Teaching Speaking & Conversation

Summary: In what ways can conversation be regarded as a skill? How might this influence our approach to teaching it?

In what ways can conversation be regarded as a skill? How might this influence our approach to teaching it?

Both motor-perceptive skills and interaction adeptness are usually required in conversation. Many times this pairing calls upon effective understanding of the two in order to implement oral exercises in an effective manner. Motor skills involve perceiving, recalling, and articulating in the correct order sounds and structures of the language. Interaction skills involve making decisions about communication, such as what to say and how to say it. Keeping in mind the difference, the class level should play a large part in determining which of the two skills are predominately used during the course.

Generally the situation or setting makes a difference in the way the speaker uses the language, for example, time limitations. Does the speaker have time to "process" his or her thoughts before speaking out loud? Other conditions can also affect the use of language. Does it make a difference whether the speaker is interacting with one person or with a group? Differing situations do have distinct aspects and thus can influence the way in which the speaker uses language.

But how do speakers facilitate oral production? Speakers can ease the oral production of speech in the following manner:
a) Simplifying structure: Simplifications can be found mainly in the tendency to tack new sentences on to previous ones by the use of coordinating conjunctions: like, and, or but.
b) The ellipsis technique: By using the ellipsis technique when conversing the speaker is able to omit parts of speech in order to speak economically. In order to understand the listener must have a good idea of the background knowledge assumed by the speaker.
c) Formulaic expressions: Formulaic expressions are found in speech patterns consisting of conventional colloquial or idiomatic expressions. Idiomatic expressions consist of all kinds of set phrases and although such sayings usually flow together in a set conversation pattern, they may lose their meaning when taken outside such context.
d) Fillers and hesitation devices: Fillers as well as hesitation devices such as, "you see", "kind of", "you know" can used in order to give the speakers more time to formulate and organize their ideas while speaking. In addition to using simple methods of speech, the speaker can avoid complex noun groups and as a result oral language tends to become less dense than the written language.

The following are examples of speech routinely used in conversation which an instructor should be aware of while teaching in the classroom:
(a) Interaction routines typically occur in any given situation and are likely to occur in a specific sequence. For example: casual encounter and conversations at parties all tend to be organized in characteristic ways.
(b) Descriptions of places and people: demonstration of facts, or comparisons all refer to "information routines." Such routines do not just concern speech, they also occur in written language.
(c) Negotiation of meaning refers to the skill of communicating ideas clearly and includes the way participants signal their understanding during an exchange. This aspect of spoken interaction contrasts most sharply with the written word.
(d) Feedback is the method of examining comprehension as the interaction unfolds. From the speaker's position, this may include some of the following: asking the other person's opinion, defining one's meaning or intent with a summarization. From the listener's point of view there is a comparable group of reactions which complement the speaker's opinion, such as: indicating understanding by gestures or facial expression as well as indicating uncertainty by interrupting the speaker where necessary to express one's reservation with the exchange in dialogue.
(e) Turn-taking is the knowledge which comes with negotiating the control of a conversation. A speaker has to be efficient at getting a turn and to be proficient at letting another speaker have a turn. Practical turn-taking requires five abilities:
1. Knowing how to signal that one wants to speak.
2. Recognizing the right moment to get a turn.
3. How to use this structure in order to get one's turn properly and not lose it. 4. The ability to recognize other people's signals or desire to speak.
5. The ability to acknowledge other people's signals and let them take a turn.
(f) Communication strategies are approaches designed to deal with conversation difficulties.

Two such approaches to conversational difficulties are the achievement and the reduction strategies. Both are aimed to compensate for the problem of expression. If the learner uses an achievement strategy, he or she will attempt to compensate for language disparity by improvising a substitute through guess-work or intuition. In using achievement strategies, speakers do not lose or alter any of their message. On the other hand, when using the reduction approach, the learners may reduce their message in order to bring it within the scope of their knowledge or else to abandon their central idea and attempt something more manageable.

In addition to being aware of the differing kinds of speech it might also be advantageous to develop a list of some of the important speaking skills you think need to be taught to both elementary and intermediate learners: For elementary students we might consider the following speaking skills of importance:
a) The ability to reproduce sounds.
b) The knowledge and use of a practical vocabulary.
c) The use of idioms (for example: Hi, instead of Hello).
d) The ability to respond in sentences.
e) The ability to condense verbs (for example: replacing did not with didn't).
f) A vocabulary which enables the student to play games.
g) Knowing and using familiar "native speaker" greetings.
h) The ability to carry on a limited conversation.
When teaching an intermediate level the following speaking skills might be seen as significant:
a) The ability to agree or disagree.
b) The ability to identify people and places.
c) The capability to express preferences.
d) The skill to expresses opinions.
e) The ability to ask for and give suggestions.
f) The ability to report on what people are asking and saying.
g) The ability to summarize a conversation.

Also of importance are interaction activities which can be used in a speaking class. For example, the processing of information by engaging in problem solving tasks. Such an activity may include placing items in a hierarchy of importance, deciding itineraries, deciding a price range to spend on gifts, developing a story from random picture cues. Problems may arise from the restricted cooperation because of the students' limited vocabulary. However, as students move towards a monologue (or one person speaking, as learners they may begin by not speaking smoothly. The teacher must focus on having students use language in order to complete a task rather than practicing language for its own sake.

Another example of an interaction activity may be the development and usage of role playing. Learners first take part in a preliminary activity which introduces the topic and the situation as well as some background information. Such activities may include brainstorming or ranking exercises. An example might be a role play where the students prepare to rent an apartment. Students first interview one another about the available accommodations and their desired living arrangements.

Yet, problems can arise when using interaction activities in the classroom, such as a student's inexperience in focusing on a particular topic or a limited vocabulary for developing the necessary explanation. Different cultural backgrounds at times may also interfere with the uniform picture of the situation. For example, apartment searching in Japan varies considerably from that same activity in the U.S. Teachers must carefully monitor its effectiveness when promoting conversational fluency.

What is the role of accuracy in a speaking class? How can accuracy be included as a component of a speaking class? Accuracy in a speaking class includes the control of grammar and pronunciation as a part of learning language fluency. For speech to be free of errors the speaker must process and produce comprehensible information. This requires the speaker to generate speech that is acceptable in both content and form. The role of accuracy in a speaking class is created by the teacher's providing opportunities for learners to engage in natural interaction in conversation through the use of communicative tasks and activities. Teachers should generally sit back and let learners engage in the natural interaction process whenever possible.

An instructor’s ability to recognize cues in speech patterns and conversation goes a long way in developing one’s classroom skills. Conversation is regarded as a skill requiring the speaker to generate speech that is acceptable in both content and form. Speakers learn to facilitate ease in the oral production of speech in many ways and the instructor must plan communication strategies to deal with conversation difficulties.

Copyright © 2006

Permission to print on-line has been granted to UsingEnglish.com.

About the author:

Mark Coughlin currently resides in Tokyo, Japan where he has lived since 1991 and teaches English as an adjunct professor at several Japanese universities.

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