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Chapter 6 : Listening and Speaking

Chapter 6

Listening and Speaking


It is a principle common to this and the previous chapter that listening should precede speaking. Clearly, it is impossible to expect a student to produce a sound which does not exist in his mother tongue or a natural sentence using the stress, rhythms and intonation of a native speaker of the foreign language without first of all providing him with a model of the form he is to produce. It is not possible to produce satisfactorily what one has not heard. The logical first step, therefore, in attempting to achieve oral fluency or accuracy is to consider the learner’s ability to listen.

At first sight it appears that listening is a passive skill, and speaking is an active one. This is not really true, since the decoding of a message (i.e. listening) calls for active participation in the communication between the participants. A receptive skill is involved in understanding the message. Indeed, it is essential to the speaker in any interaction that he is assured continually that his words are being understood. This is usually overtly signalled to him in a conversation by the nods, glances, body movements and often by the non-verbal noises (mm, uh-huh, oh, etc.) of his listener. A simple experiment to demonstrate the truth of this is to make absolutely no sound during a telephone conversation (where the verbal cues that the message is being understood are essential, since visual cues by the nature of telephone calls are eliminated)—within a few seconds the person speaking is guaranteed to ask if you are still there.

This visual and verbal signalling confirms to the speaker that listening and understanding has taken place. The receptive capacity for decoding the language and content of the message is a skill which can be trained and developed through teaching, no less than the productive skill of speaking.

Training in listening

There is a clear parallel between the spoken and the written language. On the one hand, listening and reading with understanding are receptive (but not passive) decoding skills; on the other, speaking and writing are productive, encoding skills. But the parallel goes beyond this. The concept of intensive reading (the close study and exploitation of a text for its meaning and the language used) and extensive reading (the more leisurely perusal of a longer text where the learning goes on in a less direct, more unconscious way) is well established and discussed in Chapter 7. There is a similarly valuable and practical distinction to be made between extensive and intensive listening. Indeed, listening is often harder than reading, since it is not often taught and practised, nor is it usually possible to go over again what one hears, whereas it is simple to read and re-read a difficult page in a book.

Both extensive and intensive listening practice should be part of the armoury of a language teacher. Their use will differ in relation to the aim—for example, a French teacher of English may feel that his students are not producing satisfactorily the ‘th’ sounds in ‘this’ and ‘thin’, and confusing them with /z/ and /s/, so he would perhaps, as a first step towards imitation, then production of the sounds, get them to listen carefully for the sounds in a given passage (which he has chosen because of the high incidence of these phonemes). There are various books available which provide practice of this type, e.g. Combe Martin’s Exercising Spoken English (Macmillan, 1970). Trim’s English Pronunciation Illustrated gives similar practice in quite a different format, as the extract from p. 60 shows (reproduced by permission):

Figure 5  Intensive listening practice (reproduced from Trim’s

English Pronunciation Illustrated by permission of Cambridge University Press)

On the other hand, the teacher may be aware that his students cannot understand ordinary colloquial English as used by native-speakers. In this case, his aim would be rather to create a more general familiarity not only with the phonological characteristics of conversation (especially the stress, rhythm and intonation patterns), but also with the lexis and grammar typical of this style of discourse. He would then set his class to listen to a passage of natural English speech suitable to their level, e.g. D.Crystal and D.Davy, Advanced Conversational English. At intermediate level, V.J.Cook’s English Topics makes similar use of recorded material. This particular book provides a direct transcript of a spontaneous conversation recorded on tape which should be played to the class. The pupils are asked to listen and answer comprehension questions before they see the written transcript. It is an interesting exercise to ask them then to ‘edit’ this so that it represents a more normal written representation of a dialogue. The book itself provides an edited version of the same dialogue for the student to check his own efforts against and for the teacher to read from if the tape is not available. An extract from the unedited and edited version of one passage is included below.


Richard Parry: Yes, I suppose I suppose that is true. I mean we I suppose it sounds very smug to say it but we do tend to perhaps er see other people rather along our own lines. And perhaps they’re not. I don’t know I mean…

Vivian Cook:

I remember on one of the… Richard Parry: …they’re fairly discriminating as a as a collection of people.

Vivian Cook:

In one of the space shows a few years back that I I happened to turn on and there was this rocket zipping across the sky with sort of smoke belching from all directions. I thought ‘Good heavens! How did they get a camera close up like that?’ And of course because they’d they’d omitted to show

‘simulation’ at the bottom um er and it wasn’t for five minutes that I sort of realised you know that they hadn’t quite achieved such miracles of communication by that stage and um certainly the sort of ersatz um reality is a is a danger.


