Tag Archives: speaking

Helping students with connected speech

There is a huge difference between what our students see printed on a page and what we actually say in everyday speech.

In a recording of a TESOL Spain Presentation on Youtube (well worth watching), Mark Hancock makes the following joke:

Patient: Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got two theik, a near rake, sore rise, bruise darms a stummer cake and I far tall the time.

Doctor: I see, perhaps you’d like to way tin the corridor?

(Try reading it aloud)

The joke [apologies for the vulgarity 😉 ] showcases a good number of examples of features of connected speech. Teacher can tend to shy away from highlighting these in the classroom, but research shows that teaching learners about connected speech can really make a difference in terms of how well they understand native speakers. See for example, Authentic Communication: whyzit important ta teach reduced forms (Brown 2006) . Equally, some ability to use these features in their own speech will also be likely to make students more confident and fluent speakers.

Features of connected speech

As a brief overview, there is a strong tendency in English to simplify and link words together in the stream of speech, in order to help the language flow rhythmically. Some of the most common features:

Assimilation

This is when the sound at the end of one word changes to make it easier to say the next word. For example:

‘ten boys’ sounds like ‘ tem boys’ (the /n/ sound changes to the bilabial /m/ to make it easier to transition to the also bilabial /b/)

Incidentally bilabial just means two lips together, which is a good example of the kind of jargon that puts people off!

Catenation

This is when the last consonant of the first word is joined to the first vowel of the next word. This is very very common in English, and can be very confusing for students. For example:

‘an apple’ sounds like ‘a napple’ (Teacher, what is a napple?)

Elision

Elision means that you lose a sound in the middle of a consonant cluster, sometimes from the middle of a word. E.g. ‘sandwich’ becomes ‘sanwich’.

Or from the end of a word. For example:

‘fish and chips’ ‘fishnchips’

Intrusion

This is when an extra sound ‘intrudes’. There are three sounds that often do this /r/ /j/ and /w/

E.g. ‘go on’ sounds like ‘gowon’

I agree sounds like ‘aiyagree’

Law and order sounds like ‘lawrunorder’

[I probably should have used a phonemic keyboard!]

If you want to discover more about features of connected speech- and I think it’s fascinating stuff, there’s a list of useful books at the end of the post, but now let’s look at some activities to help raise awareness and encourage more natural sounding speech.

Connected speech activities

I remember reading somewhere that there are three ways to deal with pronunciation in the classroom: integrating it into other activities, dealing with it discretely, and completely ignoring it. 😉 Let’s assume we aren’t going to do the latter, and look at the other two approaches.

Integrated activities

I strongly believe that students should be made aware of the basics of connected speech right from the start. I don’t mean that you should be teaching your beginners exactly what catenation is, but you can certainly show them how words link together and what happens to sounds in the stream of speech. You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t even need to know very much about the technical aspects; you just need to listen to yourself very carefully and notice what is happening in your mouth as you speak.

Drilling and using the board

At lower levels, we tend to teach quite a lot of functional chunks, such as ‘What’s your name?’ Phonetically that could be transcribed as /wɔ:tsjəneɪm/. However, this is likely to confuse (terrify) the students. Instead, using the board, you can just show the students how the words link by using arrows, and write the schwa /ə/over the top of ‘your’ . Alternatively, you can use your fingers to show how the three words (separate fingers) meld into one long sound (push fingers together). And model and drill the phrase as it is said naturally.

If students struggle with longer phrases, try the technique of back-chaining, starting from the last sound and working up to the whole sound bit by bit. For example with ‘Where do you come from?’ you drill ‘frum’ ‘kumfrum’ ‘dz-kumfrum’ ‘where-dz-kumfrum’ I have no idea why this works- but it does.

Using recording scripts

Where new language has been recorded (or by recording it yourself), ask students to first look at the chunk of language written down and try saying it a few times. Then play the recording several times and ask them to write down what they hear, however they want to spell it. Use the two written forms to elicit the differences (such as the use of the schwa) and then drill the more natural pronunciation. You could of course just say the phrase for them, but it can be hard to keep repeating something exactly the same way.

Make it part of presenting new language

Whenever you are dealing with new language, you need to be thinking about the meaning, the form AND the pronunciation. So if you’re teaching ‘Have you ever + past participle’, make sure you’re teaching it as something like /əvju:w’evə/ not ‘Have… you… ever…’ You don’t need to explain that the first /h/ is elided or that there’s an intrusive /w/- just provide a good model.

