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Teaching Interaction Management Directly:
Helping Learners with Part 3 of the
CAE Speaking Exam
by Greg Gobel
- 2

My learners had some trouble recognizing their partner’s signals and ceding the floor, instead opting to turn short turns and short long turns into much too long turns. This reflects Nolasco’s observation that ‘[m]any students have great difficulty in…knowing when to give up their turn to others…’ (15) However, Richards says, ‘Conversation is a collaborative process. A speaker does not say everything he or she wants to say in a single utterance.’ (16) For the exam, learners should interact by concisely contributing to the conversation in short turns or short long turns.

‘The inability to take up long turns in conversation is a feature of many second language speakers, who keep to short turns and appear to be less than collaborative conversational partners.’ (17) Although from my experience this is often true, it was not so with my advanced learners. Instead, they felt the need to say as much as possible in any given turn. This is in contrast to Coulthard’s observation that ‘the majority of turns in any conversation consist of only a single sentence.’ (18)I asked them why they did not give their partners more opportunities, and they said it was the speaking exam so they needed to make sure the examiner knows they speak well. I told them that was reasonable for Part 2, but we should consider Part 3 a ‘Conversation’ exam instead, with collaboration as the underlying principle. As Sayers says, ‘Student’s success in two-way conversation does not just depend on what they produce, but also on how effectively they are able to participate in conversational exchanges.’ (19)

The CAE assessment criteria includes four components, one of which is ‘Interactive Communication.’ For this, learners must be successful in ‘conversational turn-taking’ and display ‘a willingness to develop the conversation and move the task towards a conclusion.’ (20) Now, I feel it is important to discuss the CAE assessment criteria with the learners early in the course. Perhaps if I had done so, my learners would have been more aware of the importance of interaction management for Part 3.

Into the classroom

I believe teachers can guide learners to deal with problems they encounter in managing interaction.

Thornbury says there are three main ways to introduce or shift topics (21):

  • using a higher key (perhaps, the most common; ‘High key is contrastive’ (22) so draws attention to the shift),
  • using left-displacement, i.e., fronting a sentence with the topic itself, and
  • using explicit linguistic devices.

McCarthy adds (23):

  • ‘using an element from a just completed story as the topic of subsequent conversation,’
  • short pauses,
  • giving a summary or evaluation of preceding conversation, and
  • saying still.

Thornbury suggests that ‘[c]lassroom activities designed to help learners recognise topic shift require, ideally, recordings of authentic conversations…’ (24) The implication of this is to start with recognition or noticing activities and then move on to productive activities that encourage learners to experiment. McCarthy says, ‘Listening activities can raise learners’ awareness of how speakers mark topic shifts by means of activities focusing on points in the talk where speakers make summaries and evaluations, and on markers and pitch changes.’ (25) Other specific activity ideas include redirecting ‘the conversation by picking up a word or phrase’ of the previous speaker (26), ‘the game-type where a preordained list of topics has to be talked about in a set time with coherent links’ (27) and games where each learner continually tries to shift the topic to ones on her list.

About turn-taking, McCarthy says it ‘…is something that may not need to be “taught”…’ (28) In other words, because turn-taking exists in most languages, the concept is there. However, as turn-taking is often a problem for native speakers, Bygate stresses ‘there are even firmer grounds for thinking that the problem is more acute’ for non-native speakers. (29) Based on my learners’ difficulties with turn-taking, I think that although McCarthy is right that we ‘may not need’ to teach it, I think we should. I have not seen much evidence of it becoming automatic, even for high-level learners. McCarthy adds, ‘…specific linguistic realizations can be presented and practiced and significant cultural differences can at least be pointed out to learners.’ (30) From experience, I think we could also point out significant cultural similarities. I have noticed learners do not always positively transfer relevant skills; teachers, including myself, do not always exploit similarities by raising learners’ awareness of them.

The following signal transition points: slowing down, speaking more clearly, and speaking on a falling tone. (31) Paralinguistic signals are also important signals, from head movement and inhalation (32) to gesture and gaze direction, i.e, looking up rather than down. (33) If a speaker does not recognize the listener’s signals for gaining the floor, the listener may resort to set phrases for interrupting, although not too often as only ‘a certain amount of interruption is tolerated.’ (34) High key tends to be used for these interrupting expressions. (35) Dornyei and Thurrell say ‘turn-taking ability does not come automatically, and needs to be developed consciously through awareness-raising observation and listening tasks involving videoed and/or taped authentic conversation.’ (36) Their plan includes ‘adding specific language input,’ ‘increasing the role of consciousness-raising,’ and ‘sequencing communicative tasks systematically.’ (37) They suggest we need not limit ourselves to using C-R for grammar only, that it can be used for conversational structure, too. Sequencing seems an attractive, efficient way to help by introducing ‘new material while recycling material the students are already familiar with’ by extending ‘a task which concentrates on one area by adding a dimension from another’ area of conversation skill. (38) Sayers shows their plan of teaching conversation directly can be effective ‘for helping the students to analyse and improve the interactional elements of their speaking.’ (39)

Some practical activities include spotting transition points on video, tape, or tapescript and noting which techniques were used; learners being recorded and then making the same observations about themselves to raise awareness of what they do and what they could do; having a list of techniques and trying to use each at least once in a conversation; and, using the same or similar list to monitor peers and give feedback. Dornyei and Thurell also suggest an observation sheet to compare coursebook dialogues with authentic ones.(40)

15. Nolasco and Arthur, 1987: 9
16. Richards, 1990: 68
17. ibid: 70
18. Coulthard, 1977: 61 in Sayers, 2005: 20
19. Sayers, 2005: 14
20. CAE Handbook: 51
21. summarized from Thornbury, 1997: 260
22. Underhill, 1994: 92
23. McCarthy, 1991: 134
24. Thornbury, 1997: 260
25. McCarthy, 1991: 135
26. Geddes, et al, 1991: 17-19
27. McCarthy, 1991: 135-136
28. bid: 129
29. Bygate, 1987: 40
30. McCarthy, 1991: 129
31. White, 1998: 71
32. McCarthy, 1991: 129
33. Exploring Language, 1996: no page number indicated
34. Dornyei and Thurrell, 1994: 42
35. Jenner and Bradford: 40-41
36. Dornyei and Thurrell, 1994: 42
37. bid: 47-48
38. bid: 48
39. Sayers, 2005: 22
40. Dornyei and Thurell, 1992: 24-27 (‘Turn-taking in conversation’ activity)

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