Richard Parry: Yes, I suppose that’s true. I suppose we do tend to see other people as ourselves. And perhaps they’re different.

Vivian Cook: I happened to turn on one of those space programmes a few years ago and saw a rocket zipping across the sky with smoke pouring out of it. I thought ‘Good heavens! How did they get a camera close up like that?’ But of course they’d forgotten to show the word ‘simulation’ at the bottom. I didn’t realise for five minutes that they hadn’t quite achieved such miracles of communication yet. This kind of imitation reality is a danger.

Extensive listening

Extensive listening can be used for two different purposes. A very basic use is the re-presentation of already known material in a new environment. This could be a recently taught structure or, say, a lexical set which was introduced months before and needs revision. The advantage of exposing the student to old material in this way is that he sees it in action in a genuine, natural environment rather than in the classroom context in which it was probably first presented.

Psychologically, extensive listening to the ‘real’ as opposed to purpose-written English is very satisfying since it demonstrates that the student’s efforts in the classroom will pay dividends in life in an English-speaking environment. One of the greatest and most common failures of language teaching is that what the student is taught is totally inadequate for dealing with the welter of aural stimuli coming at him from all sides when he first sets foot in England. Extensive listening of this type helps him considerably.

The materials he hears need not of course be only a representation of what is already known.

Extensive listening can serve the further function of letting the student hear vocabulary items and structures which are as yet unfamiliar to him, interposed in the flow of language which is within his capacity to handle. There might be unknown, rather technical words or an unfamiliar verb form,—for instance, the passive for elementary students or the subjunctive for the advanced. In this way there is unconscious familiarisation with forms which will shortly become teaching points in a language lesson. Story-telling, especially appealing to younger age groups, is an example of extensive listening and often includes a considerable proportion of unknown lexis and some untaught structures. Comprehension is not normally seriously impeded since the compelling interest of the story holds the attention and the familiarity of the great body of the language is enough to provide a sufficiently explanatory setting for the unknown material.

The teacher himself is the source of the model in story telling. As one of the aims of extensive listening is to represent old material in a new way, it is often best that this is done by means of authentic tapes of English people talking together (and so providing the model), where the teacher himself is not involved. Of course it is possible to write a script for recording which illustrates the particular points to be made, but this is a highly-skilled task and the student gets enough specially written material in his textbooks anyway. Much more effective and convincing are extracts of real, live English speech. It is surprisingly easy to build up a library of suitable tapes. An expensive way is to buy commercial tapes put out by the big publishing companies. The tapes that accompany Crystal and Davy’s Advanced Conversational English, for instance, are invaluable at the most advanced levels. There is also a Workbook by K.Morrow to help exploit the material.

Generally, the best resource for extensive listening passages is going to be the recordings which the teacher makes himself. These can be from a wide variety of sources— recordings made whilst in England, recordings of local native English speakers, recordings from local English language TV and radio broadcasts (including advertisements), and, perhaps most accessible of all, recordings from the BBC World Service which can be heard worldwide and has an enormous selection of programmes to choose from.

Once a collection of tapes of this nature has been made, they have to be graded according to language level (elementary, intermediate, advanced) and according to the points they illustrate. They also have to be made available to students to listen to. If the teacher wants the whole class to listen to a passage for revision or to prepare the way for future lessons, this can of course be done in the normal sequence of a lesson. One of the advantages of extensive listening passages is that they need not be under the direct control of the teacher but function as back-up material for the student to listen to in his own time at his own speed. At the most sophisticated level, this can be done in the language laboratory, which should have a library facility providing tapes for extensive listening. The language lab. is particularly useful in providing listening rather than speaking practice.

Many language classrooms today have one or more tape recorders which can be used for individual or small group listening purposes either during class time (with no disturbance to other people working on other things, if good headphones and a junction box are used) or during a fixed period outside regular hours when supervision is provided. The most flexible system, however, is to make available cassette tapes for home loan, since cassette recorders are commonplace in many parts of the world today. The student can then work when and where he likes, as often as he likes. Whichever system, or mixture of systems, is adopted, even greater benefit is possible if a stencilled sheet of instructions and follow-up questions goes with suitable tapes. Occasionally, notes might be provided to introduce and give a setting for the recording. Some types of tapes lend themselves to reinforcement by visuals—a picture guide to London is a good accompaniment to a conversation about the city, and it can be used in class as a visual form of preparation for the tape itself.

