Writer : Ani Suryani
Class : 3B
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Developing Classroom Speaking Activities; From Theory to Practice
Jack C Richards
The mastery of speaking skills in English is a priority for many second or foreign language learners. Learners consequently often evaluate their success in language learning as well as the effectiveness of their English course on the basis of how well they feel they have improved in their spoken language proficiency. Oral skills have hardly been neglected in EFL/ESL courses (witness the huge number of conversation and other speaking course books in the market) though how best to approach the teaching of oral skills has long been the focus of methodological debate. Teachers and textbooks make use of a variety of approaches, ranging from direct approaches focusing on specific features of oral interaction (e.g. turn-taking, topic management, questioning strategies ) to indirect approaches which create conditions for oral interaction through group work, task work and other strategies (Richards 1990). Advances in discourse analysis, conversational analysis, and corpus analysis in recent years have revealed a great deal about the nature of spoken discourse and how it differs from written discourse (McCarthy and Carter 1997). These differences reflect the different purposes for which spoken and written language are used. Jones (1996,12) comments: In speaking and listening we tend to be getting something done, exploring ideas, working out some aspect of the world, or simply being together. In writing we may be creating a record, committing events or moments to paper.
Research has also thrown considerable light on the complexity of spoken interaction in either a first or second language. Luoma (2004) for example, cites some of the following features of spoken discourse:
•Composed of idea units (conjoined short phrases and clauses)
•May be planned (e.g. a lecture) or unplanned (e.g. a conversation)
•Employs more vague or generic words than written language
•Employs fixed phrases, fillers and hesitation markers
•Contains slips and errors reflecting on-line processing
•Involved reciprocity (i.e. interactions are jointly constructed)
•Shows variation (e.g. between formal and casual speech), reflecting speaker roles, speaking purpose, and the context
Functions of speaking
Numerous attempts have been made to classify the functions of speaking in human interaction. Brown and Yule (1983) made a useful distinction between the interactional functions of speaking (in which it serves to establish and maintain social relations), and the transactional functions (which focus on the exchange of information.
1. Talk as interaction
This refers to what we normally mean by “conversation” and describes interaction which serves a primarily social function. When people meet, they exchange greetings, engage in small talk and chit chat, recount recent experiences and so on because they wish to be friendly and to establish a comfortable zone of interaction with others. The focus is more on the speakers and how they wish to present themselves to each other than on the message. Such exchanges may be either casual or more formal depending on the circumstances and their nature has been well described by Brown and Yule (1983). The main features of talk as interaction can be summarized as follows:
•Has a primarily social function
•Reflects role relationships
•Reflects speaker's identity
•May be formal or casual
•Uses conversational conventions
•Reflect degrees of politeness
•Employs many generic words
•Uses conversational register
•Is jointly constructed
Some of the skills involved in using talk as interaction are:
•Opening and closing conversations
•Recounting personal incidents and experiences
•Reacting to others
Mastering the art of talk as interaction is difficult and may not be a priority for all learners. However [A1] students who do need such skills and find them lacking report that they sometimes feel awkward and at a loss for words when they find themselves in situation that requires talk for interaction. They feel difficulty in presenting a good image of themselves and sometimes avoid situations which call for this kind of talk. This can be a disadvantage for some learners where the ability to use talk for conversation can be important.
2. Talk as transaction
This type of talk refers to situations where the focus is on what is said or done. The message is the central focus here and making oneself understood clearly and accurately, rather than the participants and how they interact socially with each other. In transactions,…. talk is associated with other activities. For example, students may be engaged in hand-on activities [e.g. in a science lesson] to explore concepts associated with floating and sinking. In this type of spoken language students and teachers usually focus on meaning or on talking their way to understanding. Jones 1996, 14Burns distinguishes between two different types of talk as transaction. One is situations where the focus is on giving and receiving information and where the participants focus primarily on what is said or achieved (e.g. asking someone for the time). Accuracy may not be a priority as long as information is successfully communicated or understood. The second type are transactions which focus on obtaining goods or services, such as checking into a hotel.
Some of the skills involved in using talk for transactions are:
•Explaining a need or intention
•Justifying an opinion
•Agreeing and disagreeing
3. Talk as performance
The third type of talk which can usefully be distinguished has been called talk as performance. This refers to public talk, that is, talk which transmits information before an audience such as morning talks, public announcements, and speeches. Spoken texts of this kind according to Jones (1996,14),
…often have identifiable generic structures and the language used is more predictable.
…Because of less contextual support, the speaker must include all necessary information in the text – hence the importance of topic as well as textual knowledge. And while [A2] meaning is still important, there will be more emphasis on form and accuracy. Talk as performance tends to be in the form of monolog rather than dialog, often follows a recognizable format (e.g. a speech of welcome) and is closer to written language than conversational language. Similarly it is often evaluated according to its effectiveness or impact on the listener, something which is unlikely to happen with talk as interaction or transaction.
The main features of talk as performance are:
•There is a focus on both message and audience
•It reflects organization and sequencing
•Form and accuracy is important
•Language is more like written language
•It is often monologist
Some of the skills involved in using talk as performance are:
•Using an appropriate format
•Presenting information in an appropriate sequence
•Maintaining audience engagement
•Using correct pronunciation and grammar
•Creating an effect on the audience
•Using appropriate vocabulary
•Using appropriate opening and closing
Implications for teaching
Three core issues need to be addressed in planning speaking activities for an oral English course. The first is to determine what kinds of speaking skills the course will focus on. Is it all three of the genres described above or will some receive greater attention than others. Informal needs analysis is the starting point here. Procedures for determining needs include observation of learners carrying out different kinds of communicative tasks, questionnaires, interviews, and diagnostic testing (e.g. Tsang and Wong 2002). The second issues is identifying teaching strategies to “teach” (i.e. provide opportunities for learners to acquire) each kind of talk.
Talk as interaction is perhaps the most difficult skill to teach since interactional talk is a very complex as well as subtle phenomena that takes place under the control of “unspoken” rules. In my experience these are best taught thought providing examples embedded in naturalistic dialogs that can serve to model features such as opening and closing conversations, making small talk, recounting personal incidents and experiences, and reacting to what others say. For example to practice reacting to what others say, students can be given a dialog in which listener reactions such as “really”, “is that right”, “wow”, “that's interesting” have been omitted. Students work in pairs to add them to the dialog, practice the dialog with the reactions, then practice a different dialog, this time adding their own reactions. Another technique to practice using conversation starters and personal recounts involves giving conversation starters which students have to respond to by asking one or two follow- up questions. For example, “I didn't sleep very well last night”. “Look what I bought on Sunday. How do you like it?” “Did that thunderstorm last night wake you?”.
The third issue involved in planning speaking activities is determining the expected level of performance on a speaking task and the criteria that will be used to assess student performance. For any activity we use in class, whether it be one that seeks to develop proficiency in using talk as interaction, transaction, or performance, we need to consider what successful completion of the activity involves. Is accuracy of pronunciation and grammar important? Is each participant expected to speak for about the same amount of time? Is it acceptable if a speaker uses many long pauses and repetitions? If a speaker's contribution to a discussion is off topic, does it matter?
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