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Dealing with complexity in Part 2 of the Speaking exam at Cambridge Certificate in
Advanced English (CAE) level
by Sandra Bradwell
- 2

How can we help students become effective in this skill?

Richards (1990:76) mentions two main approaches to teaching conversation. The first is an indirect approach which sees conversational competence as 'the product of engaging learners in conversational interaction', designing activities whereby students can interact with the language, through information-gap type activities, discussions. The second is a direct approach which 'focuses explicitly on the processes and strategies involved in casual conversation' (ibid:77) Thanks to the research which has been carried out by linguists (Brown and Yule 1983; Cook 1989; Richards 1990) and corpus data, we know that conversation is not a haphazard activity but highly organised, requiring skills and strategies on the part of the speaker and the listener. Dörnyei and Thurrell (1992) in a very practical book explain how conversation works and suggest many practical ideas (Appendix 2). We must provide opportunities for learners to become aware of these skills and strategies and create meaningful, varied contexts whereby they can put them into practice.

So what are the implications in the classroom?

The most important factor is to provide a classroom environment that builds confidence and trust while maximising opportunities for developing the speaking skill. A low affective filter can maximise learning. Teachers sharing anecdotes so that students share their own anecdotes in pairs or small groups leads to students taking more interest in each other. There is a desire to participate when the teacher, exploiting student interests, personalises activities as much as possible. Penny Ur 'we must supply the need for students to relate to the subject and to interact with each other'. Brumfit (1984:77) 'Small groups provide greater intensity of involvement, so that the quality of language practice is increased, ..The setting is more natural than that of the full class, for the size of the group resembles that of normal conversational groupings. Because of this, the stress which accompanies 'public' performance in the classroom should be reduced'. This takes pressure off the shy or under-confident students and ensures they gain valuable speaking practice.

Materials and activities must be relevant and varied to enable a combination of skill getting and skill using activities. It is important to design activities with information gaps or jigsaw features which involve sharing of information. They create a real 'need' to communicate, but also activate useful language skills for negotiating meaning, asking and giving opinions. If we remind students of this, activities have the dual purpose of developing language learning and developing speaking skills: conversational strategies such as paraphrasing, circumlocution, as well as giving practice in openings, turn taking, interrupting. Communication games such as describe and draw , find the difference can develop these skills as well as adding fun to the learning situation. Sequencing communicative tasks systematically, building on what students know to extend their repertoire gradually, is also important for learning to be effective.

We need to be creative to maximise resources at our disposal - video, BBC world service, fellow teachers, songs. If learners wish to gain in fluency, they need to have exposure to features typical of spoken language and time to reflect on these features. Listening to natural speech and exposure to a variety of accents will facilitate listening but highlighting features of natural speech in the transcripts will help students become aware of these features and improve their speaking skills. As Dörnyei and Thurrell (1992:x) point out 'if learners are conscious of the strategies they could use and the pitfalls they should avoid, and if they have a wide repertoire of set expressions and conversational formulae on hand, they are likely to make much faster progress towards becoming relaxed and polished conversationalists'. Most course books at advanced level suggest students discuss topics in pairs to involve students in the subject matter but provide little help with the lexis or natural language needed to carry out these tasks effectively. Speaking about the subject matter will help students become more fluent but it will not help their conversational skills or develop greater linguistic complexity. More and more emphasis is placed in language teaching on awareness or consciousness raising (C-R) activities. Willis and Willis (1996: 67/76) point out 'There are two ways C-R can help. The first is by making the students conscious of what knowledge is invoked in carrying out a given task. The second is by helping them to organize their language in a way which will help them tap this knowledge.' Students may not immediately put into practice features that have been brought to their attention, but if they notice features, they may be conscious of them in future input. Posters in class, cue cards or checklists actively encourage some students to use the expressions or features.

One of the great difficulties is to improve pronunciation. Firstly it is important to raise students' consciousness of prominence or sentence stress in continuous speech when listening. This bottom-up approach will help focus learners on perceiving the alternation of strong and weak syllables, and the reduction of unstressed syllables to heighten their awareness of speech rhythms. Once they are familiar with the idea that the content words generally carry the stress, like a telegram, students can be encouraged to predict stress and divide discourse into sense groups. Helping students become familiar with linking and weak forms and occasionally doing controlled 'shadow reading' activities where they read with the cassette can help them produce speech like the model and sound more 'English'. Taping students regularly and transcribing their conversation with hesitations marked by pauses (….) can also help them realise they hesitate too much (Appendix 1). By providing a model of the conversation on cassette, emphasising the sense groups and natural pauses, we provide learners with opportunities to imitate a more natural way of speaking and make improvements in this area.

To be confident in Part 2 of the CAE speaking exam students need to be aware of what is expected of them in terms of the structure of the exam and task demand. Guy Cook (1989:49) mentions '..the language learner, in order to be able to operate effectively as a participant in discourse, needs to be able both to identify what type of discourse he or she is involved in, and to predict how it will typically be structured.' According to the CAE examiner's report, failure to listen carefully to what they are asked to do frequently leads to poor performance, therefore it is essential to train students to listen to and repeat instructions. Additionally it is important to teach them strategies for asking for clarification or repetition if they have not understood the task.

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