Intensive listening

Whereas extensive listening is concerned with the freer, more general listening to natural English, not necessarily under the teacher’s direct guidance, intensive listening is concerned, in a much more controlled way, with just one or two specific points. There is one important division to be made—the listening can be primarily for language items as part of the language teaching programme, or it can be principally for general comprehension and understanding. Clearly in this second case the meaning of the language must already be generally familiar.

The vocabulary of conversation is often radically different from the written language with which the student is probably more familiar. Hence listening to conversations is invaluable to him to accustom his ear to what he would hear if he visited England. It is very useful to make available passages with more familiar, colloquial lexical items and concentrate on Anglo-Saxon rather than Romance vocabulary. This is particularly important for speakers whose mother tongue is a Latin Language, as they have a tendency to sound pompous in speech through choosing words like enter and repeat instead of come in and say it again. Listening practice for phrasal verbs, fixed expressions such as idioms and generally more colloquial language is one effective means to cure this. It is easiest initially for the student to listen for phrasal verbs, say, in a given passage, then he is asked to put in more formal one-word alternatives. It is usually much harder for students to do this exercise the other way round and listen to a passage (e.g. a formal speech) with a high proportion of Romance vocabulary and then attempt to substitute more colloquial English.

Listening can be for grammatical as well as lexical purposes. Passages with a high incidence of a given grammatical feature provide excellent material. A real football commentary of a match between, say, Liverpool and Manchester United (recorded from ‘Saturday Sports Special’ on BBC World Service) is a very good introduction to one particular use of the present simple: ‘Keegan gets the ball from Toshack, makes a break along the right and tries to beat Gordon Hill outside the penalty box. Hill wins the ball and moves it quickly across the box to Pearson, who skilfully traps it and sends a long, floating pass to the right wing.’

Many other exercises are possible. One area worth mentioning is practice in listening for words or grammatical forms which tell you to expect something else to come shortly, or refer back to something just mentioned. At the simplest level, in the first case, a singular third person subject automatically demands concord with a regular verb in the present tense. As soon as a native speaker hears ‘a dog’ for instance, he knows the verb, however far away it is, will probably be marked with an ‘s’, e.g. ‘a dog…barks’. Beyond this elementary level, he must learn that if he hears ‘not only’, he will certainly get ‘but also’ or ‘but…as well’ later in the sentence; ‘neither the…’ will automatically precede ‘nor…’. Pronouns point backwards to the nouns they stand for, so do words like ‘former’ and ‘latter’. Other sentence connections (however, so, but, while, since, etc.) are widely misunderstood and should be the source of intensive listening practice. A very simple way to practise this type of listening is to have the student listen without a written text once or twice to a passage containing several sentence connectors, then give him a written text with blanks where the connectors are. His task is to fill them in without listening to the tape again. In general, listening practice is gravely neglected at the level of discourse. There may be emphasis on the phonology, lexis and grammar of words and even the sentence, but the linguistic links that join sentences into a coherent discourse are usually overlooked, and so the student’s aural comprehension is sadly impaired.

As we know, it is perfectly possible to hear, but not listen. Similarly, it is possible to listen but not understand. A technical lecture on nuclear physics is beyond the grasp of most people, regardless of the simplicity or difficulty of language it is couched in. Listening for meaning, therefore, is an important skill to develop, but it goes without saying that the actual content of the message should be within the intellectual and maturational range of the student. There is some gradation possible here, from everyday events of common experience (daily life, current events, etc.) for beginners, to popularisations of more technical material and natural conversations between two native speakers for intermediate students, to a full range of specialist topics and conversations between several English speakers for the advanced. Discussions and debates, which are usually structured somewhat, are useful preliminary listening material before the student is forced to deal with an informal conversation between several participants. As many students at this level of proficiency will be concerned with the study skills necessary for academic English, it is worth giving practice in the format of lectures and their specialist content by first providing practice in listening to the popularising short talks often given on Radio Three or the World Service of the BBC. These can range from talks on composers to political reports in the programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent’.