Incidentally, I say ‘something like’ because individual ways of connecting and simplifying speech do vary a bit.

Be aware of the difficulties connected speech may cause with listening

If students struggle to understand something in a recording, or that you say, be aware that they may actually know all the words, just not recognise them in the stream of speech. A great example of this is the student who asked me what ‘festival’ meant. I went into an explanation, giving examples of different festivals…but teacher, he said, why do you always say it at the beginning of the lesson? (I was saying First of all…).

If students don’t understand a phrase, see if they do understand it written down and then take the opportunity to highlight the differences between the written and spoken forms.

Discrete activities

As well as teaching connected speech as you go along, it is also worth doing some discrete activities for the purpose of awareness-raising.

  • A good activity to start learners thinking about connected speech and weak forms is to dictate just part of some phrases. For example: ‘uvbin’. After students have written these down as best they can (this should be a light-hearted activity), you dictate the full phrase, in this case ‘I’ve been to Paris.’.
  • After doing a listening activity, try doing a dictation where you handout the recording script, with chunks of 2-3 words missing. These should include some aspects of connected speech. Students have to complete the gaps, which will help to develop their decoding skills.
  • Mark Hancock has some great activities in Pronunciation Games and on the HancockMacDonald website. I particularly like The Word Blender, a game for A2/B1 students which starts to help students identify some of the features of connected speech.

This is necessarily a very brief and somewhat simplistic overview. For more information and ideas, you could try:

Reading

Sound Foundations- Adrian Underhill- Macmillan

Pronunciation- Dalton and Seidlhofer- OUP

Pronunciation Games- Mark Hancock-CUP

Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ DELTA Phonology_Assignment_and_Lesson_Plan

Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ powerpoint on features of connected speech

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

celta compendium cover

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Filed under Pronunciation, Speaking

How to activate the ‘Useful Language’ box in your coursebook.

From New Total English Intermediate- Pearson 2011

A common feature in many coursebooks is the ‘Useful Language’ box. This is usually a collection of phrases which the authors consider may be useful for an upcoming speaking activity. A ‘useful language’ box is potentially a great idea because the tendency in speaking activities can be for students to simply stay safe and just use what they already know. Providing this language gives us the opportunity to scaffold their learning and encourage the learners to stretch themselves a bit.

However, in practice, there are two recurring problems.

  1. What do you actually do with the Useful Language box? Just getting students to read through it certainly isn’t enough to get them using the language.
  2. There seems for many students to be a reluctance or inability to use the language straightaway (see this recent conversation on Pearson ELT Community). And if they don’t use it straightaway, what are the chances of them locating and using it at a later date?

I think most people would agree that for students to use new language:

– They need to process the language in some way, work with it, not just be shown it.

– They need to know exactly how to use it in and in what context.

– They need to need to use it.

A good place to start with ‘useful language’ is by having it come out of a recording, rather than just being on the page. With the example above, from New Total English Intermediate, students have been listening to a short presentation, with follow up questions, and, after carrying out other comprehension based tasks, they listen again and tick the phrases they hear being used. They then prepare and give their own mini-presentations.

This approach works in terms of providing context, and it also means that there is a model for pronunciation, which is often very important with functional language (more later). However, there is still, I feel, something missing between identifying the phrases and being expected to use them.

Contextualisation

If the ‘useful language’ came from a recording, students will already have some idea of how they can be used in context. If not, you will, I think, need to provide some. Live listening can be good way of doing this (see my previous post for details). Essentially, you provide the model, ideally recording yourself so that it can be replayed. With the example of useful language given here, you might ask a confident student to give a short presentation on a very familiar and unthreatening topic and warn them that you will ask lots of questions! You can then play the recording back and start to work with the language, as discussed below.

Other ideas for processing the language

Categorisation

Exactly how you do this obviously depends on the language, but, for example, with the language box above, you could ask students to divide the first section into phrases to use when you don’t understand, and phrases to use when you want more information. If the categories aren’t clear-cut, so much the better as this will force students to discuss why they have chosen to put a phrase in that category- and thus create more processing.

