Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Multi-Purpose Exercise: The Incomplete Dialogue

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

A: Mr. Firsten, I’d like you to meet a colleague of mine, Sue Van Etten.

B: How do you do?
C: _____________________________________

Okay, I’m sure you can figure out what Speaker C says on that blank line without having to put your thinking caps on, right? You’ll probably say How do you do? or you might put Nice to meet you or some such response. That’s because your communicative competence is just that, competent!

But would your students have that same competence in this formal situation? In fact, how do you even know it’s a formal situation? Well, Speaker A addresses me as “Mr. Firsten,” not “Richard.” And then there’s the use of that formal, first-time greeting, “How do you do?” These two elements tell me right off that the situation is formal. That’s because my communicative competence is working fine. And I know that a typical response to such a formal greeting is to repeat the same greeting; that’s why it’s correct for Speaker C to say “How do you do?” if she chooses to. Just imagine: in only these three lines, we’ve had to deal with both cultural and linguistic skills.

We’ve also touched on the use of punctuation as an aid to the reader. Notice that the blank line has no punctuation at the end. That’s to allow for either a question (How do you do?) or a statement (Nice to meet you). The students have choices.

A: Flowers by Devon. Frank ________________. ___________________?
B: Yes, please. _______________________________________________.
A: I’m afraid that’s job’s been taken.

I should mention right off that students should be told to read an incomplete dialogue all the way through at least two or three times before they attempt to fill in the blanks. Doing so will give them a basic idea of what the dialogue is about and what the speakers are saying. I should also mention that working on incomplete dialogues is great for pair work. Two minds are better than one.

Now, let’s discuss what our students will have to deal with if presented with these next three lines of dialogue. First off, it would be fun to see if the students can figure out whether the two people are speaking face to face or on the phone. Because of the way Frank starts off the dialogue, it should be obvious that he’s answering a phone call. In fact, we’d probably fill in that first blank with speaking or here.

And now something else that’s interesting happens. In order to figure out what will be appropriate for the next blank, the students need to be sensitive to the fact that it ends with a question mark, so a question will be required, and they need to drop down to the next line and see what Speaker B’s response is to help them figure out a proper question. Since Speaker B says “Yes, please,” it seems reasonable to assume that Frank has asked, “Can/May I help you?” “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help you?” just won’t work. But what on earth does Speaker B say next? If the students drop down again to the following line, they should be able to figure this out. Aha! Because of what Frank says now, Speaker B must have asked if he/she can apply for a job that must have been advertised, so the students can fill in this blank with something like I’d like to apply for the job of flower arranger or I’m calling about the job as a salesperson.

As you can clearly see, incomplete dialogues offer our students quite an array of practice for various language skills. Reading comprehension is right there in the forefront. Knowledge of punctuation comes in a close second. In addition, critical thinking is an overall must, including powers of deduction.

Now let’s take a look at yet another use for incomplete dialogues.

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

A: Who are you sending that fax ___?
B: The boss. She said to get it out right away.

Here’s a great opportunity to see how much language sensitivity our students have. By reading each answer given by Speaker B, they should be able to figure out which preposition will work in each blank. The only possibility in the first blank is to. The only possibility in the second is for.

Incomplete dialogues can be as simple or as challenging as you would like them to be. They can be very controlled, honing in on one element of language (like the prepositions above), or they can be very open ended and allow students a great deal of flexibility with their answers. They can cover cultural or communicative competence (key and register) and language skills (sensitivity to punctuation, reading comprehension, and language sensitivity such as vocabulary choices). But perhaps most important of all, incomplete dialogues allow students an opportunity to play with their new language and see what does and doesn’t work in a given context.

Let’s look at one more example to show you what I mean.

A: You don’t look so good. _______________________________________?
B: I feel really dizzy and nauseous. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
A: ___________________________________________________________.
B: No, don’t do that. I don’t need paramedics!
A: ___________________________________________________________?
B: Well, if I don’t feel better soon, maybe you should take me there.
A: Okay, just let me know ________________________________________.
B: I will. And thanks.

Here are some possibilities that students could use to fill in the blanks:

A: You don’t look so good. What’s the matter? / What’s wrong? / Are you okay? / Are you all right?
B: I feel really dizzy and nauseous. I feel like I’m going to pass out.
A: I’m going to call 911. / Maybe I should call 911.
B: No, don’t do that. I don’t need paramedics!
A: Would you like me/Do you want me to drive/take you to the emergency room/the hospital?
B: Well, if I don’t feel better soon, maybe you should take me there.
A: Okay, just let me know if you want/you’d like to go / if you want me to take you (there).
B: I will. And thanks.

Just think about how many skills this dialogue covers. Besides all the ones I’ve already discussed, we now also have survival skills, being able to handle a real-world situation in the United States: knowledge of 911, what paramedics do, and emergency rooms. A dialogue like this one is a great way to find out how much or how little your students know about certain situations and how to deal with them, and they offer a great oppor
tunity to plan lessons or discussions on aspects of life in the US that students may need to know more about.

If you haven’t already done so, start incorporating incomplete dialogues into your lessons. The more you create them, the better you’ll get at writing them. And the biggest plus is that your students will have the chance to practice many linguistic and cultural skills all at the same time. It doesn’t get better than that!

Comments

Comment from Ismael Tohari
February 19, 2010 at 3:13 am

Hi Riahcrd,

If the first dialgoue meant to be formal, I wonder why "I would" was shortened to "I'd" in:

"A: Mr. Firsten, I’d like you to meet…"

If it is OK, why is it OK though such shortening is maily used in informal situations.

Comment from Riahcrd
February 19, 2010 at 8:08 am

The distinction you're talking about is in the written language, not the spoken language. The contraction I'd appears here in a dialogue, which, of course, represents spoken language.

Comment from Ismael Tohari
February 19, 2010 at 9:34 am

So you mean that one can use contractions in formal sopken English, right?

Comment from Richard Firsten
February 19, 2010 at 10:56 am

Right.

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