Dialogues: moving away from the words on the page in 5 easy steps

"Valentine and Proteus" by Henry Courtney Selous.  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Valentine and Proteus” by Henry Courtney Selous. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The other day I attended a roundtable discussion through Nara JALT on, “The New Academic Year: Resolutions, Reflections and Revelations from the Classroom.”  It’s a great title, and it was a great two hours of teachers just talking about what they had done in the classroom this year.  In Nara, (the ancient capital of Japan by the way) teachers, or at least the teachers at the roundtable discussion, seem to be using lots of dialogues in their classes.  But they all had pretty much the same two big worries:

1) Students get stuck in the simply-read-the-words-off-the-paper-without-looking-up stage.  And even if they manage to look away from the paper once in a while, they rarely sound natural or seem to genuinely engage with one another.


2) The dialogues are bat shit crazy a little unnatural and a tad on the boring side.

I think there is probably a pretty strong relationship between point 1 and point 2 here.  I mean, if you read something that resembles the dialogue from a James Cameron movie, minus the cool special effects, it’s going to be pretty hard to  sound natural when you’re saying your lines.  It might also be a little difficult to pretend you’re interested in what your partner is babbling on about.  But let’s put that issue off to the side as I’m hoping to touch on it in a followup post.

Let’s say you’ve got a coursebook, you have to use it, and it’s got some dialogues in it.  What are a few things you can do to help pull students away from the page? How can you help the students actually “get into” what they are saying?  Truth is, I used a coursebook this year.  And I used the dialogues in that coursebook.  And I tried out a whole bunch of different ways to use those dialogues. What worked with my students might not go down like a storm in your class, but when I used the following activities, students in my class could finish up a 50 minute lesson and present a dialogue with: no paper in their hand, a decent sense of prosody, and an occasionally surprising and authentic seeming gesture or two.

1. Listening for Silence: before getting into the nitty gritty of dialogue practice, have students listen and put a slash between words whenever they hear a pause.  These chunks of language between the slashes are called sense groups or syntactic groupings.  Often times they are clauses.  And during dialogue practice, if students try to produce a full sense group at a time, they will immediately sound much more natural.  Added bonus: it gives the students a good reason to really listen to the dialogue a few times before they have to produce it.  I think one of the big reasons students keep their eyes glued to the words on the page is because that’s all they have to work with.  Unless a student has a chance to hear a dialogue multiple times (and in my experience I’m talking 6 or 7), they are going to have no confidence in their ability to orally produce the language.

2. Look/Think/Turn Over/1-2-3-Speak: Students love the paper in their hands.  They grip it, stare at it, refuse to glance up from it.  You can command your students to, “make eye contact.”  But once you wander away to a different part of the room, they’re just going to go back to staring at the paper.  So get the paper out of their hands.  Have the students put the dialogues on a desk just off to the side.  They can look at the paper as often and for as long as they want.  But before they start talking, they have to flip the page over.  And not only do they have to flip it over, they have to count to three before they talk.  Yes, I realise that this will make things even more stilted sounding.  But only at the start of the exercise.  If they have those sense group slashes marked on their dialogue, most of the students will be able to hold one syntactic grouping within their working memory.  And the more they practice saying that one natural chunk of language, the more human they will sound.

3. Less becomes More: Students refuse to let go of their dialogue worksheets because they don’t feel that they’ve remembered the words.  And they don’t feel they’ve remembered the words because they keep relying on that piece of paper.  So how about showing the students that they are actually remembering huge swaths of language while they practice.  How?  By having them whittle away at the text.  After a few practices with the dialogue, have them rewrite the dialogue without any vowels.  So a line like, “I have to catch the 6 O’clock bus for Bugharvest,” ends up looking like, “ – hv t ctch th 6 clclk bs fr Bghrvst.”  This will provide them with enough information to practice, but will also tax their working memory enough to aid in memorising.  The next step is to rewrite the dialogue again, only this time, they only get to jot down the first letter of each word and then a dash for each remaining letter.  So they would end up with “I h_ _ _  t_ c_ _ _ _ t_ _ s_ _ O_ _ _ _ _ b_ _ f_ _ B_ _ _ _ _ _.”  At the beginning of the year my students met this task with a lot of moaning and complaining about how I’d asked them to do the impossible.  But actually, by this point in a lesson, students have pretty much remembered most of the dialogue and find that they can get through it with little to no problem.

4. In Your Own Words (L1): A final option is to let students write out an L1 equivalent (not word to word translation) of each sense group in the dialogue.  I know that there is some controversy about how much translation, and L1 in general, we should be using in the class, but if you are really having a hard time prying students away from the printed dialogue, it might simply be a sign that, as they are speaking, they are trying to puzzle out the meaning of what they are saying.  The more sure they are about the meaning, the more confidence they will have in trying to convey that meaning and not simply saying the words.  In my experience, when my students use a sense group translation as a kind of cheat sheet for their final practice, they are much more willing to use gestures and sometimes even try on different accents.