Phrase completion

Useful language boxes often have phrases with elllipses (…….), so that students can complete them however they choose. Fine, if they have the faintest idea how to complete them! So, one task could be to give them a context, and ask them to write a completion for each phrase. For example, with this useful language box, you could give a short talk yourself, or use the recording, or use a short video and ask students to prepare questions using the stems. This will also help you to see whether they are able to use them grammatically. As an example, I think many students might struggle with completing ‘What I’d like to know is…’ because of the emphatic structure used.

Dictation

Rather than showing them the useful language box, try closing the book and dictating the phrases. You could add some challenge by mixing up the phrases and asking them to decide where in the box they belong (in this example, in ‘Asking for clarification or more information, or in dealing with difficult questions)

You should make sure that you dictate the phrases in a natural way, as complete phrases, with appropriate intonation, and normal features of connected speech. This will then have the added bonuses of providing a further model of how to say the phrase, and raising awareness of connected speech. For example, some students may well write down ‘What I like to know is..’, rather than ‘What I’d like to know is..’, giving the opportunity to focus on the ’ ‘d’ they didn’t hear.

Writing dialogues

You may have noticed that the activities so far are more focused on writing than speaking, which may seem odd when these phrases are provided for a speaking activity. However, writing can be a good way of bridging the gap between new language and speaking. In ‘How to teach Speaking’, Scott Thornbury points out, ‘Inevitably, because of the constraints placed on mental processing by the demands of real-time speaking, learners tend to rely on a very narrow repertoire of memorized expressions in face-to-face interaction…it may sometimes help to reduce the processing demands on them..one way of slowing down processing is to turn the speaking task into a writing one.’

The following two ideas both come from this book:

–          Paper conversations. Learners have a conversation, but, instead of speaking, they write the conversation on paper. The teacher can then easily monitor and make suggestions for improvement.

–          Rewriting. Students can be given a simple dialogue and asked to rewrite or modify it to use the new language.

Work on pronunciation

As mentioned above, pronunciation is particularly important in using functional-type phrases. They need to be delivered fluently, as a chunk, or they are likely to sound a bit odd and artificial. Intonation is also often extremely important. Think about the phrase, ‘Are you saying…?’  This needs to be delivered with the right intonation, or it could sound pretty aggressive!

So students need a good model- either a recording, or the teacher- and they need to practise drilling the phrases, getting their tongues round the connected speech and using the right intonation.

A fun way of working on intonation is to ‘say’ the phrases using just ‘Mmmm, mmmm’. Students have to guess which phrase you are saying. As they become more confident, they can do this themselves in pairs.

Using the ‘useful language’ in a speaking activity

After time spent processing and preparing, students should be much more likely to use the language in a follow-up speaking activity anyway. However, there are a few ways to encourage this further.

– As described by Antonia Clare in the Pearson ELT discussion I mentioned earlier, you can write phrases on cards and hand out a few to each student. They need to try to put ‘their’ phrases into the conversation as naturally as possible. If the other students feel it wasn’t natural, they could have to take the card back.

– A certain amount of pressure, such as recording the conversation or giving a presentation to the class can encourage students to focus more on using the new language.

– Similarly having an observer in the group, whose job it is to notice when people use the ‘useful language’ can help to focus the mind.

– Depending on the language and the teaching context, students can be asked to go away and ‘notice’ any of the phrases being used in conversation over the next week (on TV, eavesdropping at the bus-stop etc).

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Speaking, Vocabulary

Developing complexity through a focus on form

In a recent IELTS exam, I had to assess someone who lived locally, with a British passport. I’m not sure if she could have been called a native speaker, but I’m pretty sure that most people meeting her would have made that assumption. She had a local accent, and her language was pretty fluent. It was also mostly accurate. However, what was missing was complexity.

There was a lot of repetition, using the same simple phrases again and again. She tended to use mostly present tenses and simple linkers, such as and, but and because. Overall there was a tendency to avoid more complex sentence structures. She produced language confidently and with ease, didn’t make many mistakes, but still couldn’t be said, I thought, to be producing a ‘full range of structures’ or to be using vocabulary ‘with full flexibility and precision ’.

If we focus solely on achieving communication, some students will stay stuck at a certain level of complexity. Therefore we also need to provide opportunities for students to focus on form.

In his article, Accuracy, fluency and complexity (2000), Scott Thornbury looks at the traditional PPP (presentation-practice-production) model and makes the point that complexity was supposed to be targeted in the first presentation stage. Students have their attention drawn to a particular language point, and then get the opportunity to use it.

