Archive for Tag: conversation practice

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Making Real Conversation Happen

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

When I was (much, much) younger, I lived in Russia for a year. I arrived in the country with barely a word of Russian in my brain and left, after 10 months, completely fluent. Flash forward 20 years. I have been living in Belgium for 1 ½ years, and I am still struggling to spit out halting, barely coherent sentences.

Students often spend a great deal of money and travel half way (or more) around the world for the opportunity to live immersed in a native speaking environment. It seems obvious that a student who lives in, for instance, Canada, would have increased exposure to English and would be able to find more opportunities to practice speaking with other English speakers, both native and non-native. It’s common sense, right? But we know, as language teachers and learners, that this doesn’t automatically happen. So, what is the magic formula that makes real conversation possible for L2 students in an L1 environment?

Take Advantage of Golden Opportunities

One major factor in my quick study of Russian had to do with the motivation that Russians had to get to know me. I had the good fortune of arriving in Russia during a magical time. The Soviet Union was just starting to open up, and people were relatively free to develop friendships with foreigners for the first time. I was a bit of a celebrity. People on the bus and in the stores were as eager to talk to me and learn about what my life was like as I was to find out about theirs. I couldn’t turn the pages of my dictionary fast enough! Both my Russian friends and I had something to gain from our relationship, so they put up with my initial struggles with vocabulary and grammar because there was no other way for us to communicate.

Make Opportunities Happen

However, for many of students who study in native English speaking countries, this idyllic situation just isn’t a reality. Native English speakers don’t usually view international students as celebrities, and, even if they are interested in learning about another culture, they often simply don’t have the time. That’s why programs like Conversation Partners are so crucial to international students.

Pairing students up with elderly people is a great way for both parties to benefit; older people get some attention and socialization and the international students get some English exposure. It seems the Conversation Partners programs that work best offer the native speakers a benefit beyond getting to know someone from a different country. For instance, a school where I used to work in Nashville, Tennessee paired with a school preparing students to be missionaries. Although proselytizing was strictly forbidden, the American students got a chance to practice speaking with nonnative English speakers. When both parties get have something to gain, the motivation to interact comes more naturally.

Find Hidden Opportunities

It is true to say that Belgians aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to interact with me in French. Most of them are as busy as we are at home and about as interested in foreigners as we are. However, that isn’t the main barrier between me and French fluency. Even though I am not the celebrity here that I was in the glory days of the fall of the Soviet Union, I do have many Belgian friends and co-workers who would gladly and patiently weather my terrible pronunciation and grammar to give me some French practice. So why don’t I take advantage of it?

I have been thinking about the answer to this a lot. I tried speaking French to my co-workers, but I felt ashamed. Even though I know consciously that no one is judging me (we are all language instructors, after all) I still feel uncomfortable about speaking anything but English at work. When I speak with my Belgian friends, their English is so, so, so much better than my French that we often slip into English just to get the stories out. With my friends, I think less about my linguistic development and more about the interaction.

So, what’s the solution? Well, I will keep attending my Weight Watchers meetings where, although they greet me in English, the meetings are held in French. I have also decided to take linguistic advantage of my Osteopath. He is Belgian and I meet with him on a regular basis to have my shoulder attended to. His English is impeccable, so I have always been tempted to speak English with him. In fact, I chose to become his patient for the very reason that I could easily communicate my pain to him. However, I have come to realize that he is also my captive audience. Next time, while I am lying on the table I have vowed to conduct our “small talk” in French. So finding opportunities cloaked in English just be my key to French success.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Focus on Phrasal Verbs

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Don’t Put it off! Covering Phrasal Verbs, that is.

Phrasal verbs are, at best, an irritation to many English students. They are arbitrary in that the verb and preposition combinations often have nothing to do with the actually meaning of the phrasal verb. However, they are also ubiquitous. Once thought to belong solely to the realm of spoken or casual English, phrasal verbs are now acknowledged as being a part of almost every type of English, from news broadcasts to novels to college lectures to thesis papers. They are everywhere. Students have no choice but to learn them, no matter how frustrating the chore may be.

Quite often, phrasal verbs will appear in the later chapters of a grammar text. While I strongly support any exposure to phrasal verbs students can get, I wonder if this is the best place for them. In my opinion, phrasal verbs are more like discrete vocabulary items than grammatical patterns that can be learned and applied in a variety of situations.

Ideally, in my experience, phrasal verbs are best learned in a Listening / Speaking class. (However, because phrasal verbs show up in all kinds of written English as well, they could be certainly addressed in a Reading / Writing context as well.) I think that a Conversation class is a good fit for a phrasal verb lesson because, not only do students need exposure to this target language to be fully effective communicators, but it also gives teachers something concrete to teach in the class, in addition to doing “conversation practice” which can be a bit more difficult to measure. Learning phrasal verbs gives Conversation students the feeling that they are learning something tangible in a subject area which is not.

Getting on with the Business of Teaching Phrasal Verbs

First, I usually begin with a warm up of some sort that reviews the phrasal verbs from the previous lesson. I sometimes give students one index card each with either the phrasal verb or a gapped sentence and instruct the students to walk around the class until they find their match. Or, I might divide the class into groups of three or four students and have one student from each group turn with their back to the board. I write a phrasal verb from the previous lesson on the board, and the group has to give their partner clues until he / she shouts out the phrasal verb. The goal is to re-activate the vocabulary from the previous day and get students ready to think about English.

