Teaching Conversation Skills: Avoiding the Monotonous Monologue

Written by: Julie Reimer, Visiting Lecturer, University of Veliko Turnovo
julieinpr@yahoo.com

For two years, I have taught at the University of Veliko Turnovo in central Bulgaria. I teach academic writing and conversation as part of the “practical English” component of students studying English philology or applied languages. After arriving, I heard one of my colleagues refer to these courses as the ones local faculty least like to teach. Presumably, academic writing isn’t favored because of the grading load. But why was conversation at the bottom of the list?

“Because it’s a monologue,” was the answer. Obviously, instructors were having trouble getting students to talk in their conversation classes. In addition, I found that students tended to not take the course seriously and many seemed to consider attendance optional, even though many of them spoke of how important they felt it was to get practice speaking.

My first year, I chose what I thought were some interesting topics that would allow for some cultural comparisons. However, I made the mistake of assuming that topics that interested me at age 20 would interest my students. In addition, each group only had the class every two weeks, which made both the students and I tend to be forgetful about assignments. Although the classes weren’t instructor monologues, they did have the problem that certain students did most of the talking, students dozed during each other’s presentations, and many students memorized their presentations rather than learning to speak extemporaneously.

The second year, my conversation classes went much better. This was partly because I had a good rapport with those groups of students—I had taught them academic writing the year before and was teaching them writing again. Therefore, they were accustomed to me and my teaching style. Another advantage was we could do assignments that tied writing and conversation classes together, for example, by having student debates on the topics of their persuasive essays or by doing a demonstration on the topic of their process analysis essay.

I decided to grade the students on the following factors:

  • Attendance: This is particularly important for a conversation class. Students are unlikely to practice English conversation with their friends after class. Extra credit can be given for those who participate more.
  • Oral tests: Students took two tests during the year. Underhill gives several possible suggestions for oral testing, such as retelling a story. I would often have students recount an issue they had seen in the news recently and would then need to answer questions.
  • Oral presentations: The quality of presentations increased the second year, when I gave students clear instructions on what I expected and gave them a list of suggested steps to follow in preparing. In order to get the highest grade, students would need to use some kind of visual, have some original content, and speak in a natural sounding voice. Requiring the students to speak from the front of the classroom encourages more peer listening, and so does asking students to evaluate each other’s presentations.
  • Journals: Students wrote journal entries on assigned or free topics. This required them to think about a topic ahead of time so each person was prepared to speak about it in class. I then answered each entry and asked more questions of the student, creating a kind of written conversation. One thing I would do differently is to have students generate the topics.
  • Peer evaluations: Each student was required to write an evaluation of two or three presentations. Simple questions were assigned, such as “What were the best aspects of the presentation? What could be improved? What new information did you learn?”

Bulgarian students are good at memorizing, and one thing I tried to emphasize was that whereas there are appropriate times for memorized or read speeches, the skill most needed for conversation is to be able to talk “of the top of your head.” Therefore, keep in mind when grading oral skills that overemphasis of accuracy will encourage memorization, not fluency. Even native speakers make many errors and false starts when speaking, that the listener compensates for and ignores under normal circumstances. Underhill points out that an assessment of speaking skills needs to take into account the natural flow of conversation—false starts, interruption, pause words, self-correction.

Of course, each class has its own personality, and some flowed more smoothly than others. Classes with more outspoken students often took on a life of their own. Using the Student Generated Conversation activity described in the appendix, I had sessions where I spoke less than 10 percent of the class time. When using the Which is More Important activity from Klippel, the referees would sometimes give long, well-thought out explanations of why one team’s arguments were better than the other. One class, however, was full of diligent but quiet students, and with them I would need to use more organized activities and games to keep them talking.

Finally, one advantage of conversation classes is that the subject matter is unlimited. The world is your subject. One day I ran into the husband of the Fulbright professor at the university, who was filling some of his time by teaching conversation classes. He was carrying bags he had filled with rocks and sand. He told me he was going to use it in conversation class. Finally, he told me what he had done. Students were told to use the materials to fill jars. The lesson is that when one fills the jar with rocks, there is still room for sand, and after filling the jar with sand, there is still room for water. Therefore, we should worry about the important things in life first.

If we fill the classroom with interesting activities, there is still plenty of room for conversation to fill in the gaps and make our class time full and rewarding.

