Friday, December 12, 2008

Why I Like Incomplete Dialogues

I’ve recently discussed cloze procedures and why I like them so much. Well, if there’s anything I like better than cloze procedures, it’s incomplete dialogues*, which work best when students are paired up so you can put into practice that old saying “Two heads are better than one.” These exercises really get students thinking. Here’s a very simple example of what I’m talking about:

A: _______________________?
B: Fine, thanks. Hey, I’m going to the cafeteria for lunch. ________________?
A: No, thanks. I’ve already had lunch.

Students should first read the entire dialogue at least twice before attempting to fill in the missing parts. You, as the teacher, should stress this helpful hint: The line that follows the blank area they’re about to work on probably contains information that will help them figure out what may work logically in the blank.

So why am I gung-ho about incomplete dialogues? There are some really compelling reasons that make them such effective exercises. They serve as marvelous activities for reading comprehension, for sensitivity to language components, and for critical thinking. Students can stretch their language ability and, because they’re working in pairs, help their classmates learn, too. Incomplete dialogues also allow students the special freedom found in manipulative and communicative activities.

To show you more about what I mean, here are the two major areas in which the skills I’ve just noted come into play through the use of incomplete dialogues:

Reading Comprehension: Students are forced to read thoroughly and find clues within the dialogue to identify where the situation takes place and enhance their understanding of what’s going on. Attention to punctuation is also very important as meaning can change, depending on what punctuation has been used and where it’s been placed. Here’s an example:

A: Riccardo’s Pizza. Carla _________________. __________________?
B: Yes, please. ______________________________________________.
A: I’m afraid that job’s been taken.

Let’s just see how much there is for the students to deal with in the excerpt above which I took out of a longer exercise I used to use with my intermediate students. To begin with, the readers have to determine what the situation is (Are the speakers face to face? Are they on the phone?) Because of the way Speaker A (Carla) starts the conversation, the readers should deduce that the speakers are on the phone.

Now, from what’s referred to in reading pedagogy as “knowledge of the world,” the readers must decide what Carla could possibly say in the short blank following her name. Thinking back to similar situations they’ve experienced on the phone when calling a company or restaurant, the readers should understand that Carla is saying something to identify herself (“Carla speaking” or “Carla here” or maybe even her last name).

Next, we have a long blank ending in a question mark. The readers must see the question mark (and it’s surprising how many students fail to note punctuation as a clue at first glance), realize there must be a question in that blank, and determine what would be appropriate for Carla to ask the caller at that moment. From their “knowledge of the world,” the readers should be able to figure out that Carla is probably saying something like, “May I help you?” or “What can I do for you?” But wait a minute! The following line begins with Speaker B saying, “Yes, please.” That means we have to eliminate “What can I do for you?” as a possible question for Carla to ask because “Yes, please” wouldn’t be an appropriate response to “What can I do for you?” We’ve got to conclude that Carla has said, “May I help you?” and then Speaker B’s response works just fine.

Finally, how can we figure out what Speaker B says next? We need to look at Carla’s reply; that’s where we’ll get the hint that we need to fill in the next blank. Carla says, “I’m afraid that job’s been taken.” Her answer gives us quite a bit of information to work with. Since she's mentioned “that job,” Speaker B must have asked about a specific job, so we know that we’ve got to think of a specific job to put in the blank. In addition, Carla says she’s “afraid that job’s been taken,” and this information leads us to the conclusion that Speaker B was attempting to apply for that job ― otherwise, Carla would have no reason to make that statement. So we have these two pieces of information: (1) Speaker B wants to apply for a job, and (2) it’s for a specific job that he/she knows about, not just any job. (Everything we’ve been going over here demonstrates clearly how important critical thinking is to reading and language learning in general.)

So what can we put in that final blank? Possibilities are “I’m calling about the ad I saw in the paper for a waiter” or “I’d like to know if you’re still looking for a busboy” or “A friend of mine told me he saw your ad for a cashier.” Notice how the situation we’ve been working with is deliberately left quite open; that to allow the students to come up with different ideas.

While your students are paired up and working on these dialogues, you can walk around the room and offer assistance when they seem stuck. When they’re finished and you’ve checked over their work, have the best of the completed dialogues presented to the class in the final versions. I guarantee that your students will find it interesting to compare what they’ve come up with to what their classmates have created.

Sensitivity to Language Components: The readers must search out clues within the dialogue that can establish the correct verb tense or aspect, and those words that students typically rush over, like prepositions, take on an importance which the students don’t often realize they have. Just look at the following examples:

A: Who are you sending that fax ______?
B: Our main office.

A: Who are you sending that fax ______?
B: My boss. She asked me to get it out right away.

The students are invited to become more sensitive to language by having to figure out which prepositions will work in these blanks in order to elicit the responses provided. This is another use of critical thinking.

Here are two more short examples of incomplete dialogues. You can make them as easy or as difficult as you choose to. You know what your students can handle, so try to create incomplete dialogues that are progressively more of a challenge to your students as they get more and more comfortable with working on this kind of activity. And, by the way, if you create them with a word processing program, use 1½ or 2 spaces between lines so that your students have enough room to fill in the blanks comfortably.

A: That’s not your jacket. It’s my jacket! ______________________?
B: Aw, can’t I _______________________________ for this evening?
A: No, you can’t! You should have ________________________ first.

Ken: ______________________________________________________.
Hal: Really? When?
Ken: ______________________________________________________.
Hal: Well, that’s wonderful! Let me be the first to congratulate you!

A: Oh! I just dropped my glove. Would you mind_________________?
B: Why don’t you ____________________________________________?
A: Can’t you see that _________________________________________?
B: Oh, I didn’t notice. All right. Here you are.

If you haven’t already incorporated incomplete dialogues into your repertoire of effective classroom activities, give them a try. I think you’ll be very pleased with how marvelous a language-learning tool they can be.

*Richard Firsten with Patricia Killian. The ELT Grammar Book: A Teacher-Friendly Reference Guide. Alta Book Center Publishers. 2002


Anonymous Ismael Tohari said...

That's very interesting!

Thanks a lot, Richard.

December 12, 2008 9:22 PM  

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