There are other factors to be considered apart from the actual subject matter of the aural text. One is the formality of the language—that is, where it is situated on the following axis:


Most classes have had little practice with anything other than neutral English. Another factor is speed of delivery—is it a rapid conversation or a measured speech? Further, is it prepared and rehearsed, or impromptu? How many speakers are involved? Clearly, the more there are, the more difficult it is. Is the accent of the speaker what the student is accustomed to hear? English regional or class accents are very confusing, on first hearing, for someone brought up on RP. Again, lack of familiarity with these factors can seriously impair the student’s understanding of the meaning of the passage.

A final consideration, which applies equally to listening for language or to listening for meaning, is the type of question to be employed. The simplest are yes/no answers to questions and true/false exercises. Blank-filling can direct attention to key-words and phrases. Beyond the purely factual questions such as these, other types depend on inferences being made from the passage. This is a difficult exercise for the student, as it demands that he not only understands what the passage says, but also what it implies. Clearly, it is best with good students at higher levels. Multiple-choice questions are widely used for both factual and inferen-tial exercises. Many of the books mentioned on pp. 75–6 provide this type of practice.

Reading comprehension texts, e.g. in J.Eynon’s Multiple Choice Questions in English at intermediate level, and in L.Peterson, D.Bolton, M.Walker and M.HagĂ©us’ Work and Leisure, Our Environment and Other Worlds at advanced, can be readily adapted for listening comprehension, if necessary.

Many students have a tendency to practise listening comprehension line by line, without attempting to get an overall understanding of the passage. There is room, therefore, for questions on sections of the text, or the whole text, e.g. What are the main points in this argument? What are the reasons for…? What would a suitable title for this text be?

A listening comprehension passage can be a springboard for other work. By asking how the author creates a particular effect, or why he uses a specific word, it is easy to go on to a form of literary appreciation. Although this is restricted to more advanced classes, it is nearly always possible to use an aural comprehension passage as a basis for questions on the student’s own experience. A passage on sports naturally leads to personal questions about the student’s own participation in, say, tennis, and the ensuing conversation provides good oral practice and reinforces what has just been learnt.

Fortunately for the teacher, intensive listening materials, especially for aural comprehension, are commercially produced and very widely available throughout the world. So far this is not the case for extensive materials. Listed below are a few of the many books and tapes on sale. Several publishers have a range of listening materials available. The Nelson Skills Programme has four books by Rosemary Aitken designed to practise listening skills at different levels. Longman and Oxford University Press have their own series of books on similar lines. Other examples of such books and tapes include:

L.Blundell and J.Stokes, Task Listening, Cambridge University Press, 1981.

M.Geddes and G.Sturtridge, Listening Links, Heinemann, 1979.

R.R.Jordan, Active Listening, Collins, 1984.

R.Mackin and L.Dickinson, Varieties of Spoken English, Oxford University Press, 1969.

R.McLintock and B.Stern, Let’s Listen, Heinemann, 1983.

A.Maley and S.Martling, Learning to Listen, Cambridge University Press, 1981.

R.O’Neill and R.Scott, Viewpoints, Longman, 1974.

D.Scarborough, Reasons for Listening, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

M.Underwood and P.Barr, Listener, Oxford University Press, various dates.


However good a student may be at listening and understanding, it need not follow that he will speak well. A discriminating ear does not always produce a fluent tongue. There has to be training in the productive skill of speech as well. In many cases, listening should lead naturally on to speaking. This is particularly so at the phonological level where it is essential to develop an ability to recognise a sound before success in producing it is possible. The link between these two areas is bridged by techniques such as those discussed in Chapter 5. The rest of this section is primarily concerned with grammatical and lexical problems of oral fluency in communication, but much of what is said is equally applicable to phonological matters.

It has been pointed out earlier that there is much in common between the receptive skills of listening and reading, and the productive skills of speaking and writing. There are controlled, guided and free phases of production in both oral and written work. The speech produced by the student should be tightly controlled at first by the teacher, then as progress is made there should be less rigorous guidance, culminating in situations where the student is free to produce utterances appropriate to the situation. This progression applies to each teaching point at all levels of achievement, though clearly at beginner stages there will be heavy emphasis on controlled and guided practice, and more and more freedom at advanced levels.