Bibliography:

Klippel, Friederike. Keep Talking: Communicative Fluency Activities for Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Underhill, Nic. Testing Spoken Language: A Handbook of Oral Testing Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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APPENDIX

Conversation Activities


Sample Activities:

1. Telling and analyzing jokes

Discuss different themes common to jokes such as

a. a genie grants three wishes

b. three different kinds of people are in a bar and ….

c. jokes involving blondes, lightbulbs, politicians, etc.

and have students share jokes they know that fit the different categories. You could also discuss skills involved in telling a joke well, for example, giving emphasis to the punch line. The homework assignment is for everyone to bring a joke to class.

2. Student-led conversation

This is my standard activity in the classroom. In pairs or small groups, students choose a topic and generate a list of questions to draw their classmates into discussion. Each group is in charge of keeping the conversation going for 10 minutes. At first, students might need guidelines for topics such as music, film, pets, etc. Students learn which kinds of questions are better at generating conversation.

Bad example: Who is Hugh Grant? Is he married? (Fails to evoke a lengthy response)

Better example: What are your favorite Hugh Grant films? If you were Bridget Jones, would you have dated Hugh Grant’s character?

Students can be given a homework assignment to prepare discussion questions, for example, on a current event.

3. Games: These are good for warming up the class, keeping a passive class going, or filling the last 10 minutes of class.

A. Do You Love Me?

This works with students of different ages and levels. It requires you to be able to put chairs in a circle. Sometimes students get so excited that they knock each other over, so beware of using this in litigious countries. Put seats in a circle with just a few cm between each one. If there are 16 of you, there should be 15 chairs. One person stands in the middle. The “odd man out” asks a seated person “Do you love me?” If the answer is yes, everyone seated moves to the right one chair. The standing person tries to steal a seat, but usually can’t. If the answer is no, s/he asks “Why not?” The seated person must give a reason: “because I only love ___________________  (people with blue eyes/Macedonians/people in black shoes/ people whose name starts with “M”/etc.). Anyone who fits the criterion named must change seats with another who fits the description. This gives the person in the center a better opportunity to steal a seat. The person left without a seat must take the center.

B. Quiz show

Small groups of students choose a topic (geography, history, films, sports, etc.) and write 3-4 questions to challenge the other teams. Anyone who feels they know the answer to the quiz question raises their hand. The first to raise a hand gets to answer. Their team will get two points if correct, but lose a point if it’s incorrect.

C. Which is more important? (From Keep Talking)

Teams of students debate which of two things is more important, for example, beer vs. milk, rainbows vs. waterfalls, spoons vs. forks, schools vs. hospitals. Three students serve as referees who decide which team has won each debate.

D. Politicians and Journalists

This fun activity can be found at [http://esl.about.com/library/lessons/nbl_politicalgb.htm] in British and American versions…you might make some modifications that will suit Balkan students.

4. Skits

Pass around grocery bags containing 4-5 household items for each group of 3-5 students. They must come up with a skit involving each item (for example, an apron, a camera, a map, a funnel, a dictionary, etc.)

5. Mime

The advantage of mime is that the person who is “on the spot” isn’t talking. The rest of the class tends to talk without feeling self-conscious. Possible mime activities include

a. (From Keep Talking) Hotel Receptionist (109). Students are told they are staying at a hotel where they have lost their voice and must act out a message for the receptionist. I find most of the suggestions in the book rather dull, so I tend to make mine more interesting:

Please help me get my pet elephant into the elevator.

There’s a terrible smell coming from the next room.

Someone just jumped from a 10th-storey window!

It sounds like there’s a kangaroo jumping around upstairs.

b. Act out English idioms, such as “There’s no use crying over spilled milk” or “A stitch in time saves nine.”

c. Students choose names of songs, books, films, etc. to act out.

6. Ranking activities

Keep Talking contains several examples of ranking activities. Here’s one they don’t have (I’m sorry I don’t know the original source of the story)

Once upon a time there was a girl named Rosemary, who loved a boy named Geoffrey. Unfortunately, between the two of them was a river full of vicious and hungry crocodiles. Rosemary went to the boatman, Sinbad, and asked for his help. Since Rosemary didn’t have the money for the fare, Sinbad said “OK, Rosemary, I’ll take you, but only if you sleep with me.” Rosemary then went to her friend Irving for help. Irving said “Well, Rosemary, that’s your problem, not mine.” So Rosemary agreed to Sinbad’s bargain. In the morning, he took Rosemary across in his boat. Rosemary and Geoffrey were joyfully reunited, but shortly before they were to be married, Rosemary admitted how she had gotten across the river. Furious, Geoffrey said “I can never forgive you for that. I won’t ever speak to you again.” Devastated, Rosemary told her story to an acquaintance, Frederick. Frederick said, “Rosemary, I’m so sorry. If you want, I’ll marry you.”

