Category Archives: Discourse

What exactly do we mean by speaking skills?

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A couple of weeks ago I received a comment on the blog from a teacher who asked me to write a post about speaking skills. This is what she said:

‘The other day I was asked to observe some students doing a short peer teaching session. They were supposed to “teach a speaking skill”. Each group decided to do a group discussion activity. When I asked them what speaking skill they had tried to focus on, they were really puzzled; in fact, they had no idea what I was getting at. They said their aim was ‘fluency’. But to me it’s a very generic skill. How do you teach ‘fluency’? What is ‘fluency”, anyway? I assume it’s a culmination of numerous sub-skills. So, what could these micro-skills be?’’

I realised that she was absolutely right. In the same way that we often try to develop listening skills by practising listening, developing speaking skills is often just seen as giving students an opportunity to speak.

Practice is important of course, but, as the teacher asked, what are the microskills involved in speaking?

First of all, we need to identify what exactly we mean by speaking. Brown and Yule (1983) distinguish between primarily interactional (conversation) and primarily transactional (transmitting information) functions of speaking. Jack Richards has added a third broad function- talk as performance- which would include such things as presentations and speeches.

Each of these three types of speaking could be more or less formal, depending on the context of the talk, who is taking part in the talk and the power relations between them.

So, when teaching speaking, one of the key things that we need to do is to identify what kind of speech we are hoping students will produce, how formal it is likely to be and what kind of exponents* it might be useful to teach them.

Coursebooks often have ‘Useful Language/Phrases’ boxes with sets of functional exponents for students to use in a speaking task. Teaching these sets of phrases is helpful in developing fluency because as we start to use these chunks of language automatically we are able to use them as what Scott Thornbury describes as ‘islands of reliability’. We can skip from one automatized phrase to the next, filling in the gaps with our own ideas and language.

[See my post on Activating the useful language box in your coursebook for some ideas on how to get students to internalise and use these kinds of phrases.]

Depending on the needs of your students there are literally dozens of different functions that you could focus on. More interactional functions might include expressing likes and dislikes, comparing, agreeing and disagreeing, giving your opinion, expressing surprise. More transactional functions might include asking for directions, ordering food in a restaurant or checking into a hotel. Performance related functions could include summarising what you are going to say, or what you have said, moving onto the next section of your talk, giving an example to support your argument etc.

I would argue that teaching these chunks is very much part of teaching the speaking skill. However, we should also be looking at teaching communication skills, which may or may not involve using relatively fixed chunks of language.

For example, to have a conversation with one or more other people students will need to be able to:

  • Decide whether they need to use more casual or more formal language.
  • Be able to join in the conversation, which may include interrupting without seeming rude. We can teach interrupting phrases, but we also need to teach them how to use them appropriately and with the right intonation.
  • Be able to back-channel- nodding, making supportive noises and also using short words such as Really? or question tags, e.g. Did you?
  • Check that they have been understood, using such phrases as ‘Do you see what I mean?’ ‘Do you follow me?’
  • Rephrase if they haven’t been understood.
  • Check they understand. E.g. ‘I’m not quite sure if I understood that correctly. Did you mean…?’
  • Change the topic politely and at the right moment.
  • Take a balanced role in the conversation- not hogging, and not saying too little.
  • Use politeness strategies appropriately, such as hedging (see post here), being indirect, apologising and so on.

Students will not necessarily be able to transfer these strategies from their first language, partly because the rules of engagement may be different, and partly because they are too occupied with speaking accurately, or with making a good point. Therefore we need to focus explicitly on them, and they are, in my opinion, also a key part of teaching the speaking skill.

To summarise, I don’t think we can ever say that we are ‘teaching fluency’. Instead we need to drill down a bit more and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What kind of speaking are we teaching?
  • What are the learners trying to achieve? (build a relationship, get a nice meal?)
  • What are some useful phrases for this kind of speaking?
  • What degree of formality is likely to be appropriate?
  • What impact will intonation have and what kind of intonation might be appropriate?
  • How will the students be interacting with each other and what might they need to know, do or say to make the communication work smoothly?

 

*An exponent is a piece of language used to perform a language function. For example:

Salt!

Give me the salt

Pass me the salt, please.

Could you pass me the salt, please?

I wonder if you could possibly pass the salt?

All these exponents have the same function- getting someone to pass the salt- but they obviously vary in terms of formality and when you could use them without causing offence. Intonation would also play an important role.

 

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Filed under Discourse, functions, Speaking, Uncategorized

Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way?

2576372736_04fe9e4026_o (1)One of the often used arguments against published coursebooks is that the texts, especially at lower levels, tend to have been specially written. When I first started writing coursebooks I was very keen to use authentic texts, and, indeed, the first edition of IELTS Foundation is full of them.

