Archive for Tag: speaking

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Flexibility of Thought-Provoking Conversations

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

One of the many challenges that all teachers face is finding ways to keep the learning experience interesting and dynamic. A good way to do this in a language classroom is to introduce thought-provoking themes or topics that students will relish discussing. Not only are such topics great for conversation practice, but they also allow for flexibility so that a teacher can apply them to focus on specific grammar points and writing assignments.

Here are two juicy themes that always get students thinking and discussing:

In Exile

Teacher speaking to class . . .

You were part of a group that tried to start a revolution in your country. You didn’t succeed and the government captured you and your group. A court has ordered that you and your group will be put into exile. You will be transported to an island where nobody lives. There are many animals and plants on the island that you can use for food, and there is a lot of fresh water. You will have to spend 15 years on the island as your punishment.

You will have no way to communicate with the outside world: no radio, no television, no phones, and there is no electricity on the island. But the government will allow your group to bring ten items – only ten – to the island to help you survive. You need to work together to decide which ten items you should bring to the island. You have 20 minutes to do this.

If you have a small group of students, treat this as a whole-class activity and let everybody discuss the topic together. As they suggest which items are important to take, list them on the board and let the whole group discuss the value or worthlessness of each item. Try to reach a consensus to create a final list of which items they will take. Make sure they clearly explain the reason they have suggested this item or that.

If you have a medium or large class, break the students into small groups, perhaps five or six students per group, with one student acting as the group secretary who will write down which ten items the group decides on. Walk around the room and eavesdrop on your students’ discussions. Help out if need be. When time is up, ask one person in each group to call out the list of items and write them on the board. Then compare the items in each group and have the class as a whole choose which ten items from all those lists should be the final list of things to take to the island.

Who’s Most Responsible?

Teacher speaking to class . . .

A young woman is married to a salesman who travels a lot on business. In fact, he’s almost never home. She’s very lonely. There’s a river that separates her town from one on the other side. While her husband is away on another business trip, she decides to go to the other town to have an adventure. She doesn’t want anybody in her town to know what she’s doing. To go to the other town, she decides to take a ferry across the river.

When she arrives in the other town, she goes to a ____ (You can fill in a place that will be appropriate for the backgrounds of your students. For example, you can say a bar or night club, a park or an outdoor café, etc.) She meets a young man there, they talk and feel a natural attraction for each other, and later she goes with him to his apartment, where she spends the night.

The next morning, she remembers that her husband is coming home that day, and she panics. She must get home right away. She runs out of the young man’s apartment and makes her way back to the ferry. But there’s a problem. She doesn’t have enough money to pay for the ferry ride back to her town and the ferryman refuses to take her if she can’t pay. She runs back to the young man and asks him for money. He gets angry, thinking she’s really a prostitute, and throws her out. She begs the ferryman to take her and she’ll pay him later, but he refuses again.

The young woman knows that there’s a bridge over the river about a mile away from the ferry. Nobody uses that bridge because there’s a dangerous mentally ill man who lives under it. She doesn’t want to use the bridge because of the danger from the man under the bridge, but she’s desperate. She must get home. When the mentally ill man sees her start to cross the bridge, he thinks she’s the Devil who has come to hurt him, so he runs over to her, attacks her, and kills her.

My question to you: Who is most responsible for the young woman’s death? Is it her husband, who was almost never home and made her feel so lonely? Is it the young man in the other town who wouldn’t give her the money to take the ferry back home? Is it the ferryman who refused to take her if she couldn’t pay him? Is it the mentally ill man under the bridge, who killed her because he thought he was protecting himself from the Devil? Or is it the young woman herself who is most responsible for her death?

Have the students discuss this question just as in the first discussion mentioned. Make sure they understand that they have to be able to defend their choices of who is most responsible for her death by giving convincing arguments.