In the previous sections of this chapter, considerable stress was laid on listening to as much natural, authentic English as possible. This aims to go some way towards dealing with the problem of understanding and being understood by real, live English people. All too often, past teaching techniques have led to a good passive understanding of the language, but no capacity to use it. More recently through massive pattern practice in audio-lingual and audio-visual courses, there have been many students who could produce perfectly adequate responses in the classroom when given a clear stimulus by their teacher, but who were incapable of dealing at all convincingly with the social situation when they met their first Englishmen talking together. It is particularly important, therefore, that these stages of controlled, guided and free practice should always be seen in relation to the functional use to which the student will have to put his oral fluency. He must be prepared by his teacher for actual communication with others (apart from monologues and talking to oneself, speech is basically a communicative, social art), and the teaching must develop this competence in the learner.

Controlled oral work

One of the most versatile techniques for the presentation and practice of phonological, lexical and grammatical items is the dialogue. It has the further advantages that it can be used for controlled or guided or free work, and a dialogue is by its very nature language interaction between people, which fulfils the communicative criterion. It is possible to use a dialogue at the most elementary level, even in the first lesson. Within minutes of meeting a class of total beginners it is possible to have an exchange like this:

Teacher:       My name’s Robert Smithson. What’s your name?

      Student:       My name’s Janine Riche.

It is very easy to develop this mini-dialogue into pair work. The teacher, after some choral, group and individual repetition to establish the probably very unfamiliar sounds, can proceed round the class, asking a different student each time. Then he can have two of the better and more extrovert students come to the front of the class and say the dialogue, each one taking a part. Then they switch roles. The next step is to indicate by a judicious mixture of example, mime and translation that every member of the class is to do the same as the pair at the front with their immediate neighbour.

The next step might be to use the dialogue in a chain drill:


My name’s Robin Smithson. What’s your name?

Student 1:

My name’s Janine Riche. (Turns to Student 2.) What’s your name?

Student 2:

My name’s Paul Loquefort. (Turns to Student 3.) What’s your name?

At the guided and free levels, dialogues are endlessly flexible for both presentation and practice. Guided dialogues may have words blanked out, or whole phrases when they are highly predictable from the context. Even complete responses by one of the parties may be omitted, as in the following extract from Millington Ward’s Practice in the Use of English (Longman, 1966, p. 102, reproduced by permission).

Here is a ‘one-sided’ telephone conversation. You know what Mr Brown says, but you cannot hear what the other (the hotel reception clerk) replies. You may, however, be able to guess.

Mr Brown: Hello! Hello! I want the Hotel Splendide, please.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: What did you say? I can’t hear you very well.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: What did you say? I can’t hear you very well. The other: …

Mr Brown: Oh, you are the Hotel Splendide. Something seems to be the matter with this line.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Well, it does sometimes help to do that, but I can’t just ring off and try again now because this is a long-distance call. Will you put me through to the Reception, please?

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: What? Oh you are the Reception. Good. I want to book a double room with bath, overlooking the sea. It must be quiet.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Oh, for two weeks beginning August 1st.

August 1st to 14th inclusive.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: But you must have some!

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: But surely a hotel of your size could fit in two elderly people at any time of the year. Provided it’s quiet I don’t much mind if it doesn’t have a view of the sea.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: At the back? Oh. Is it quiet there?

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: I see. Yes, I suppose there must be a certain amount of noise at the front from the promenade. Is it a good big room—as big as the front ones?

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: A double bed? Oh no, I meant twin beds in a double room. We are both very light sleepers.

We must have single beds.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Right up there? I suppose it’s all right provided there’s a lift. What about the bath? It has one?

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: But we must have a bath to ourselves. My wife is not accustomed to wandering along corridors with her sponge-bag.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: The seventh floor! Oh dear.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: A private suite! Oh, I see. Of course, put that way my wife won’t mind the seventh floor so much. Er—what does it cost?

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Good gracious! That seems a lot.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Yes, of course. And it is a private suite. Very well then. Will you please book this private suite on the seventh floor for August 1st to 14th inclusive? Thank you. Goodbye.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Oh yes, of course. How very silly of me.

Brown, R.G.Brown, 125 Duke Street, South Lampton.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: No, no Southampton is very far away from where we live. I said South Lampton, and it is in Cheshire.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Of course. Don’t say another word. Many

people make the same mistake. Quite often.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Yes, I agree. They do sound very similar, especially on the telephone.

      The other:    …

Mr Brown: Good. Thank you very much. We’ll be arriving in the early evening. Goodbye till then.

In controlled oral work there are many types of drills where the student response is so tightly structured that the possibility of error is almost eliminated. To an extent this is valuable as it leads to a certain fluency and confidence in the learner. A typical example of this is the substitution drill:


Say this after me: Have you got any coffee?


