A web site for the developing language teacher

by Emma Metcalf
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The 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 listening participation.
¨ Identifying: people talk about themselves.
¨ Language-in-action: People doing something while speaking, eg cooking.
¨ Comment-elaboration: people giving casual opinions and comments.
¨ Service encounters: people buying and selling of goods and services.
¨ 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.

While 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 consist of?

Carter & 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 the following:
¨ 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 involved felt)
¨ 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.*

Labov (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.

Exploring 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.

Many people take a rather pessimistic view on teaching conversation in class:

The 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)

However, 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.

*A 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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