Classy Classrom Conversations

TOEFL SpeakingLearners engaged in English classroom ‘conversations’ rely on question/answer exchanges that have all the characteristics of a coldhearted interrogation and very few of a spontaneous chat. One obvious reason is that the impoverished language resources of beginner EFL students interfere with their ability to fully express themselves.

The authors of task-oriented texts anticipate this. Open any modern English language learning book and you’ll see example conversations, maybe between cartoon figures, contrived to spotlight a specific grammar point. Something like this:

Woman: John, you and Kahlen went to the beach for your last vacation, didn’t you?
Man: Yeah, we did. We had a great time.
Woman: Where did you go?
Man: We went to Jeju, to the island.
Woman: Did you like it?
Man: We sure did.

In a garden-variety lesson plan using ‘did you+verb’ to talk about past experiences, a teacher will typically model a conversation for the class before putting students into a focused task:

Teacher: Eun Sun, where did you go for your last vacation?
Student: I go Seoul.
Teacher: You went to Seoul?
Student: Yes. I went to Seoul.
Teacher: Where did you go in Seoul?
Student: I went to amusement park.
Teacher: Ah. Did you enjoy it?
Student: Yes.
Teacher: Yes I did?
Student: Yes I did.
Teacher: Great. Good job.

English language teachers mine answers from students by peppering them with follow up questions to their short responses. Invariably this means a reliance on the five W questions, which is predictable, boring. This discourse modality is know as an IRF or IRE exchange: the teacher (I)nitiates an exchange, the student (R)esponds, and the teacher (F)ollows up or (E)vaulates the reply. Rarely does a student pose a question. Thus, roles of asker/answerer are established and guess who has the authority in these transactions?

Restricting a learner’s language choices is a well-known classroom tactic: forcing the use of one form of grammar, for instance, helps make it ‘sticky’ through repetition and promotes noticing. On the downside, there is little about these textbook ‘conversations’ that feels authentic; they resemble interviews. To combat this affront to fluency teachers are continually innovating ways to get students to add more details to their replies. We urge follow up questions. We jostle new speakers to deformalize their English by using contractions, idioms, or mild slang in a bid to alleviate some of the rigidity present in classroom interaction: Hey, didja catch a show with your main squeeze last night? Alas, some problems can only be managed.

In some situations, though, language exchanges are like interviews. Like, in interviews. Descending into a casual register or applying gregarious conversation strategies that expand answers with superfluous information in an interview setting could result in unwanted consequences. J-1 Visa aspirants, for example, are given a bunch of tips about the interview portion of the application process:

One suggestion is to practice English conversation with a native speaker before the interview, but do NOT prepare speeches! Keep your answers to the officer’s questions short and to the point…you will have 2-3 minutes of interview time, if you are lucky.

This should extinguish all hope of warmth from the question asker:

You must be able to clearly articulate your plan to return home at the end of your program.

So teachers, beware of validating only one speaking style. Just as in a casual setting a learner’s English can seem too rigid, so too can a learner display an abundance of informality in a situation that calls for more serious answering and less carefree elaborating.For more Click here.

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2 Replies to “Classy Classrom Conversations”

  1. I really want to use idioms and mild slang naturally,,,,, But it is hard for me yet. From edmodo and this blog, I can see many English idiomatic expressions. I read all comments and learn how to speak naturally. I know you try to encourage our speaking and writing in our class. Thank you for your awareness our teacher! Umm,,,, I don’t know I adequately understanded this observation. But I mostly empathized this writing, so I commented at here. Anyway, thx John:)♡

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