Believe me, you’ll find your students get fully immersed in these discussions with lively, animated conversations. And if you choose to, you can create all sorts of exercises like open-ended sentences and modified cloze procedures based on these topics to practice specific grammar points. You can also have them work on short writing assignments to get the most bang for your ESOL buck.

Have fun with these and any other thought-provoking topics you come up with.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

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

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can Good Listeners Help Speakers?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

Recently, I spent some time traveling on long-distance trains and buses in the company of various fellow travellers. Though these people were of all sorts of ages and lifestyles, most had one thing in common- being well equipped with “time-killers.” Colorful magazines, books, crossword puzzles, and, of course, cell phones and iPods were employed effectively by these travelers to kill time. While I was killing time thinking about how these folks were killing time, it occurred to me, as it has to others, that the best way to make traveling time pass is simply to talk a while with some “seat-neighbor.”

But what keeps such conversations going? After all, discussion of the weather, the upholstery, and one’s favorite brand of mustard can only last so long.

Engaged listening supports speakers’ oral skills

Apparently, the key to successful, interactive oral communication in a native tongue lies in the creation and maintenance of a bridge between the speaker and the audience. No matter how eloquent, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and fluent the speaker is, a true dialogue will not last very long if the listener does not genuinely participate. Engaged listening, forming one half of that bridge, is an ingredient essential to meaningful communication.

Are bridges like this possible or beneficial in the ESL/EFL classroom?

In my experience, the manner in which an audience reacts to a speaker helps or hinders the speaker in the ESL/EFL setting. Maintaining emotional support for the speaker, for instance, seems to foster improvement in student-speakers’ oral skills.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to incorporate more activities which focus specifically on the characteristics of good listeners and the benefits of engaged listeners to speakers.

Potential Activity: Good Listeners vs. Bad Listeners

Students work in two groups: in the first, students identify characteristics of good listeners; in the second, students identify characteristics of bad listeners. One student in each group notes down the ideas discussed.

The “good listener group” may make notes like “ keeps eye contact,” “asks questions,” “gives feedback,” “paraphrases what the speaker has said,” or “lets the speaker finish his or her sentences.”

The “bad listener group” may note ideas like “ interrupts the speaker,” “changes the subject,” “does not comment on what has been said,” “is impatient,” or “is busy doing something else.”

Once the lists of ideas have been prepared, the groups, in turn, present brief, imaginary conversations which demonstrate the characteristics students in each group have discussed. While watching these conversation-sketches, students of the other group attempt to recognize and name the characteristics being demonstrated.

This activity could encourage student input and allow students to experiment in formulating manners of interactive listening. Students can discover ways in which listening skills can influence speaking skills.

Do you think an activity like this would work? Any thoughts on how it might be improved?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Battle of the Selves

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

My L1 Self

Most people who know me would tell you that I am not a shy person. In fact, I tend to be chatty and outgoing. Some might even call me loud. When I joined Weight Watchers in 2006, I didn’t hide quietly at the back of the room; I spoke out in the meetings, asking questions and sharing my personal triumphs and challenges. Even when I attended different meetings out of town (something had to get me through Christmas time in the hot-dish capital of the world – South Dakota), I usually struck up conversations with the people sitting next to me and spoke out in the meeting when I had something to add. In English, I would definitely fall into the category of sociable live wire.

My L2 Self

Fast forward to 2009. I have been living in Belgium for almost a year now. Faced with chocolate, cheese, and the best french fries on earth, I have kept up regular attendance at the local Weight Watchers meetings. They are conducted entirely in French, and I enjoy the challenge. What I find most interesting, though, is the complete personality change that I undergo when I enter the meeting hall. I become shy and quiet. I usually find a place at the back, and I don’t make eye contact with anyone.

Sometimes, the leader, Jacqueline, tries to include me by prompting me to share a meal idea or weight loss strategy. At these moments, I tend to sweat, panic, and stammer through a convoluted response. I get agitated for a number of reasons: I might not be entirely sure I understand the question, I don’t want the other members to judge me by my grammar mistakes, and I don’t want them to think that I am just one of those people who can’t be bothered to learn their language.