There are plenty of points in favour of using authentic texts. Firstly, the enormous sense of satisfaction to be gained from being able to read something designed for a native speaker. It’s no coincidence that the language learning app, Duolingo, encourages me in my learning by announcing, ‘You can now read 96.7% of all real Portuguese articles’ (though I doubt that very much!). Finding that they are able to read an authentic text may also encourage the learner to read more extensively outside of the classroom, which has to be a good thing.

It’s also important that students are exposed to different genres of texts, and, especially for the teacher creating materials for their own class, authentic texts provide a relatively easy way to bring something up to date and topical into the classroom. They can provide us with the opportunity to look at the same topic reported in different ways, or give students a starting point from which to follow the news topic as it unfolds, in their own time.

However, in recent years I have been moving away from using unadapted authentic texts. The most obvious problem is the level of the language. When I was first trained, we were taught, ‘grade the task not the text’, but, while this is usually possible, I’m no longer sure that it’s always in the students’ best interests.

Taking this kind of approach is intended to help students develop strategies to deal with texts where a lot of the language is unknown. There is certainly a value in this, but is it as valuable as giving them a text from which they can get so much more? Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’

Personally, I think there’s still a value in a text pitched slightly higher than that, especially if we give the learners support, but without a doubt, if the level is pitched too high, class time will just be taken up with explaining tens of words which, in all probability, the learners will not learn and may never need to use again.

But aren’t graded texts dull and decontextualized? Won’t they give students a false sense of security, and fail to prepare them for real world reading?

Or is there a middle way?

I think there is, and that it is based around a proper respect for genre. I now unashamedly write a lot of texts for my coursebooks. Unashamedly, because I think that, as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic.

So before writing a text, I look for samples of the kind of genre I’d like to write (this often gives me ideas about the topic as well, but the genre is most important). Then I look to see how these texts are structured, how formal the language is, what kind of structures appear (making sure that these are the structures I’d like to pull out to work on in the grammar section of the lesson) and what kind of vocabulary is in there.

I might run the texts through something like the Oxford 3000 textchecker to see what level the vocabulary is at, and think about how I could replace some of it, or use something like https://readability-score.com/ to see how complex the syntax is, which I might be able to simplify without affecting the style too much. I then use all this information to write my own text, at a more appropriate level and length, using grammar structures and vocabulary which are true to the spirit of the original sources, but which will be of use productively to the students.

Regular readers will know how I love a middle way!

I’ll be speaking about this and other tips for teachers wanting to write their own materials for the British Council Seminar Series in the next couple of weeks.

Firstly in London on 4th March. Tickets available here (free)

And then in Belfast on the 11th March, which will also be live streamed (also both free). Sign up here.

 

 

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Filed under Discourse, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Materials development, Planning, Vocabulary

Am I missing something?: raising awareness of ellipsis and substitution

Photo Credit: Bob.Fornal via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bob.Fornal via Compfight cc

When students fail to understand something they read or hear, this often isn’t because they don’t understand the words being used. In fact, it may be because of the words that aren’t being used.

In both speaking and writing there is a tendency to either leave out words we think are unnecessary (ellipsis) or to use another single word in place of a longer phrase (substitution). This can cause considerable confusion for learners, especially when listening, as there is no chance to go back and try and work out the meaning.

It’s also something that teachers, as proficient speakers of English, often overlook. Not least because we find it complicated to explain, even though we may easily understand what the speaker or writer is trying to say.

Ellipsis

There are generally considered to be two different kinds of ellipsis, situational and textual.

Situational ellipsis is, unsurprisingly, where the situation or context makes the missing element clear. It’s informal and mostly used in conversation.

For example, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ can easily become ‘Tea?’ if you are waving a mug at someone, or even just sitting in the kitchen.

Textual ellipsis has more grammatical ‘rules’, and can be found in both speech and writing. It could be defined as when we omit something that has already been mentioned (so doesn’t need to be repeated), or when what is missing is clearly recoverable from the text.

E.g. I went to the bakers to get some wholemeal rolls and (I went) to the butchers for lamb chops.

Textual ellipsis is probably most commonly found in the second clause after ‘and’ or ‘but’

Reduced relative clauses and reduced adverbial clauses are also often considered to be examples of ellipsis. With these, the missing words haven’t necessarily been mentioned, but they are clearly recoverable.

E.g. The dark-haired girl (who is) standing over there just smiled at you.

When (you are) teaching ellipsis, you need to find good examples.