5. Put Some Ground Beneath Their Feet: A few years ago, the teacher in charge of the drama thread of our English program observed a class of mine which made extensive use of dialogues. During our feedback session, the drama teacher asked if I ever gave the students a set of stage directions.  He grabbed a script for a play off his desk and pointed to the stage directions at the start of the scene and said something like, “Without a stage, a set, and some props, students are floating in an ocean of words.  But even without all those things, a good set of stage directions can set the students down on firmer ground.”  So if your students are gripping their dialogue sheets like a castaway clinging to a life-preserver, perhaps what they really need is some stage directions.  Here is an example of simple stage directions for a dialogue about one high school student asking another high school student for help with their homework.

John and Tracy are in the park near the school.  John is sitting on a bench, holding a book.  He looks worried.  Tracy and standing under a tree a few feet from John.  She notices him and walks over.

But But But…a final word

Yes, I realise that almost all of these activities seem to give the students a good excuse to stare even harder at the paper in their hands.  Slashes between sense groups usually mean students look at the paper longer so that they can remember where to pause; words without vowels take time to decode which also means more time staring at the paper; and of course stage directions have to be read and understood.  But even though this series of steps results in more interaction with the paper over the course of a class, it also provides the kind of support and framework for students to eventually set the paper down on their desk and walk away from it.  And when they do walk away from it, they are sure of:

  • what they have to say
  • how to say it
  • what it means
  • where they are saying it.

When a student knows all these things about a dialogue, there is a much better chance that they will be able to speak their lines, if not with emotional conviction, at least with a healthy dose of confidence.  And here in Japan, with the students I’m teaching now, that sense of confidence is often the point at which real communication can finally start to take place.