Then, we check the homework as a class. I strongly believe in assigning written practice with phrasal verbs. Keith Folse, in his wonderful text, The Art of Teaching Speaking, argues for the need for students to have time to prepare to speak. In my own experience as a French student, I know that I am better able to use vocabulary I have had written practice with. In addition, as a lazy student, I tend not to learn that which I am not forced to learn, and the pressure of homework is a great motivator. If the homework assignment was to use the phrasal verbs in sentences or a story, I collect them and check them myself. However, if the homework was a gap-fill or matching activity, we usually go around the class and check the answers aloud. This is a great opportunity for me to correct any pronunciation errors (especially associated with the stress that belongs to the preposition in this unique case) on an individual level.

Then, students have time in groups to continue with some controlled practice. If we are tackling new phrasal verbs, I often give them a dialogue or sentences which give the phrasal verbs context. Students work in pairs to “guess” what the meanings are. If students are recycling previously learned phrasal verbs, they would work in pairs to complete some kind of written activity which elicits the target language. At this point, we are focusing on the meaning of the phrasal verbs and whether or not they are separable (the object can go between the verb and the preposition) or inseparable (the object can only go after the phrasal verb) or intransitive (the phrasal verb does not take an object) in this particular meaning. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with phrasal verbs is that these rules change when the meaning of the phrasal verbs changes.

Once I feel comfortable that the majority of students have grasped the ins and outs of the target language, we move on to a less controlled, more conversational practice. I either present the students with conversation questions containing the phrasal verbs we have studied or I assign them some kind of performance task (for example: plan a news report using five of the phrasal verbs or plan a family argument using five of the phrasal verbs, etc.), or I ask them to reach a group consensus about a subject that prompts use of certain phrasal verbs. This less-controlled task gives students freedom to experiment and make mistakes they can learn from.

Getting Students Caught up in their Own Learning
This process is, admittedly, a little slow for some students. It can take hours just to get a handle on 10 or 15 phrasal verbs. For more motivated students, a phrasal verb journal might be useful. When students hear or see a phrasal verb, they write it down and refer back to it often in order to commit it to memory. Students wanting a little more self study also might like Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell’s English Phrasal Verbs in Use. I like this text a lot because it divided the phrasal verbs into manageable subject areas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Note to Self: Just Zip It! Let Students Conduct the Conversation

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Like many teachers, I am an extrovert. I love to be the center of attention, surrounded by rapt listeners hanging on my every word. This characteristic can be useful in education. After all, no one likes a teacher who mumbles, head down, while hiding shyly behind a podium.  However, in language teaching, most experts agree that too much teacher talk time (TTT) can be detrimental to students’ learning. As an English instructor, an observer of other teachers, and a French student, I know this to be true, but I still have to work really, really hard to remember to zip it. 

The Dreaded Semi-Circle Conversation

When I first started teaching many years ago, my idea of the perfect conversation lesson involved the students sitting in a semi-circle with me in the center directing the discussion. When I thought about it, though, I came to realize that conversations didn’t actually happen like this in real life. I don’t tend to line my friends up in a semi-circle and ask them questions one by one, do you? Therefore, this kind of teacher-led conversation does nothing to prepare students to participate in the messy, conversationalist-driven interactions of the real world. 

Small Groups Work

I realized that I needed to step back, zip it, and let the students negotiate the interaction by themselves. Small groups of 3 or 4 (research suggests this is the optimal size for conversation groups) can conduct natural conversations without having a moderator present. In my classes, I have only 2 rules:

  1. They can never be “done” talking — they have to keep the conversation going (they can change the topic) until the time allotted for the activity is reached, and 
  2. They can’t allow an excessively long silence (for native speakers the max is 3 seconds) to sneak into the discussion.  

Tips and Tricks

Keith Folse has written a fantastic book (The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press) that is just bursting with suggestions for instructors. Some of my favorite tips include having students write about what they are going to say the night before, remembering to teach the language for the task as well as the language in the task, and including a number of closed tasks that require students to work toward an answer rather than just talk about a subject.

I also try to remember never to plan a whole-class activity that could be done just as well in small groups, and I tend to avoid the “summarize your conversation for the class” wrap-up that often bookends a lesson. In my experience, students are much less interested in what other people talked about and much more interested in talking themselves.

Skill of Making Conversation

Making conversation involves a set of culturally specific skills that should be taught in class to help students better maintain a discussion without teacher guidance. Students, especially those living in a native English speaking community, need to learn strategies like active listening, holding the floor, jumping in without being asked a direct question, latching on to the previous speaker’s sentence, recognizing when a speaker is releasing the floor, disagreeing, changing the subject, sharing talking time, etc. Not only will covering these skills arm students with strategies for success in the real world, but they also get the added bonus of walking out of the class having learned something new, rather than just “practiced their conversation.”

Loosening the Zipper (a Little)

However, although I come down firmly on the side of less TTT, especially in my own classes, I don’t think the teacher should disappear from the interaction completely. As a French student, I greatly enjoy listening to the anecdotes and personal stories of my teacher. When she wanders the room listening in on our conversations, I occasionally pull her into the discussion. Likewise, when I move from group to group, I allow myself to participate in my students’ conversations from time to time. I try not to direct the conversation myself, but I offer my opinion and show enthusiasm for or disagreement with what others say — just like I would in a social discussion. Involvement in a conversation is very different from domination, so I advocate for loosening the zipper just a little.