Have you got any coffee?


Instead of ‘coffee’, say ‘tea’, like this: Have you got any tea?


Have you got any tea?




Have you got any milk?



Substitution drills of this nature are widely used. They are not as effective in this form as they might be, however, since they could with very little extra effort be made into instances of communicative contextualised language use. In this particular case, the teacher could situate the dialogue in a grocer’s shop and pretend to be a customer with a large shopping list (which the whole class can see) with coffee, tea, milk, sugar, etc., written on it. A student faces him (playing the role of the shopkeeper) across a desk which has on it a tin of coffee, a packet of tea, etc. The teacher/customer asks, ‘Have you got any coffee?’ while pointing to coffee on his shopping list. At the simplest, the shopkeeper simply says ‘yes’ and points at the coffee. The teacher/customer then points again at the coffee on his list and has the whole class repeat ‘Have you got any coffee?’ After the reply he points at tea on his list and may first say, ‘Have you got any tea?’ himself or get the class to do it directly. After the shopkeeper has pointed to the tea, he can point to, and say, the next item on the list.

Here essentially the same thing is happening as in the original substitution drill, but this revised version demonstrates much more clearly to the class that this is not simply mechanical drill but language practice with a visually demonstrated communicative function in a real life situation in which the student could easily find himself. This principle of contextualising the oral language practice applies not only to substitution drills but also to any other mechanical, purely manipulative exercise. They become infinitely more valuable when directed to the actual or potential language needs of the students.

Guided oral work

It is probably a mistake to structure so tightly all the utterances demanded of a student that it is difficult for him to make an error. Practically, it is nearly impossible to do, and mistakes in themselves can teach a lot. It seems that making mistakes and learning from their correction is a natural part of the learning process, so too great rigidity in control may well be counter-productive. Guided oral practice aims to give the student a limited freedom to use and practise what he has learnt, yet still be subject to some restraints. In general, it is best to provide the general situation and content of what is to be said, but allow some freedom in the mode of expression. Role-playing, as in the case of the customer and shopkeeper above, is a useful technique at this as at other levels. The class may well have learnt several progressively more polite phrases to ask if anything is needed:

‘Can I help you?’

‘Can I help you, Mr…/Mrs…/Sir/Madam?’

‘Is there anything you want…?’

‘Was there anything you wanted?’

‘May I help you in any way, Sir/Madam?’ They have also learnt suitable replies:


‘No, thank you.’

‘Not just at the moment, thank you.’

‘That’s very kind of you, but I don’t need anything at the moment, thank you.’

By controlling the situation but allowing variety of expression of this kind, the dialogue has been changed from controlled to guided oral work.

Another way to practise oral proficiency in a guided way is to set up a role-playing situation. Two lines of chairs with a clear space down the middle could be the gangway between rows of passengers on an aircraft. Students are then allocated roles—one is a stewardess, another the head steward, and another the captain on a cabin inspection. Other students play the part of passengers—but passengers with marked characteristics. One is a brusque, rather rude politician, another a terribly polite old lady travelling to see her grandchildren, others ordinary business and holiday travellers. In this way there is some guidance as to appropriate questions and answers, but some flexibility for the students to bring some of their own individuality into the situation.

As in the case of the dialogue, role-playing of this kind is a flexible technique which can be used in a much more structured and predictable way at the controlled stage, or alternatively with less guidance at a later stage in the lesson where continued practice is turning into active production.

Free oral production

It is important that a student should be able to produce naturally the language which has been presented to him and which he has practised in various more or less controlled situations. This is particularly important, not just in the later stages of a given teaching cycle, but at the more advanced levels of attainment, where the pupil feels he now has the basic machinery to say what he wants rather than what he is channelled into saying, and therefore he insists on moving to freer oral production so much more quickly than the elementary or intermediate student. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, and calls for considerable creative thought on the part of the teacher to provide situations and stimuli that will get all the students to make active use in a communicative way of the language they have learnt.

Group work is a generally active tool, but particularly so at the stage of freer production since there must be automatically less teacher control and more pupilcentredness in any work done in groups. Most of the suggested techniques in this and previous sections can be prepared in groups first of all and then brought back to the class as a whole. This is particuarly useful language work, since there is a task in hand—the writing and presentation of a short dialogue, for instance—which has to be discussed and practised in English. The task itself provides the stimulus for a natural use of English: witness the work being done in the first lesson in Chapter 2.