Speaking out in my Belgian Weight Watchers meetings is a horror equivalent to oral surgery; sometimes it’s necessary, but I’d really rather not.

The Importance of Accuracy

I have spent years telling my students to not worry about what people think and to just get their ideas out there. However, this is certainly not advice I, myself, can easily follow. One on one, I am fine. When I was younger, I managed to learn Russian fluently just by trial and error. But, when speaking publicly in another language, I feel very vulnerable. I want to make the right grammatical choices because I want to be both understood and accurate. I want people to think about my ideas and not my verb tense errors.

A Solution?

I know many of my students feel the same way, but there is no magic solution that I am aware of. (If you know of one, post a response to this blog immediately!) Many of the things we have already talked about in this blog help: drilling, error correction, scripting. Having students give speeches in class is another way of preparing them for the unsympathetic ears of the native speaking audience. I am also a huge fan of the “dull” grammar book work that eventually leads to automaticity. My French teacher does all of this, and yet, I still go beet red and start to sweat when Jacqueline turns my way.

In the end, maybe only time will transform me from an L2 introvert to an L2 extrovert. However, my experience has certainly made me more sympathetic to my students’ reticence. I won’t flippantly tell my classes to “just get out there and speak English” again!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Breaking the Silence: Activities Aimed at Encouraging Students’ Oral Participation

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

A group discussion begins. The clock ticks and tocks but there is not a second of silence. In fact, all the participants are so active that the teacher is forced to set a limit on how much each student can contribute to the conversation. When asked to summarize the group’s deliberations, the students compete for the role of speaker. Even when the class is over, while packing their books (and checking their latest text messages), the students continue the discussion.

Am I dreaming? Probably. But some approximation of this scenario is possible, at least some of the time.

We know that an ordinary oral task can evolve into a dynamic conversation if students work in an environment where obstacles hampering participation–such as shyness, feelings of inadequacy, or worry about embarrassment–are overcome by peer support, a non-punitive learning environment, and even motivation.

But what about the actual activities we use? Do certain oral tasks naturally evoke an animated response?

In my experience, students are more often orally active when:

1. They know that the success of a group activity requires a contribution from every student.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to share, compare, and then present information about each member’s study habits.

2. They are asked to contribute knowledge or expertise acquired outside the ESL classroom.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to describe the steps involved in ordering a CD, DVD, book, article of clothing, etc. from an online store.

3. They are surprised or shocked by a piece of news, preferably fake news.

Example activity: Before class begins, two students are told a piece of “strange” news and are asked to report that they have heard about the news when the teacher mentions it during a class discussion. Even doubting students and shy students have been known to bring themselves into the conversation once the two ‘plants’ have spoken up.

The news might be that there is a new law against driving while listening to metal rock and roll (passed because of research into brainwave conflicts associated with doing the two activities at once) or that scientists have discovered a genetic defect in collies which is causing an increasing number of them to become rabid spontaneously. (Sorry Lassie!) The list of possible fake news items is endless, but the best seem to be those which are surprising yet also somehow believable.

4. They can use vocabulary items which are familiar and key to the task.

Example activity: Groups are assigned to consider a few job applications–which contain a variety of formal, characteristic vocabulary items–in order to decide whom to hire as a language tutor.

5. They have limited time to complete the task.

Example activity: Students play a high-speed version of the well-known game “Twenty Questions”–a version called “Twenty Seconds.” Knowing that everyone must think and speak quickly in the game, and that mistakes will inevitably be made by a number of the participants, students ordinarily feel less inhibited than usual when playing this question- answer game.

Once a supportive and cooperative learning environment is established, we can turn our minds to activities. It is my experience that the choices of oral tasks often determine whether or not students genuinely engage in discussions.

Do you use any special tasks to foster animated discussions in your ESL classroom?