Students rank the five characters from best to worst, and explain their reasoning. They could also act out the story, present the case of their favorite character, or act out a dialog from a scene in the story.

7. Case studies

Case studies can be used as topics for debate in the classroom. For Example:

A:        A Green Light for Red Light Business?

The country of Dyspepsia is considering legalized prostitution, as is practiced in the Netherlands and parts of the US State of Nevada. Healthcare professionals, sociologists, and others are debating the proposal.

Advocate:

Legalizing prostitution would solve many problems. This way the business would be regulated, which would help prevent sexually transmitted diseases, make the profession much less dangerous, and take it out of the hands of organized crime. Making sex work legal would also generate tax revenue and give the workers more rights and respect in society.

Opponent:

The problem with legalizing prostitution is that it legitimizes the degradation of women and implies that it is acceptable to use another human’s body as a commodity. Some countries where prostitution is legal have the problem that “white slavers” (traffickers in women from Eastern Europe, etc.) operate without fear of prosecution. Also, the creation of brothels could turn neighborhoods into unsavory “red light districts.”

B:        A Base for Blobbo

Rich nation Blobbo wants to build a military base in the poor nation of Passistan, which borders on the potentially-dangerous dictatorship Jerkostan, ruled by strongman General Jerko. The parliament of Passistan is debating whether it will allow Blobbo to build the base.

Minister #1:

Allowing the base will make us a military target. So far General Jerko has left Passistan alone, but the base could provoke his anger. Other Blobbo bases abroad have led to social problems around them such as drunkenness, violence, and prostitution. Allowing the base will make us pawns in Blobbo’s foreign policy, and we don’t share the same values as the leaders of Blobbo.

Minister #2:

Passistan has a high unemployment rate, which the base will help decrease. It will provide jobs and opportunities for economic growth. It will improve our relations with Blobbo, which can lead to more economic aid and trade. It could also help prevent an attack by General Jerko, who has only ignored Passistan because of our lack of natural resources. We need Blobbo’s friendship.

Sample Rubric – Oral presentation

Speaking tone – 10 points

_10   seemed to speak “from head”, maybe with occasional use of notes, had eye contact with audience

_8     spoke fluently, but talk sounded memorized, some eye contact

_6     speech was halting or monotonous

_4     talk hard to follow because of many false starts, was difficult to hear, or was simply read from a text

_2     speech was extremely difficult to understand, monotonous, and completely read from text

Topic and originality – 10 points

_10      topic held audience interest, had logical arguments and original points

_8        generally held interest, some original material

_6        of average interest, little original content

_4        little interest to audience, lack of logic or originality

_2        audience fell asleep, painted fingernails, did homework…

Pronunciation – 5 points

­_5        near native speaker – no problems understanding

_4        understandable, but listener must compensate for accent

_3        heavy accent but generally understandable

_2        many problems in understanding because of accent

_1        very difficult to understand because of mispronunciation

Visual aids – 5 points

­_5        used interesting and appropriate visual aids all could view

_4        appropriate aids used, possibly too small

_3        some visual aids used, maybe not interesting or appropriate

_0        no visual aids used

Oral Presentation steps

(modified from Marina Samalieva, Plovdiv University, “Concerning the Development of Presentation Skills in EFL”, presented at the conference Dialogues: American Studies in an International Context, Plovidiv University, 2002.

  1. Define presentation task
  2. Define learning purpose
  3. Generate/brainstorm ideas
  4. Shape thesis
  5. Collect information (research)
  6. Draft outline of presentation
  7. Draft visual aids
  8. Rehearse and evaluate (considering these aspects)
    1. stance
    2. articulation
    3. pronunciation
    4. loudness
    5. tempo
    6. pauses
    7. variety (tempo and loudness)
  9. Revise outline, aids
  10. Make presentation
  11. Seek feedback from audience
  12. Self-evaluation – how will you improve your next presentation?

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