Thornbury says that there is ‘a growing belief that restructuring is more likely to occur during practice activities.’ Instinctively, this feels right to me. I think those ‘aha’ moments definitely tend to occur more when students are actually doing something with the language. However, I also like the way that Jack C Richards puts it in Moving Beyond the Plateau:

‘For learners’ linguistic systems to take on new and more complex linguistic items, the restructuring, or reorganization, of mental representations is required, as well as opportunities to practice these new forms (the output hypothesis). Ways of increasing the opportunities for restructuring to take place can occur at three different stages during an activity: prior to the activity, during the activity, or after completing an activity.’

 So, what can we do at each of these stages to help learners restructure and complexify language?

 Prior to the activity

While I think that students have to be interacting with language in some way in order to restructure, I don’t think that they necessarily always have to be using it themselves. What about:

Concept checking

Sometimes seen as a weird and unnecessary hoop that trainers make you jump through on the CELTA, to be abandoned as soon as possible afterwards, concept checking can actually often be a source of those ‘aha’ moments.

A concept question tries to pin down the main concept behind a piece of language and check it. So, for example, ‘used to’. The dictionary definition (Macmillan Advanced) is ‘Used for saying what was true or what happened regularly in the past, especially when you want to emphasize that this is not true or does not happen now.’ So, the concept questions  for ‘I used to enjoy gardening’ could be..

–          Did you enjoy gardening once or regularly?- regularly

–          Do you still enjoy gardening now? – No

[Traditionally they are used in the first part of a PPP lesson, but you can, of course, use concept questions at any stage of the lesson, not just the beginning]

Giving a model

Before students carry out a speaking task, it can be helpful for them to listen to more competent speakers (whether you or a recording) carrying out the same or a similar task. You can then draw attention to some useful language they can add to their store. You could ask them to listen and pick out specific items, or they could choose for themselves. There are plenty of ways of getting students to ‘notice’ language (see this post on noticing in reading )

Planning time

Research shows that planning time will tend to increase the complexity of language used. It may give students time to dredge up language that they do know, but that isn’t yet in their easy to reach store of language. Or they may learn from each other in the planning process, or you can feed in language they could use.

During an activity

Some years ago I was teaching a class in Brazil, using Headway Upper Intermediate. There was an article about holiday disasters, which included a story about an overbooked flight. According to the story, passengers had had to run around the plane and the first ones to get round got the seats. I decided to set up a role-play around an overbooked flight. The idea was for students to come up with a good story as to why they had to get a seat, and persuade the cabin crew. Instead, the students set up a bank of chairs and started running!

The point being, if achieving the task becomes too important, language will fly out of the window (especially with teenagers).

We need to find a balance between base-line communicating (with whatever means possible) and being too focused on form, so that we are not genuinely communicating at all.

Performance

Introducing an element of performance can help with this. If students know that they will have to make a short presentation on their discussion, for example, this can help to focus them more on the actual language they are using. Similarly, recording the discussion for later review, can also help to keep some focus on form, without taking away the genuine need to communicate.

Repetition

We also know that repeating a task usually results in a higher level of complexity, as students become more confident with the material. Obviously we need to find ways of providing an opportunity to repeat the task in a way which makes some communicative sense- e.g. having a different audience the second time.

After an activity

This can be the very best time to focus on form, as it means that the task can’t have been compromised by too much emphasis on the language used.

Using a model

Instead of listening to a model before carrying out a task, students could listen to a model after they have done the task and notice any language that was similar to what they used, or that they could have used but didn’t. This can be particularly motivating as an interim stage before students are asked to repeat the task.

Self-noticing and reformulation

If the speech has been recorded, students can be asked to transcribe a short section of their speech (1-2 minutes). They can make any changes they wish before handing it in to the teacher. This in itself will be a valuable awareness-raising activity.

Step two, however, is for the teacher to then reformulate what each student has written, as appropriate. The student can then compare their version with the teachers’ version, providing another noticing opportunity.

If you have a large class, you could do this with 1 or 2 anonymous examples (different people each time), and look at them with the whole class.

Consciousness-raising tasks

If students are all tending to make the same kind of errors (such as problems with articles), you could note down a range of examples and give them to the students to both correct and agree on the rules.

Traditional practice activities

In the PPP model, these come before ‘production’, but there is no reason why these can’t come at the end of the lesson, after the speaking, as a way of helping to consolidate language which may or may not have been used during the speaking task.