Friday, March 14, 2008

It’s Just a Formality

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

I greatly appreciate the comments sent in by Sam Simian in response to my last piece, “Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy.” Sam has given me some really meaty food for thought.

He mentioned that Nina Weinstein, who has written extensively in the field of ELT, claims her research shows that when we use reduced forms like gunnuh, it’s not because of how relaxed we feel in informal situations, but because of the speed of our speech. I really don’t agree with that. Yes, of course we tend to use reductions like wanna, hafta, and wudduyuh when speaking quickly, but I don’t think that’s the only condition under which we’ll hear native speakers use such reductions:

(mother tenderly talking to her agitated eight-year-old son)
A: Don’tcha think it’s time you made up with your brother, Bobby?
B: No way, Mom! I hate ’im! I hate ’im!
A: Oh, c’mon, Bobby. You know you don’ hate ’im.
B: Yeah, I do! I do! He’s mean!
A: Look. You’re older than him. Shouldn’tcha show ’im it’s not right for brothers to fight?
B: But Mom, he lost my favorite ball. And I never told ’im he could play with it!
A: Tell ya what. If you shake hands with Jimmy and make up, I’ll buy you a new ball ― an’ that bat you wanted, the one you saw at Z-Mart. An’ you don’ hafta take out the garbage for a whole week. So? C’mon, wudduyuh say?
B: Awright, Mom. But he better not take my stuff anymore!

Now that conversation just wouldn’t be rushed through. I hope you’ll agree that Bobby’s mom probably spoke quietly and gently to her son to calm him down and persuade him to do the right thing, not that her bribes didn’t help! This is why I don’t think reduced pronunciations are necessarily a result of speaking quickly. I think such reductions can say something about a relationship or the mood set between two or more people in a conversation. The “relaxed” sound of these reductions reflects the relaxed mood Bobby’s mother wanted to create. That’s my take on this. What’s yours?

I found it very interesting that Sam says, “If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka came into my class and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Simian. Wussup?’ I don’t think that the problem would be the reduced form; I think that the problem would be the expression that’s being reduced: What’s up? What’s up? is an informal greeting. I’m a fairly informal person, so I wouldn’t take offense at that being directed at me. However, I would probably explain that Wussup? is a very informal greeting. I would also take that opportunity to explain that most people see the classroom as a formal environment, so Wussup? would usually be considered inappropriate — especially when a student is addressing a teacher.”

I couldn’t agree with Sam more. That choice of greeting does seem inappropriate . . . or does it? I keep wondering what’s happening to how we deal with formality in American culture and how our language reflects this. I think there’s a definite shift going on in formality or in a lack of it, and I think the lines between what many consider a formal situation and an informal one are becoming blurred. I’m a child of the 1950s when I do believe there were quite clear lines separating formal from informal situations and the appropriate use of formal language from its informal counterpart. That doesn’t seem to be the case so much these days.

As I said, I’m a product of the decade I grew up in ― I can’t escape it. That’s why it bothers me every time a salesperson or other such person decides on his or her own to call me by my first name without asking for my permission first. (I think they’re told when they receive training for their jobs that if they start calling the customer by his or her first name, they’ll create a more friendly atmosphere and relationship, which will make a sale go more easily.) But being the kind of outspoken person I am, I’ll pipe up right away and say, “Excuse me. My name is Mr. Firsten, thank you.” The perpetrator of the infraction always looks quite shocked at being rebuked, but I guess that’s because most people just let things like that go by without saying a word. Not this customer!

Something similar which happens quite often in my part of the US (South Florida) is that a salesperson or repairperson will address me as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. Now, I’m quite aware of the fact that there are certain relatively small areas of the US where the culture allows this to happen, that is, to use a title like Mr. along with a first name, but that’s really not the case where I live. I think people do it here because they don’t want to bother asking you how you pronounce your last name if they feel it’s too hard to pronounce. Well, I honestly don’t think that Firsten is that hard to pronounce, and it would behoove those people to learn how to pronounce other people’s last names as a sign of courtesy, if nothing else.

