Humanising Language Teaching
Creating Conversation in Class
by Chris Sion, the Netherlands
As my workshop is based on my new book, "Creating Conversation in Class" , I should like to turn to the opening pages to give an idea of what it contains and of the teaching philosophy underlying my approach. "Creating Conversation in Class" (ISBN 0-953-30988-6) is a collection of interesting and unusual ideas for E.F.L. students to discuss. The majority of the activities are intermediate, although many can easily be adapted to both higher and lower levels. Most require only a minimum of preparation and very few materials.
As I understand it, conversation is: "An informal, spoken exchange of information, opinions, anecdotes and ideas". The materials may be used for conversation classes in which a whole period is devoted to discussion as well as for shorter sessions within a larger lesson. The book attempts to address the needs of students who are unsure of themselves in an English conversation once they have, as it were, exchanged greetings, reported on the quality of their flight and the standard of their hotel, commented on the weather and pursued whatever goals they have set themselves. "Creating Conversation in Class" is designed to help students cope with the question, "What do I say now?" and give them the confidence to have a chat in English.
The book supplements the tradition in which a topic or role-play is presented to the class, often out of the blue, along with a list of vocabulary and structures to be practised. I am aware that many teachers and course books proceed in this way. It is neat and controlled and the objectives are clear. However, in my experience it frequently generates resistance to the very teaching points you set out to practise. I have often found the students skimming through the activities as quickly as they can. They proudly announce, "We've finished", heave a sigh of relief, and then go on to talk about something else in which they are genuinely interested, with far more commitment. It frequently appears that the more directly you ask the students to use the input, the less they are inclined to.
The art of creating conversation in class
The alternative is a combination of introducing topics indirectly, building them up slowly, relating them to the students' interests, entering into a dialogue with the class and being prepared to experiment. You also need to be flexible and, above all, develop the art of using seemingly inconsequential moments and ideas to create conversation and get the students talking.
Let me cite an example. When I started teaching, I used to spend hours on careful preparation. I can still remember pasting dozens of pictures onto cardboard to make flashcards, hunting for examples and scrupulously scripting every moment of each lesson. If I got one correct sentence back in a conversation with a student, I felt fulfilled.
Some years later, teaching a low intermediate group of faltering German businessmen, I simply told them to work in pairs and talk about what they had to do at work the following week. They talked English non-stop for 45 minutes, only occasionally turning to me to check a detail.
Your task as the teacher is to find the key that creates and unlocks the students' need to communicate. Students who don't like to be put on the spot will latch on to throwaway comments, apparently irrelevant tasks, puzzles, games, questions and conversation topics if they are carefully introduced and unobtrusively built up. Conversation needs to be drawn out of students rather than pumped into them. You need to balance preparation and spontaneity.
Small talk and big talk
As a university student, I used to be quite cynical about making small talk and what I regarded as meaningless conversational exchanges. I preferred to talk about substantial issues and get involved in academic debate from the word go. Down the years, however, I came to realise that people do not generally respond favourably to "Good morning and what do you think is the meaning of life?" Small talk is a necessary ingredient in deepening social interaction. It's a first step towards 'big talk'.
My assumption is that students have something to say. That, just like 'real people', they enjoy talking about their lives, their families, their interests, backgrounds, jobs, plans, dreams and frustrations; about what they had for lunch, where they do their shopping…and if there is a God.
Outside class if the conversation flags in a social situation such as a party, I sometimes throw out a comment like, "What's the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?" or "What was the naughtiest thing you ever did as a child?" Lively exchanges and interesting reactions invariably ensue. In much the same way I might casually remark in class: "Do teddy bears have souls?" and see where the conversation drifts to.
Another favourite is to elicit a handful of unconnected topics from the students, say discotheques, mobile phones, the general election, neighbours, the bus strike, tennis racquets and cloning human beings. I then let pairs choose what they want to talk about. Totally unstructured. Just like real life. I recently had one student asking another advice about buying Russian icons. This is the way it should be: genuine interaction about a common interest. It is simply not the case that to be valuable a conversation has to be structured, with the topic introduced, developed and recapitulated. We are concerned with the free stage. No matter how trivial or obscure a topic, if it gets the students talking English we have succeeded in creating conversation.
It is also worth noting that a great deal of authentic conversation takes place inside the classroom but outside the formal parameters of the lesson. This is the twilight time just before and after a lesson. I believe this is invaluable learning time. It is often more interesting than the main part of the lesson, in much the same way that question time at the end of a lecture is more gripping than the lecture itself.
Error correction, accuracy and fluency
The relatively unstructured approach of "Creating Conversation in Class" might not come easily to teachers who believe in the need for strict and immediate error correction. Obviously you should pay close attention to students' errors and consider carefully the most effective moment and manner to correct them. Equally obviously, when students make mistakes, you should not constantly interrupt them to put them down in mid-sentence. It's far more effective to echo the correct version back to them. The teacher's exasperated cry, "How many times have I told you...?" shows only that the material has not been presented in a way the students can internalise, or at too early a stage for them to do so. There is an added danger that by paying repeated attention to errors, you could unintentionally be reinforcing them.
What's more important than rigorous correction of their errors is paying attention to the students themselves and creating a feeling of self-esteem among them. When they are working in pairs, move around the class listening and responding to what they have to say, not just to the quality of their language. They should not be given the impression they are being fobbed off with pairwork just to fill the time.
"Creating Conversation in Class" focuses on fluency, not accuracy, which is dealt with in a myriad of other sources. There is no shortage of English grammar books on the market. Fluency, accuracy and substance all have a place in language learning. Correction is important, particularly to those students who believe they learn from being corrected. They may feel they are not being taken seriously if their errors are ignored. But it is a moot point whether the value lies in the correction itself or in the students' perception that they have been recognised. The crucial factor is establishing yourself as a teacher who is in tune with the students and aware of their needs. Give the students space, give them time and give them encouragement. Leave them in peace, not in pieces.
Two sample activities from "Creating Conversation in Class" are included below:
Can We Go Swimming?
1 Divide the class into two groups. One group is to play the part of the parents. The other group are the children. Brief them as follows:
Children: Make a list of things you would like to have or do, such as going swimming, playing monopoly, buying a new computer game, playing hide and seek and so on.
Parents: Think of as many ways as you can of responding to children's requests, both positively and negatively. For example:
2 Ask the groups to report back and write a selection of their examples on the board.
3 Each parent should now pair off with a child. The children should ask the parents for some of the things they listed in Step 1. The adults' task is initially to refuse the request and then, finally, to give in. As soon as a request is complied with, the child should make the next request. For example:
Child: Can we go to the circus today?
4 The adults and children reverse roles.
5 Finish off with a general discussion of children and the older generation in the modern world. Some points you might want to discuss are:
Sample Activity 2
Ask Me a Question!
1 Hand out copies of the worksheet. Fill in the students' names on your copy of the worksheet and tell them to do the same.
2 Explain that you want to give them the chance to talk about something that they really know something about. Each student should give you one topic which they feel they could answer questions about. Give them a chance to think of something suitable which will generate lots of questions. Each student should call out their topic. Tell all the students to write their classmates' topics on their worksheet next to their name.
3 Each student has to write one question about each topic on their worksheets. The questions can be written out in full or in note form. Give a few examples yourself so that the task is clear and offer help where necessary.
4 When they have finished writing down their questions, the students should mingle and ask each other the questions they have written about each topic. Stress that the questions are intended as starting points, springboards to further conversation. They should try and speak to as many of their classmates as they can.
Ask Me a Question: Worksheet