Visual stimuli—maps, photographs, pictures, cartoons, even slides and films—are another useful source of oral language practice. They can all be used simply as discussion starters, or as the material for a short talk (a procedure common in several important examinations), or as the first step to producing role-play situations or dialogues based on them. The teacher can of course guide to a greater or lesser degree according to how explicit he makes his instructions, and how specific the aim he has in mind before he begins. Generally, it is imperative that he knows what he wants from a photograph or map, and then gives just enough instructions to the class to make sure they produce it.

Another type of stimulus is the written word. Magazines, pamphlets, and not-too-serious newspapers lend themselves at the very least to animated discussion or even to set speeches and debates. Aural stimuli are often overlooked as material for freer language production. But selected sound effects, put on a cassette and played one by one to the class, challenge them to build up a story from what they hear. This produces valuable practice in the English used for deduction and possibility, as well as the more general structures necessary in an oral composition.

Dramatisation of scenes which have been written by the class are motivating and useful for fluency. Similarly, the reading of plays by well-known authors is useful in itself, and probably even more so in the discussion it provokes as to how the characters are to be interpreted and how the play, scene or sketch staged. The best choice of play is one by a contemporary author such as Pinter or Wesker with a real feel for the nuances and rhythms of everyday speech.

The conversation class

Conversation classes are very common at intermediate and advanced levels, often with small groups and individuals rather than large classes. They usually take place in private schools or with private teachers rather than in state-run institutions. The general assumption is that simply talking in a free and easy way, preferably to a native speaker, is the best way to improve oral fluency. It is true that listening to and conversing with a native speaker, especially allied to the extra attention that comes to individuals or small groups, is beneficial. However, conversation classes often do not do as much as they might, and of all classes seem to lead most quickly to boredom and a high dropout rate. The reason is usually that not enough thought on the part of the teacher goes into them and the student’s own expectations are often wrong. The moderately experienced teacher feels that a conversation class is a soft option and that he will have no trouble filling an hour with chat and talk. The student expects talking to do far more for him than it is capable of doing. The best approach is to give as much attention and preparation time to conversation classes as to any other lesson. It is as imperative to have as clearly defined an aim and as carefully sequenced a plan for oral work as it is for a grammar lesson. Just talking and filling up the time till the end of the hour is no use at all.

The very term ‘conversation class’ is imprecise as it refers partly to the mode of teaching and may also refer to the content of what is taught. The idea is that, by simply conversing, the teacher shows the student how to hold a conversation himself. But very often the subject matter of a given lesson rightly ranges much wider than this. It may come from the teacher’s professional diagnosis of his students’ needs: this could be remedial oral work to bring the students up to standard, or straightforward teaching to prepare them for a forthcoming oral examination. Very often a conversation class is informal in character and allows much more scope for the students to put forward topics of particular interest to them. Indeed, the more personal relationship possible from teacher to student is often a distinguishing feature of a conversation class. As time goes on, progressively more and more suggestions tend to come from the students to which the teacher may well wish to respond. It is remarkable how he takes on an explanatory role in answer to questions, and is often in practice a mediator of his own culture and background. It is wise to anticipate this and plan quite deliberately into any teaching scheme a good number of themes connected with English life and culture.

There are many sources of help here. The big ‘global’ courses put out by the major publishers are often situated in England with quintessentially English characters in them. They give a very good impression of what is characteristic of certain types of English life, and can be used for that purpose. The amount of explaining that needs to be done will of course depend on the closeness of the students’ own society to England’s—in Western Europe it will be much quicker and easier than in the Third World or the Middle East. There are also quite a lot of books available about Britain. One of the most readable and detailed is A.Sampson’s The Changing Anatomy of Britain (Coronet, 1983). The yearly publication of her Majesty’s Stationery Office, Britain, is full of facts and figures and best used for reference. Other official bodies such as the Centre for Information and the British Travel Association put out books, leaflets, fact sheets and so on which are widely available world wide from their own offices, from the British Council and from British Embassies. There is another category of books written with at least one eye on the optional ‘Life and Institutions’ paper of the Cambridge Proficiency Examination. Some useful titles are:

H.E.Brooks and C.E.Fraenkel, Life in Britain, Heinemann, 1982.

G.Broughton, Know the British, Hutchinson, 1977.

E.Laird, Welcome to Great Britain and the USA, Longman, 1983.

R.Musman, Britain Today, Longman, 1982 (3rd edn).

