'I can understand my teacher's English, but when I speak to 'real people' I can't understand them'. This is a comment I'm sure many teachers have heard.
While it is a bit of an exaggeration, students clearly feel that classroom-based speaking practice does not prepare them for the real world. Why do students so often highlight listening and speaking as their biggest problems? Partly because of the demands of listening and speaking and partly because of the way speaking is often taught. It usually consists of language practice activities (discussions, information-gap activities etc.) or is used to practise a specific grammar point. Neither teaches patterns of real interaction. So what can we do in the classroom to prepare students for real interaction?
What do students need?
What language should I teach?
How do I get students to use new language
What do students need?
Practice at using L1 (mother tongue) strategies, which they don't automatically transfer.
An awareness of formal / informal language and practice at choosing appropriate language for different situations.
The awareness that informal spoken language is less complex than written language. It uses shorter sentences, is less organised and uses more 'vague' or non-specific language.
Exposure to a variety of spoken text types.
The ability to cope with different listening situations. Many listening exercises involve students as 'overhearers' even though most communication is face-to-face.
To be competent at both 'message-oriented' or transactional language and interactional language, language for maintaining social relationships.
To be taught patterns of real interaction.
To have intelligible pronunciation and be able to cope with streams of speech.
Rehearsal time. By giving students guided preparation / rehearsal time they are more likely to use a wider range of language in a spoken task.
Transferring L1 strategies When preparing for a spoken task, make students aware of any relevant L1 strategies that might help them to perform the task successfully. For example, 'rephrasing' if someone does not understand what they mean.
Formal / informal language Give students one or more short dialogues where one speaker is either too formal or informal. Students first identify the inappropriate language, then try to change it. Also show students how disorganised informal speech is.
Vague language Using tapescripts of informal speech, focus on examples of vague language.
Different spoken text types Draw up a list of spoken text types relevant to the level of your class. Teach the language appropriate for each text type.
Interactive listening Develop interactive listening exercises. Face-to-face listening is the most common and the least practised by course books. Any form of 'Live listening' (the teacher speaking to the students) is suitable.
Transactional and interactional language Raise students' awareness by using a dialogue that contains both. It could be two friends chatting to each other (interactional) and ordering a meal (transactional).
Real interaction patterns Teach real interaction patterns. Introduce the following basic interactional pattern: Initiate, Respond, Follow-up. This is a simplification of Amy Tsui's work. See Tsui (1994) The following interaction could be analysed as follows:
A: What did you do last night? (Initiate) B: Went to the cinema (Respond) A: Oh really? (Follow-up) What did you see? (Initiate) B: Lord of the Rings (Respond) Have you been yet? (Initiate) A: No it's difficult with the kids (Respond) B: Yeah of course (follow-up)
Understanding spoken English After a listening exercise give students the tapescript. Using part of it, students mark the stressed words, and put them into groups (tone units). You can use phone numbers to introduce the concept of tone units. The length of a tone unit depends on the type of spoken text. Compare a speech with an informal conversation. In the same lesson or subsequent listening lessons you can focus on reductions in spoken speech, for example, linking, elision and assimilation.
Preparation and rehearsal Before a spoken task, give students some preparation and rehearsal time. Students will need guidance on how to use it. A sheet with simple guidelines is effective.
Real-life tasks Try to use real-life tasks as part of your teaching.
What language should I teach?Spoken language is both interactional and transactional, but what should teachers focus on in class? Brown and Yule (1983) suggest the following:
When teaching spoken language, focus on teaching longer transactional turns. This is because native speakers have difficulty with them and because students need to be able to communicate information efficiently whether in their country or in a native-speaker country.
Teach interactional language by using an awareness-raising approach. For example, with monolingual classes by listening to a recorded L1conversation before a similar L2 recording. For recordings of native-speaker interactional and transactional conversations, have a look at 'Exploring Spoken English' by McCarthy and Carter (1997). It not only contains a variety of text types, but each recording comes with analysis.
How do I get students to use new language?Research by Peter Skehan on Task-based Learning shows that giving students preparation time significantly increases the range of language used in the performance of the task, whereas the accuracy of the language is not as influenced. If this is so, then it seems sensible to give students preparation time when encouraging them to use new language.
Imagine you have been working on the language that would be useful for the following task: 'Having a conversation with a stranger on public transport'. You have now reached the stage where you wish students to perform the task. Rather than just give students 10 minutes to prepare and rehearse the task, give students guided preparation time.
A simple preparation guide for the task could be a few key questions like: How will you start the conversation? What topics are you going to talk about? How are you going to move from one topic to another? How are you going to end the conversation?
After the preparation stage, students give a 'live performance'. This can be in front of the class or group to group in a large class. This increases motivation and adds an element of real-life stress.
Another way of encouraging students to use new language in a communication activity is to make a game out of it. Give students a situation and several key phrases to include. They get points for using the language.
Similarly, when working on the language of discussion, you can produce a set of cards with the key phrases/exponents on. The cards are laid out in front of each group of 2/3/4 students. If a student uses the language on a particular card appropriately during the discussion, he/she keeps the card. The student with the most cards wins. If he/she uses the language inappropriately, then he / she can be challenged and has to leave the card on the table.
Further reading Brown, G and G.Yule. 1983. Teaching the Spoken Language. Cambridge University Press Bygate, M. 1987. Speaking. Oxford University Press Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 1997. Exploring Spoken English. Cambridge University Press Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford University Press Tsui, A.B.M. 1994 English Conversation. Oxford University Press
Rolf Donald, Eastbourne School of English, Teacher and Teacher Trainer