Feedback

You can, of course, note down errors and examples of good language (to develop complexity, not just accuracy) while the task is taking place and carry out a feedback slot at the end of the class where you put these on the board and elicit corrections.

Alternatively, you could develop some peer feedback tools. Someone in the group can take the role of listening and making notes, or you could record the discussions (quite easy in these days of mobile phones). Students can then look for examples of particular language forms or particular speech acts (such as ways of encouraging others to continue). Because this is potentially quite exposing for group members, it is generally better to focus on finding good examples, rather than finding mistakes.

I strongly believe that if all we do is provide learners with opportunities to communicate, we are doing them a disservice. Our job has to be to help them to communicate more effectively, which, I would argue, involves a focus on form, at whatever stage(s) of the lesson that might be.


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Filed under IELTS, Speaking, Teaching methodology

How identifying the different roles we play can help groups work better together

Who are you?

This may seem an obvious question, but now try getting a pencil and writing down ten different responses to that question before you read on….

…If you look at your list, you might have listed your gender or ethnicity, and there may be some adjectives such as kind or artistic. You’re likely to see a set of roles that you play: teacher, manager, parent, son or daughter.

We all play different roles in different groups, and the classroom is no exception.

You are likely to take on different roles within your role of being a teacher: facilitator, critic, guide… But what about the roles your students take within the group?

Group theory (see, for example, Communicating in small groups: Beebe and Masterson) divides roles into three different types:

Task roles: roles that help a group carry out a task

Some examples

Initiator- contributor: proposes new or different ideas or approaches

Information seeker: asks for facts or clarification

Opinion seeker: Asks for values and opinions

Elaborator: provides examples

Orienter: attempts to summarise and keeps the group focused on the task

Maintenance roles: roles that help the group work smoothly together

Some examples

Encourager: Offers praise and acceptance

Harmoniser: mediates disagreements

Compromiser: attempts to resolve conflicts

Individual roles: these tend to be counter-productive to the group as a whole

Some examples

Aggressor: puts other people down

Blocker: negative, stubborn and difficult

Dominator: tries to take over the group

It is tempting to use these roles to start labelling your favourite (or least favourite students), but in fact, roles change all the time, and people can play many different roles. The point of exploring different roles is not to stereotype people or make them feel they should be carrying out a particular role, but to help the members of a group or class be aware of how they are all working together, and how that interaction could be improved.

Activities to raise awareness of group roles

The first two ideas are both ways for students to track interaction within a small group. This can be very useful for getting an overview of how the group is working.

  1. Put the students into groups of five or six. One person observes while the others carry out a speaking task. The observer draws circles on a piece of paper to represent each member of the group. They then listen and draw arrows each time someone speaks.  If one person speaks directly to another, draw an arrow between them. If someone speaks to the group as a whole draw an arrow away from the group. If someone is speaking for more than a few sentences at a time more than one arrow can be drawn.

At the end of the task, the observer should feedback to the group on what they observed, and the whole group can discuss the findings:

–          What do you notice about the lines of communication?

–          Were the lines of communication an effective way of carrying out the task? Why/why not?

–          Was everyone happy with the way they participated?

–          What things could the group change in the future?

This task is taken from Conversation: Nolasco and Arthur.

2 A similar, but perhaps more entertaining idea, comes from Classroom Dynamics: Jill Hadfield. Rather than having an observer, the group has a ball of wool or string. The person starting the speaking task holds the end, and then passes the ball to the next person to speak. This continues until the task has finished (I’d suggest quite a short task!). The pattern of interaction will be very clear at the end, demonstrated by the web of wool or string. Or possibly the students will actually start to change the pattern of interaction as they see that they are either taking over a bit too much, or not contributing very much.

After this kind of activity, you could go a step further and actually start to look at the different kind of roles students are taking. This needs to be done carefully though, to avoid singling people out for criticism.

Jill Hadfield suggests two activities which could both be handled sensitively:

1 Using a self-evaluation questionnaire. There is a photocopiable one in Classroom Dynamics, which includes questions such as:

–          Did you contribute any ideas?

–          Did you encourage anyone else to contribute any ideas?

–          Is there any way you could help the discussion to go better….by making a suggestion etc.

She suggests carrying out a speaking task, then asking students to complete the questionnaire individually and privately, then carrying out a second speaking task and finally discussing if and how the second speaking task was an improvement on the first one. (From personal experience I can tell you that this process can be completely transformational.)

