By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
The story below, which is almost twenty years old, is still worth a few chuckles to my friend and me, and it’s recently gained an additional value: this summer our recollection of an elementary school incident prompted not only an expected giggle, but also an investigation, or rather a casual “snooping,” at some practices used with beginning learners by teachers of languages other than English.
Here’s what happened years ago:
We were beginning students of Russian, and during our second or third class meeting we were asked to prepare a telephone conversation which was to include some of the phrases we’d studied. As you can imagine, our vocabulary was meager, and our confidence about acting out the conversation in front of a group of other 12-year-olds was definitely shaky. We scrambled for ideas and put together the following lines (here translated into English):
- Good day.
- Good day.
- Is your father at home?
- Is your mother at home?
- Is your brother at home?
- Thank you. Good bye.
- Good bye.
We earned an F for this performance. But get this. It was a failure not because the dialogue was poorly prepared, but because it was never acted out! The conversation seemed so painfully and funnily unnatural that it threw us into a fit of inextinguishable snickering. We stood in front of the class with our heads down and shoulders shaking, unable to speak.
This summer my friend asked, “You’re a language teacher. Is it still common teaching practice to ask beginners who know, let’s say, ten words to create and act out dialogues?”
What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from snooping into a textbook for beginning learners of Russian?
Curious to see what dialogue-based tasks are used these days by teachers of Russian, I leafed through a textbook published recently for beginning learners. Interestingly, almost all reading tasks and the majority of the speaking activities were based on dialogues in that book.
In spite of having a limited vocabulary and a minimal knowledge of grammar, users of this textbook are regularly asked to create dialogues. How does that make sense? What makes their task possible and meaningful is that a clear, real context, together with a list of useful words and phrases, is provided.
So, after studying possessives and “furniture” vocabulary, students maybe be asked to prepare a dialogue for this sort of situation: You are in a new dorm. Visit your neighbor. Talk about your rooms. Use these words: bed, table, desk, poster, curtain, lamp, sink, trash can, pillow, blanket.
Even though students’ dialogues may be fairly short and simple, the context will allow for a certain authenticity, and the vocabulary list will provide a level of comfort for the often vulnerable beginner.
What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from taking a class for beginning learners of Modern Greek?
In her article “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher,” Diana R. Ransdell, an experienced ESL teacher, recalls a summer course she took in Modern Greek. She concludes that the course not only helped her relate to her ESL students’ frustrations, but also provided “first-hand exposure to new techniques” which she later incorporated into her teaching (45).
One technique she remembers particularly well used creative writing. Before taking that course in Modern Greek, she “had never once given a creative writing assignment to beginning students” (43). Typically, those tasks tend to be rather time-consuming and are generally given to students whose vocabulary is more extensive. Later, however, because of her experiences as a language learner, she “took steps to ensure that creative writing would be an integral part of future teaching” (44).
As a beginning student of Modern Greek, she was asked to compose a creative story, which she wrote in the form of a dialogue. Because half of the vocabulary she knew at the time amounted to names of food items, the dialogue centered on the theme of food. In her dialogue she spoke to a vendor about the availability of watermelons, cherries, lemons, and bananas. She writes: “The experience gave me a sense of power because the words I had used … were no longer mere words. Now they were my words” (43).
So how should I answer my friend’s question about the currency of using dialogues with true beginners? Yes, it seems possible and common enough to ask beginning language learners to create dialogues even if their vocabulary is limited. But perhaps to make sure that they don’t fail at this (like we did), we can be sure to provide them with a truly realistic context and key vocabulary, and assure them that they will feel accomplished, no matter how simple the conversation turns out to be.
Now I’m considering snooping into my colleague’s textbook, one for beginning learners of German. I wonder what dialogue-based tasks they use in, let’s say, “Lektion 3.”
Ransdell, D. R. 1993. “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher.” ELT Journal 47/1: 40-46.