From the structured to the eclectic, encouraging meaningful communication in the classroom

by Rob Smith

As Nunan so concisely said, for the majority of our students “success is measured by the ability to carry out a conversation in the target language” Nunan. D. (1991) Language Teaching Methodology. UK: Prentice Hall International and so it should clearly be.

Unfortunately, it seems that as teachers we often get diverted from this simple truism, instead spending much of our classroom time focusing on anything but the real and meaningful conversation so desired by Nunan’s hypothetical student.   It’s not entirely our fault, we all know that providing our students with the opportunity to produce meaningful, coherent, and hopefully, interesting and engaging speaking practice, is a vital part of our role as successful facilitators and providers of language learning.   Yet all too often the demands of pacing; the need to get through that tricky unit in the course book before next lesson, the requirements of the exam; if they haven’t covered this grammatical structure they will surely bomb in the midterm, the expectations of the students themselves; we are here to cover the course book and learn grammar, not to chat about our weekend, as well as a myriad of other constraints, pressures and distractions leave us with little time to focus on real communicative, natural interaction in the class.

Many teachers of course do succeed in solving this difficult equation, but for teachers new to the demands of the EFL classroom finding the equilibrium between fully structured teaching, with its focus on form, prescribed grammar and pre planned structure, and the truly eclectic with a focus on meaning, emergent language and responsive teaching and learning, is often a challenge.

So what can we do to help?  To start demanding the tenants of Dogme is, of course, highly unrealistic, nor arguably is it welcome.  However creating lessons where there is continual opportunity for real meaningful communication is potentially attainable for teachers of all levels and experience and, more importantly, is a desirable situation in any EFL classroom.

One of the biggest problems is that often students are only exposed to language which, in truth, rarely reflects the true nature of spoken interaction.   Listenings are scripted and devised to focus on a specific language point, dialogues in books likewise use target language more common to written output rather than spoken, and even as teachers we are continually encouraged to reduce our TTT, whereas in real conversations the participants are usually encouraged to extend each turn!

It’s a common complaint from students that their “speaking is terrible” because they “don’t know the words”.   It’s true they don’t speak the textbook English they study every week in class, but nor should they. As highly proficient English speakers, we don’t speak like a textbook in day-to-day life, so don’t we need to point out to the students that they shouldn’t either?  Explicitly focusing our students’ attention on the difference between the grammar and structure of written English (with subordinated clauses, complex lexis and perfect punctuation) and how the same meaning would be conveyed in an informal conversation (with its heads and tails structure, high frequency simple lexis and plenty of hesitations and pauses thrown in), can be a great confidence boost for them. Not only will they stop struggling to sound like a talking Encyclopedia Britannica but, additionally it will make them sound more natural.

A further problem is the way that we expose students to the structure of spoken language.  We need to ask ourselves if we are in the business of training spies, or in the business of training English Language Speakers.   If it’s the former, then our standard classroom listenings are fantastic, training classes of students in all the skills required to sit in shadowy bars eavesdropping and taking notes on the shady characters in the corner.  If however, we desire the second option, surely a taped recording of two disembodied voices, with students sitting in silence until the track ends isn’t really the way to go.

Live listenings are perhaps one way to correct this imbalance. Not scripted, but natural speech with the class able to fully interact, asking for clarification, asking for repetition, offering their own experiences and making it a far more realistic interaction between speakers; a genuine exchange of ideas and meaning.  It’s arguably more interesting for the students too, for regardless of the topic you chose, it’s coming from a real physical person who also happens to be their teacher, and thus gains instant personalization.   Additionally, you can grade your language as you go along and students can ask for clarification if and when they need it,  which frequently happens in real conversation, but almost  never in  a course book listening.

This personalized aspect of a live listening is a strength and ideally, personalization is something which we should keep at the forefront of our mind at all times.  All too often we ask students to enthusiastically produce long, convoluted discussions and debates on topics which we, as proficient English speakers, would struggle to discuss for more than a few minutes at best.  Truly, when was the last time you sat down and discussed your views on the death penalty? Over Sunday lunch last weekend/while chatting over coffee at work a few weeks ago/at your best friend’s wedding in June/in bed with the wife last night?  Or, more likely, when you were forced to teach it in a unit of a well known course book series!  Why should we expect our students to eagerly jump at an opportunity to discuss something so . . . well, weird, in a  language they aren’t particularly good at when we wouldn’t for a moment consider doing the same in our everyday life, unless we were well, a bit . . . weird!

A very well known TEFL classic which almost everyone will have encountered during their teacher training, is the information gap task.   We put students in pairs and give them a text describing pertinent information on a Mr Johnny Depp, or some other popular figure but student A has some of this vital information missing, and student B has this information but some other vital date/age/fact blanked out.   They ask each other questions to complete their “information gap”, and, assuming they don’t blatantly cheat and copy, we get a good deal of speaking and communicative language being produced.

These so called ‘Gaps’ can be categorised into a few main types.

1: Information gaps; as in the above example of Mr Depp,

2: Experience gaps; for example, students who have finished university, experienced the ups and downs, have an experience that those who haven’t yet started don’t have.

3: Opinion gaps; the death penalty is a bad example of where we perhaps have differing opinions to each other

4: Knowledge gaps; for example my knowledge of early Delta blues (the music not the exam) may be more detailed than yours, yet your knowledge of Lady Gaga’s creative output almost certainly outshines mine.

With a bit of thought we can hopefully start to see these types of gaps everywhere, and start to incorporate speaking tasks which utilize them into our lessons. For example, checking answers.  If group A have answers 1-5 and B answers 6-10, we contrive a knowledge gap requiring students to ask real questions of each other.  Experience gaps based around everyday events can also create fantastic five minute or less speaking exercises – what’s the best route to school this morning, is one which often works well in most crowded cities!

In essence, speaking is fundamental to human communication.  This should, I would argue, be reflected in our classes.  Even beginner students who clearly have real limitations in English, can still be encouraged to have meaningful interactions by utilizing gaps, personalizing the topic and encouraging at all times a fully supportive classroom environment where speaking in English is the norm.

As an example, something as simple as students drawing their bedroom, describing it to their partner who then draws the description and then comparing their pictures afterwards, can be a really valid communicative exercise. It’s personalized, it requires genuine communicative interaction, it utilizes information and knowledge gaps and it’s usually of interest.  Of course, we need to scaffold and support, possibly provide key lexis, and perhaps some functional language, but it’s far better than students learning a list of furniture vocabulary and an improvement on students describing a picture in the text book.

Of course it’s not easy to create lessons where students naturally engage and communicate in English, but by demanding it as a norm from the very first lesson; focusing on examples of correct language not just the mistakes; supporting and trying to create as many short opportunities for genuine communication as possible; and, most importantly, realizing that conveying meaning is what communication is all about, we may be  moving towards that elusive balance between the structured and the eclectic.

Author’s Bio: Rob Smith has worked in the world of EFL for the past 13 years. As a teacher in various countries, including Turkey, Ukraine and Poland, a teacher trainer and academic manager for the British Council in Libya and Vietnam and is presently an ADOS for IH in Kazakhstan. His interests lie in teacher development, espousing the delights of Dogme, and searching for the perfect managerial style. When not in a classroom he can be found listening to psy trance, traipsing around ruins, especially on the Aegean coast, watching Swansea City or simply asleep in bed.