2 Observing group roles. In this activity, students carry out a speaking task and are observed. The observer ticks how many times various things (such as contributing an idea, interrupting, evaluating someone else’s idea, not talking in English) happen- but does not note down who did these things.  The group then looks at the results and decides which things are happening too often, and which not often enough. There isn’t necessarily a value judgement to these things. Contributing ideas is something we want to see happen, but if that’s ALL that’s happening, the group will not be working very smoothly! They then choose three things they should do more often and three things they should do less often.

Incidentally, although the observer in these tasks is not taking part, this can be a useful role for certain students. Students who tend to be very dominant can benefit from having to sit back and listen, and students who struggle to get a word in can benefit from having a clear role and being asked to feedback on what they observed.

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Filed under Differentiation, Speaking, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

Using a teacherless task to develop student interaction

The first teacherless task I ever came across was in the first edition of Headway Upper Intermediate. Students were given the scenario of a murder mystery and each given a card with a different piece of information. They had to work together to solve the mystery, without any teacher intervention, obviously using only English.

The activity always went brilliantly and produced a lot of language. It was, of course, a task-based lesson, devised before TBL became a mainstream idea. Later, thanks to Simon Marshall, a long time colleague and friend of Mario Rinvolucri, I discovered that the teacherless task was something Mario was writing about in the late seventies. So, once again, there’s no such thing as a new idea.

What defines a teacherless task, however, is that it is always a problem-solving exercise where the students have to work together in order to solve it.

In Teacherless Tasks (sadly out of print), Rinvolucri specifies three different types of these tasks:

–          The students are given a logic puzzle in which the sentences describing the situation are divided up between them. They need to memorise their piece of information, then put the information together in order to solve the puzzle.

–          The students are each given a sentence from more than one short anecdote. They need to memorise their sentence then find the others who have the same anecdote as them before finally putting the sentences in order. They then need to prepare to tell the story fluently before being put into new pairs or small groups to share their stories.

–          The class is split in two. One half has the scenario of a typical lateral thinking logic puzzle. For example, Romeo and Juliet are found dead on the floor, amidst a small puddle of water and some broken glass. What happened?  The other half of the class has a clue each. For example, Romeo and Juliet are quite small. The questioners ask those with clues any questions they like and anyone whose clue helps can answer the question. (Incidentally, if you don’t know this puzzle, the answer is that Romeo and Juliet are goldfish and the cat knocked over their bowl)

I included a teacherless task like this in Premium B1, together with an exercise on ‘managing’ a conversation. See below if you want to try it out. There are j-pegs from the Students’ Book and Teachers’ Book.

The teacherless task can really help to develop interaction between the students in the following ways:

–          Each person only has a small part of the information, so everyone has to work together to solve the problem.

–          Every piece of information is essential, so everyone has to join in.

–          Fitting the information together is a complex process, so the students have to listen to each other much more carefully than they might usually do.

–          If students cannot understand each other they are forced to ask for clarification rather than relying on the teacher to ‘interpret’.

–          It is highly motivating, providing a genuine reason to communicate.

–          You often find that students who have previously been quiet come to the fore, as this task requires different skills, such as logical thinking.

–          Solving the puzzle brings a sense of achievement and encourages greater group cohesion- it’s a kind of team building exercise!

The focus is primarily on communication. However, you can start by looking at the kind of interactional language they might need, as in the example from Premium above. You can also note down any errors and carry out some feedback at the end- making sure that you do focus on their achievements as well.

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Filed under Speaking, Teaching methodology

Markers, fillers and hedging: not landscape gardening but authentic communication

What differences do you notice between the following two extracts?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the way we live now- we have to change somehow, um, you know. We’re gonna end up with- with no water, with no heating, with- with nothing if we don’t change the way that we all live, so I think the point that he’s making about um homes being smaller um so that we can afford to heat them and to have water for them and, you know, different furniture and things like that is a really great idea.

I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we have to change the way we live now. If we don’t change, we’re going to end up with no water, no heating, with nothing, in fact. So, I think the point he’s making about homes being smaller, so that we can afford to heat them, and have water for them, is a great idea.

The first example comes from a semi authentic recording we made for New Total English Intermediate. The second is a ‘cleaned-up’ version. It’s been cleaned up by trying to simplify the syntax a bit, removing repetition and hesitation and taking out some of the markers and fillers.