Role-play as (train wreck) learning experience

Every week I teach an intensive language class for interested students (and by interested, what I really mean is students whose home-room teachers have decided that said student is interested).  The number of students and student levels fluctuates wildly from week to week.  And I am always looking around for new ways to spend two or three hours after which all of the students will have some sense of satisfaction.  Kevin Giddens’ blog is a great source of lesson ideas and I stumbled across a description of a particularly interesting beginner Bosnian lesson  facilitated by Mary Cay Brass at the Summer Master of Arts in Teaching program at the SIT Graduate Institute.  So first off, I would like to lay all the blame for this disastrous lesson on thank Kevin for a great lesson idea which I fiddled with to the point of destruction.   
There were only five students in the class on this day, two lower level first year students and 3 upper level second year students. The six of us sat in a tight circle in the middle of the room with a table in the middle of the circle.  On the table was a voice recorder.  In the standard way this lesson works, students think of something–anything really–that they would like to say in English, tell the teacher and the teacher then provides the student with a translation of the sentence into the target language (in this case English).  But as I was dealing with a mixed group and felt like the students would be missing the energy and excitement that would me generated by studying a novel language like Bosnian, I decided to add some extra spice to the lesson goulash.  I decided to turn it into a role play.  I figured that if the students were in a role where it did not matter what their English levels were, but had to work together for a common end, then it might lead to better group cohesion and everyone might get more out of it.  And this was the absolutely brilliant idea that flashed out of the nether regions of my brain: have the students pretending to be UN Peacekeepers about to head off to a hot spot.  I explained that they had two and a half hours to learn the phrases they might need to interact with the native population and keep themselves safe.  I was going to be taking the role of their language instructor for this intensive course, but as they were trained soldiers who had a better idea of what kind of language they would need to master, I would be leaving all language generation up to them. 
I waited.  The students looked at each other.  One of the lower level students kept looking around at the upper level students pleadingly.  The other lower level student just looked at the ground.  Finally, one of the upper level students screwed up some courage and in Japanese said, “Do you and your family have enough to eat?”  I said the sentence clearly and slowly in English.  The student repeated it a few times, picked up the voice recorder, and said it into the machine.  I waited.  Nervous laughter.  More nervous laughter.  Shifting in chairs. 
One of the students said to me, “Kevin, please help us.” 
              “I want to help you,” I said.  “But my role is to support you.  I’m afraid you will have to come up the sentences on your own.”
              One of the three upper level students started giggling uncontrollably and left the room.  And I waited.  A few minutes later the giggler popped back into the room.
              For 40 minutes this pattern continued and we ended up with 10 sentences which included:
              “This area is not safe.  Follow me as quickly as possible.”
              “We would like to throw a party for you to thank you for your help.”
              “Our countries might seem like enemies, but I am here to help you.”
              “Is there anything you need?  Blankets?  Heating oil?”
I then wrote up those sentences on the board with the literal translations beneath each word and passed out 5 long slips of paper to each student.  The students were then encouraged to pick up some of the language from the board and jot it down on the slips of paper.  They could pick just a word, a phrase, or a complete sentence.  Finally all the students gathered back together and were given 15 minutes to make novel sentences, folding the slips, placing them next to each other, or placing one slip directly on top of another for word or phrase replacement.  After they had made a novel sentence, I would ask them what they had wanted to express and if necessary I would correct the sentence so it was accurate.  The students enjoyed this part of the lesson and it worked pretty much as I had hoped.  There were a lot of interesting collocations and phrases that ended up becoming apparent, like “as ~ as possible,” and “I would like to ~.”  The higher level students did a lot of scaffolding for the lower level students.  A bunch of nonsense sentences got formed.  And students started to smile.
So what went wrong in the beginning?  I talked to the students and the biggest complaint was that they had no idea of what it would mean to be a peacekeeper heading off to a hot spot.  Woops.  My bad.  Part of the problem was a basic mistake in how I conceptualized the class.  I wanted to have a time limited role-play which would generate a fair number of sentences quickly enough to move on to the second stage of the lesson.  But I had confused goal with process.  I didn’t simply want students to take on a temporary role to practice a specific type of interaction, like buying a pair of glasses or refusing to go on a date, which is what role-playing, is good for.  I had wanted the students to more fully inhabit the role of Peacekeepers and for the content of the lesson to flow from that role.  This isn’t a role play.  This is a simulation.  Drama activities in the language classroom can be seen along a continuum from scripted on one side to ever more improvisational on the other (Kao & O’Neill).  Improvisational dramatic activities in ELT can further be broken down into three rather broad categories:
1)      Improvisational role-playing: limited time duration.  Used to practice a specific type of interaction in which a specific language might or might not be targeted. 
2)      Simulations: extended activities in which students do not take on roles, but play themselves in novel situations and in which the process of production is perhaps even more important than the final product.
3)      Process Drama: where students take on multiple roles which can span a number of different situations all dealing with a similar issue which is to be explored through dramatic response. 
There are a lot of texts on simulations and process drama filled with concrete advice like: ask questions of the participants to let them help shape the situation (Jones); verify that the situation is understood well enough to, “sustain reality of function.” (Jones); describe the “frame” of the drama well enough to give the dramatic act a sense of tension (Bowell & Heap).  All of which I blithely ignored.  What is even odder, I have actually run a process-drama class in my school.  I’ve spent hours putting together sets of faux-newspaper articles and trial-transcripts just so my students would be able to dramatically explore a re-trail of the big bad wolf from The Three Little Pigs.  That’s right, The Three Little Pigs!  So why did I think that these same students would be able to simply slip into the role of U.N. Peacekeeper?  Somehow, the flash of a good really terrible idea and the fog of expectations that followed had kept me from reasonably assessing the situation and pivoting when necessary.  I think this is a pretty clear case where if I had just stopped and really thought a little more about the theory and methodology which should underpin the lesson, my students and I would have had a much less seat-shifting-cheer-creaking-nervous-laughter fifty minutes.
When I was at university, one of my writing instructors always said, “Kill your babies.”  By that he meant that any turn of phrase or sentence you felt was precious to the piece of writing should be edited out by the final draft.  And while I don’t know if I believe that all ideas that seem to sparkle on first glance should be chucked in the trash, at the very least, they should probably be appraised by at least one other set of eyes.  This is actually one more piece of good advice when it comes to crafting a simulation.  Don’t do it alone.  If you are going to make a world which your students can actually inhabit, even if it’s only for a few hours, it’s best to recruit as many sets of hands as possible.  After all, we’re only human.         
There were a few reasons for why I really wanted to give this lesson a go in my class.  At least in the first half of the lesson, the methodology goes against most of my beliefs of what makes for good language teaching:
          There’s extensive use of translation. 
          Students produce discreet units of language which might or might not have any direct connection to one another. 
          While the students are producing content, the teacher is in a very clearly authoritative role. 
In spite of the flawed way things turned out, I could see how all of these techniques for language teaching and learning could be put to good use in this particular lesson.  So don’t worry students, your suffering wasn’t for naught.  Next year, your teacher might have a few new tools to make class more enjoyable, even if you have no interest in ever becoming a UN Peace-Keeper.
Reference Works:
Kao, D. & O’Neill, C. (1998) Words into Worlds: Learning a Second Language Through Process Drama. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation
Bowell, P. & Heap, B.S. (2001). Planning Process Drama. London: David Fultone Publishers.
Tompkins, P.K. (1998). “Role Playing/Simulation”. The Internet TESL Journal 4 (8).
Jones, K (1985). Designing your own Simulations. London: Methane