B.E.Pryse, Getting to Know Britain, Blackwell, 1983.

J.Randle, Understanding Britain, Blackwell, 1981.

Other very important sources of information are the media— BBC World Service has a regular programme ‘News about Britain’ and ‘English by Radio’ often deals with cultural topics; the English press is always available in reading rooms and libraries of embassies, consulates or the British Council, and in most parts of the world can be bought commercially from newspaper kiosks and in international hotels.

Materials of this nature, and to a lesser extent the books mentioned earlier in this chapter, are a very direct and lively introduction not only to English culture but also to the contemporary use of the English language. They can be exploited in every conceivable way in the classroom. Many magazines are visually very attractive and an excellent stimulus to discussion. At the simplest level, students can be asked just to describe what they see. Carefully chosen pictures will give scope for them to make deductions about what has happened and what might soon happen. This in turn will probably suggest wider themes which can be expanded and developed. Practice of this nature is very valuable for students taking certain examinations—Cambridge First Certificate and Proficiency Examinations and the ARELS Certificate in Spoken English and Comprehension for nonnative speakers of English involve this type of exercise.

Materials from the media are excellent for developing the skill of reporting. In the first place news items are by their nature models to imitate. The ability to narrate events is a useful skill to acquire. Each member of the class might be given a news story, and given the task of putting it across orally to the others from notes. Not only is he asked to tell a coherent story, but also he needs to be able to summarise, make notes and speak in public in an understandable way. As time goes on, the exercise set can become harder—he might be given a non-factual interpretive piece by a political commentator, for example. As in the case of visuals, this can easily be seen as very relevant work by the many advanced examination candidates who are asked to give a short talk, with only a few minutes’ preparation, to the examiner.

It would be wrong, however, to think of conversation classes solely in terms of a final examination or testing. Certainly the exploitation of the teaching materials should never be restricted only to provide practice in examination questions. Variety has got to be present. It is all too easy to sink into an initially successful, comfortable format which never varies from lesson to lesson. For instance, instead of taking a newspaper article and always having the students summarise and report it orally to the class, they may attempt to reconstruct in pairs the original interview and make a list of the reporter’s questions, a verbatim statement of the interviewee’s replies, and a copy of the reporter’s notes jotted down at the time. The article can be rewritten for a very different newspaper in a suitable style for homework.

Variety must be allied to pace. A slow, boring lesson teaches very little, so it is important to keep everyone moving and challenged with something which is just a little beyond his capacity. No topic or device should be overworked, however good an idea it is or however much preparation it has entailed. It is always better to stop whilst everyone is enjoying it and wants more, rather than pursue it to the bitter end. Then a repetition on another day provokes eager anticipation rather than groans.

The class atmosphere is very important, and is greatly helped by a less serious side to class activities. As well as more serious materials and teaching, there should always be room for games, songs and puzzles. There are specially written books on the market that can help (for instance M.Carrier, Take 5; C.Granger, Play Games with English; J. Hadfield, Communications Games and A.Wright et al., Games for Language Learning) and records produced for the overseas learner, mentioned earlier in this chapter. But it is best to build up one’s own collection of games and puzzles from as many places as possible. The type of book sold on railway stations to keep travellers occupied on their journeys are a rich source, as are the competition pages of weekly and monthly magazines. Some records from the present Top Ten, universally known contemporary classics such as the Beatles’ records, and English folk songs are also very exploitable. Of the periodicals listed at the end of this book, English Teaching Forum and Modern English Teacher are useful for this type of material.

Variety, pace and humour go hand in hand with a necessary lightness of touch on the part of the teacher. They all contribute to the essentially informal nature of the conversation class, which is one of its great strengths. With careful management, the pitfalls of boredom through conversation for conversation’s sake can be avoided and a friendly atmosphere established in which the advanced student feels free to develop oral confidence and the ability to project himself and his personality in a foreign language.

Suggestions for further reading

M.Argyle, The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour, Penguin, 4th edn, 1983.

G.Brown, Listening to Spoken English, Longman, 1977.

G.Brown and G.Yule, Teaching the Spoken Language, Cambridge

University Press, 1983.

D.Byrne, Teaching Oral English, Longman, 2nd edn, 1981.

W.Rivers, Teaching Foreign Language Skills, University of Chicago Press, 2nd edn, 1981.

W.M.Rivers and M.S.Temperley, A Practical Guide to the Teaching of English, Oxford University Press, 1978.



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