The second version is perhaps more representative of a typical scripted dialogue (though things are changing, as we’ll discuss later); the first version is certainly more representative of how people actually speak.

In his article, ‘Lessons from the analysis of chunks‘, Michael McCarthy makes the point that two word chunks such as ‘you know’ ‘I mean’ and ‘kind of’ are actually much more frequent than many very common words such as ‘their’ ‘where’  or ‘friend’.

These high frequency chunks have a central part to play in communication. Some are often referred to as ‘fillers’. They can certainly act as ways of holding the floor while we think what to say next, but many high frequency chunks also have other clear pragmatic uses:

Referring to or checking shared knowledge: you know, you know what I mean.

Clarifying: I mean, like

Hedging (being indirect so as to save the other person face): I think, kind of, I don’t know if, a little bit, quite, actually, sort of

Vagueness: and things like that (see above example), a couple of, something

Everyday speech is full of these kinds of features, so aren’t we doing our students a disservice by presenting them with too sanitized a version of spoken English?

Alex Gilmore, in the article ‘A comparison of textbook and authentic  interactions.’ finds that dialogues in the newer coursebooks (in 2004, when the article was published), ‘are beginning to incorporate more natural discourse features.’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this trend has continued, and, furthermore, there is a recent move towards using more authentic or semi authentic material (such as in New Total English or Speakout).

It is certainly possible to have too much authenticity, and some transcripts of real conversations are pretty much unintelligible, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that including these features in recordings helps learners in processing real life interactions.

Getting students to ‘notice’ markers, fillers and hedging.

Obviously when students are listening to a recording, they are generally focused on picking out the key elements of meaning. However, we can focus on these high frequency chunks as a follow up task.

–          Just as I did at the beginning of the post, you can rewrite part of an authentic transcript in a ‘cleaned up’ way and ask students to find the differences.

–          Alternatively, give out the ‘cleaned up’ transcript and ask students to listen and write down any extra words or phrases they hear.

–          Or, if you can make your own recordings, you could record a semi authentic dialogue, and then a scripted version of the same conversation and ask students what differences they notice.

–          Give out cards with the high frequency chunks on, and ask students to hold them up whenever they hear ‘their’ chunk. (In some discourse the student with ‘you know’ may get quite tired arms..)

Encouraging students to use markers, fillers and hedging.

The first thing to say is that it is probably more important for students to be aware of these chunks than it is for them to be able to use them all.

However, many of these high frequency chunks can be very useful in gaining a little time to think when speaking, while still sounding fluent. Equally, not using hedging or vagueness can make discourse seem very brusque and even a bit aggressive or rude.

Here are some examples of very frequent chunks which I think learners could benefit from being able to use productively:

Well,..

Anyway,..

a bit

you know what I mean

and things like that/and stuff like that

a lot of people

there’s a lot of

I don’t know what/how/if

First, learners need to hear these phrases in context.

Secondly, they will need help with how to pronounce them, as chunks of language, with all the features of connected speech.

And then they will need to see how they could incorporate them into their own language use.

–          A good way of doing this is to get learners to record a short dialogue or monologue, write out a transcript, and then see which of the chunks they either included, or could have included.

–          Or ask learners to repeat a speaking task (with a new partner perhaps), and this time try to incorporate a few more high frequency chunks.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Speaking, Vocabulary

Drilling-based activities: preparation light, student generated ways to build fluency. What’s not to like?

Drilling

Drilling has certainly fallen out of favour in recent years. Strongly associated with the behaviourist approach it is often seen as non-communicative, boring, patronising…. A recent ELTChat on the subject brought up all the negatives, but also provided a long list of positive reasons for drilling. For example:

  • Building confidence
  • Helping learners get their tongues round new words
  • Picking up pace and getting students’ attention
  • Developing ability to produce (and understand) connected speech

And perhaps the key reason, for me at any rate: drilling or repetition is an important step towards fluency. Especially at lower levels, it is quite natural to rehearse (at least mentally) before tackling a speaking situation.  Repeating something helps us to ‘notice’ what we are repeating and assimilate it into our store of language. The ELTChat I referred to concentrated mostly on drilling words or single chunks. There are plenty of benefits to this, but in this post I want to concentrate on some techniques which are probably even more out of favour: drilling and repeating dialogues and narratives.