Substitution

The easiest way to think about substitution is to consider it as a form of ellipsis. Something is missing, but instead of just leaving it out, we substitute it with another word, usually ‘so’, ‘one(s)’, ‘do(es)’, ‘did’. [Some people have a wider definition of substitution and include things I’d put under the heading of reference]

E.g. Replacing a noun (phrase):

What kind of cupcake would you like? A chocolate one, please.

E.g. Replacing a verb phrase:

I didn’t like the film, but everyone else did (liked the film)

Note that we use substitution for verbs in the simple present or simple past. For other tenses or modals, we use ellipsis.

I don’t want to go running but I really should (go running).

Have you ever been to Paris? Yes, I have (been to Paris)

How to teach ellipsis and substitution

As with a lot of things, the first step is to raise awareness of its existence. This is something which is often dealt with in ‘advanced’ level materials. This is fair enough in terms of getting students to produce natural sounding language but this shouldn’t be the first time students have ever thought about the concept. It needs to be something that students are aware of right from the beginning.

First of all, don’t routinely ask students to produce ‘full answers’.

‘Where do you live?’ ‘I live in Brixton.’

This may neatly practice present simple, but it sounds distinctly odd. Encourage ‘short answers’ and show students how much can be achieved with the right intonation. (See ‘Tea?’ above).

At low levels, it’s worth doing some activities to focus on short answers. (E.g. Yes, I do, No, I can’t.)

For example, you could use mini whiteboards and ask students questions which require short answers. They have to write the answer which is true for them and hold it up. The advantages of mini whiteboards include the fact that that they have more processing time, they have to think individually about the correct short answer, and you can see exactly who is producing an appropriate short answer.

Alternatively, you could do this in a circle with a beanbag- the person catching the bean bag has to answer, using a short answer.

A lot of fun can be had with really pared down dialogues. Perhaps the most famous example is ‘The train to Oxford.’ As you can probably tell by the reference to smoking and the slightly cheesy storyline, this is a golden oldie. Originally written by Scott Thornbury as a piece of teacher training material:

A: Um cigarette

B: Thanks

A: Oxford

B: Yes you

A: Um that’s right student

B: Nurse you

A: Unemployed

B: Long

A: A year er married

B: Divorced

A: Really me too

B: Kids

A: One you

B: Three

A: Erm dinner

B: When

A: Tonight

B: Ah busy tomorrow

A: Lunch

B: OK where

A: Um Browns

B: Browns

A: When

B: One

A: Fine Oh Oxford

B: Already

A: Tomorrow

B: Tomorrow

A: Oh

B: Yes

A: Name

B: Sarah

A: Andrew

This, and texts like this, are usually used to work on intonation, and they’re great for that. But ‘The Train to Oxford’ is also stuffed with examples of situational ellipsis and we can focus on this by getting students to first build up the dialogue into fuller expressions. This will, of course, also help with meaning, and thus intonation, when they go back to the pared down version.

Any authentic or even semi authentic recording is also likely to be a good source of examples of ellipsis. Take a look at this extract from my latest downloadable lesson plan, Q & A, (which also has a focus on ellipsis by the way)

J: Have you ever lied to me? 

S: I probably have [], but I try not to [] even if sometimes the questions you ask me make me uncomfortable.

In any listening based lesson, after some work on comprehension, you can pull out an extract like this and get students to complete what’s missing.  Slightly harder is to ask students to find places in a text where something has been ‘taken out’ or substituted.

Alternatively, why not reverse it, and ask students to try to cut down texts? You could add an element of competition by asking students to reduce the text to as few words as possible, while still retaining the same meaning.

Ellipsis and substitution also tend to come up as testable items in Use of English type exam papers. We often see multiple choice questions such as:

Susie doesn’t like coffee but I _____.

do
like
didn’t

I can’t play the piano but Jim _____.

does
is
can

Show students some examples of these (and give them some straightforward practice). Then ask them to write their own versions. These can be personalised, about themselves or classmates, or simply as silly as possible.

Once you start using some of these activities, you, and hopefully your students, will notice ellipsis and substitution everywhere!

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Discourse, Grammar, Listening

Q&A: Free downloadable lesson

A free downloadable lesson using another wonderful animated authentic recording from http://www.storycorps.com. Joshua, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, interviews his mother, giving us insights into what it’s like for him to be different from others, and the loving relationship between the two of them. Great for raising awareness of Asperger’s and of bullying,  and very touching.

The lesson involves listening and inferring meaning, plenty of discussion, and also has a focus on ellipsis, where words are omitted because the meaning is clear.

Probably most suitable from B2/Upper Intermediate+, but a good intermediate class could probably cope, as the way the lesson is structured and the animation provide support.

Download PDF here : ELT Resourceful – Q&A

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Filed under Discourse, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, Listening, Speaking