Sam says it doesn’t bother him that Michael Mukasey said gunnuh instead of going to during those formal Senate hearings he had to attend, but it bothers me. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur; that’s possible. Yes, I know that Americans prefer informality over formality in many kinds of situations, which means their language will reflect how formal or informal they elect to be, but I do think we should still have sociolinguistic lines that are clearly defined. I’m interested to know how you feel about such things, so don’t hesitate to post your comments. They’ll be well received.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Eliza Doolittle’s Legacy

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

A very interesting thing took place a few nights ago. I was having a wonderful time at a dinner party I’d been invited to. The guests happened to make up a very nice cross section of Americans, including Northeasterners, Midwesterners, Southerners, and even somebody from Guam.

I can’t recall how this came into the conversation around the dinner table, but an animated debate got under way concerning what is or isn’t right in spoken English. A gentleman from upper New York State started decrying what he termed the “downgrading” of English, both in vocabulary and pronunciation. He was especially appalled by pronunciations such as “gunnuh” for going to, the future expression. I tried to explain to him that there’s nothing wrong with that pronunciation, depending on whether or not it’s the appropriate register for the setting and the speakers involved. I explained that going to would be appropriate in a more formal situation, but that “gunnuh” would be fine in an informal setting such as among friends. The basic idea I was trying to impart was that it’s not so easy to say what is “right” or what is “wrong” in areas of language such as pronunciation; that it all depends on the setting and choosing the proper register.

A couple of days later that pronouncement kind of imploded. Once again I was ambushed! I was having lunch, listening to various American senators questioning Michael Mukasey, who President Bush had nominated for the job of U.S. Attorney General. The setting couldn’t have been more formal: Mukasey sitting at a table with hands clasped and a microphone in front of him; a panel of senators asking him difficult questions; reporters and photographers all around ― pretty formal, wouldn’t you say? And then suddenly, while munching on my tuna sandwich, I heard Mukasey say, “Yes, Senator, I’m gunnuh look into that.” “What? What did he say?” I gasped. “‘I’m gunnuh’? He said ‘I’m gunnuh’? Mr. Mukasey! You’re supposed to say ‘I’m going to’! Don’t you know that?” I shouted at the pale, bureaucratic-looking face on my TV screen. “What’s next? Are you gunnuh start saying ‘I shoulduh’ instead of ‘I should have’? And what about when you want to know what your staff is talking about? Do you usually ask them, ‘Wussup’?” I was beside myself. I couldn’t even take the last bite of my tuna sandwich.

Was that concerned English speaker from New York state right? Is English pronunciation being “downgraded”? I’ve been wondering about how much attention we give or don’t give to the way people pronounce. Are there perhaps unwritten rules on what is and isn’t appropriate pronunciation of a given word or phrase in a certain situation? Do people cringe if they hear somebody like Michael Mukasey say gunnuh? And what about shoulduh or coulduh? Why should gunnuh be okay but not shoulduh or coulduh? It seems okay when people say should’ve and could’ve, doesn’t it? Hey! Wait a minute! There’s been a commercial on American TV for years for a vegetable drink in which the character says, “I coulduh had a V-8!” I know he doesn’t say, “I could’ve had a V-8!” and there’s no way on earth that he says, “I could have had a V-8!” No, he definitely says coulduh. Is there a reason for that? Why did the script writer opt for coulduh instead of the other two pronunciations? And why did the director let it get by, not to mention the company that pays for that marketing campaign? Is there something going on here that ELT instructors should be thinking about?

What do you think English teachers should do about all of this? If Pierre or Khadijah or Taka comes into your classroom one fine day and says, “Good morning, Mr./Ms. X. Wussup?” how should you respond? If you have a negative reaction to that greeting, what are you going to tell the student? How would you explain why you cringed when he or she said that? I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say on this subject ― so tell me!