Dialogue builds

I did my CELTA so long ago that it wasn’t even called that then (!). It was also at IH in Cairo, which I rather suspect was a little behind the times in terms of materials. The result was that my initial training centred around the coursebook series Streamlines and Strategies. Lots of drilling and repetition.

One of the first techniques I learnt was a dialogue build. For the uninitiated, it goes like this: Set up the situation, using a photo (or in pre-IWB days two stick figures on the board). Elicit where the characters are, who they are, what’s happening and so on. This is often a service encounter (e.g. in a café), but can be anything you like.

Then you elicit the dialogue from the students, line by line. As you accept each line, you help learners correct it if necessary and then model the final version, with appropriate connected speech and intonation, getting the students to repeat it. You DON’T write the dialogue on the board, but do indicate where each line starts and who is speaking. You might also add question marks or little visual clues. As you go through the dialogue you keep returning to the start, getting students to keep repeating the dialogue, and thus memorising it. You can do this whole class, or divide the class into the number of characters or ask individuals to do each line. It’s good to have a bit of variety here.

Once the class knows the dialogue by heart, they can practise a little more in pairs, changing roles. You can also have a bit of fun with it by getting one of the characters to change their answers, so that the first person has to react spontaneously. (Good idea to model what to do first with lower level learners) Finally, you can elicit the dialogue once more, writing it onto the board so that the students have a clear written version. Alternatively, you could get students to come up and write it on the board, giving scope for some work on correcting spellings, missing articles and so on.

A dialogue build is a great technique to have up your sleeve for a last minute cover lesson. It’s obviously most appropriate for lower level learners, but could be done with more advanced students if the chunks of language elicited were more demanding. At the end of it, the students have memorised a whole set of (hopefully useful) chunks of language and can produce them fluently at will. Fluent speakers are essentially those who have enough chunks of language that they can stick together to keep going, so teaching chunks in this way is a real help.

It’s also an excellent activity to do with learners with low levels of literacy. I can’t understand why it isn’t an ESOL staple. You don’t need any equipment except a board and pens (great for those community halls), it doesn’t rely at all on reading and writing, it can be adapted for specific situations that learners might have to deal with (ringing for a doctor’s appointment, for example) and once it’s elicited onto the board it provides a copying activity where the meaning is already very clear (and was indeed student generated).

Alternative versions

Instead of eliciting the whole dialogue, you could give them one half or the dialogue (i.e. all that one person says) and elicit the missing responses. Then proceed as above. A good alternative for learners who can read quite well, is to start by writing the elicited dialogue onto the board. Drill as a class, making sure you are giving a good model of natural pronunciation, then ask learners to practise it in pairs. As they are practising, gradually wipe off words and lines from the dialogue. As it disappears, they have to remember more and more. Finally you can re-elicit it onto the board or get them to write it down on the board, or in pairs on paper. This could work equally well with a narrative.

Another old, but great, idea comes from Mario Rinvolucri’s book, Dictation. In this activity, you do the repeating (at least to start with) and the students listen and mime the actions. It works really well with younger learners, but if you have a lively class, adults could enjoy it too. Here’s the text (slightly adapted)

You’re standing in front of the Coke machine. Put your hand in your back pocket. Take out three 50p coins. Put them in one by one. You hear the machine click. Choose your drink and press the button. You hear a terrible groan from the machine. Clunk! A can drops down. Pick it up. Open the can. It squirts Coke in your face. Take a tissue out of your pocket. Rub your eye. Lick your lips. Take a sip. Burp!

First read the text right through, just to orientate students. Then read again and elicit a movement for each line. Get all the students doing it. Then read a third time with all the students doing all the movements.  You can make this stage fast as possible if you want a bit of fun. Then give the students a version of the text with most of it missing. They have to work together to recreate the text.

This is a form of dictogloss, but the difference is that doing the actions should help them to remember what’s missing. If they get stuck, get them to do the actions and try and remember that way. This is the stage at which they should be drilling the language themselves, as they try to recall it. You can obviously differentiate this activity by giving less of the text to more able students and vice versa. Finally you get the whole class to carry out the actions while saying the text (from memory).

All of these ideas are extremely preparation-light and student generated. They provide a way to help learners appropriate new chunks of language to their store, and the challenge of memorisation also provides interest and stimulation. Maybe it’s time for a revival?

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Filed under Differentiation, Pronunciation, Speaking, Teaching methodology