myths in the classroom. (See appendix I.) All these
can help students develop the strategies required not only
within the genre of narration but in other genres too.
people take a rather pessimistic view on teaching conversation
title of Penny Ur´s book 'Discussions that work,' reflects
the widespread pessimism of teachers about talk in the classroom.
To write about discussions that clearly implies that many
to do not. (Cook, 1989, p.115)
projects such as the CANCODE corpus reflects how attitudes
towards teaching conversation are changing. These analyses
can help teachers identify what makes up a conversation. There
is still a long way to go but through identifying conversational
strategies, teachers can begin to design activities to help
advanced students become better conversationalists. This is
one area I will working on in the future.
typical opener for a joke is, Do you know the one about?..
Jokes also reflect culture: There was an Englishman, Irishman
and a Scotsman is also a typical opener yet a foreign student
may not understand the cultural reference.
** Brown & Yule (1983, p.27) have identified short and
long speaking turns. Short turns being more common and long
turns normally being prepared.
*** This is providing such materials can be accessed. I am
lucky because my mother sends me over videos!
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