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.


The Fruit of Language Learning

Abhijit Tembhekar, "A Red Apple."  March, 10, 2009 via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution.

Abhijit Tembhekar, “A Red Apple.” March, 10, 2009 via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution.

I’m jumping into the new year worrying away at a pocket full of knots I can’t seem to untie.  Two years ago (give or take a few days) I stumbled upon Scott Thornbury’s blog an A-Z of ELT.  One of the very first posts I read was about affordances.  In it, Scott muses over the fact that conversation is not only the product of interlocutors, but is the result of a complex interplay between environment and speakers.  And he wonders, “is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in?  And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’?”

There’s nothing particularly new in the idea that language teachers, all teachers in fact, must struggle against the confining nature of the classroom.  The fact that I shift desks around and set up chairs in rows of 3-2-3 to give my room the feel of an airplane, or that I bring in a dog leash and picture of a dog when students role-play a scene in which they are searching for a lost pet are ample evidence that I (and most of the teachers I know) do everything we can to help the students psychically break out of the limiting space of the classroom.

Leo van Lier’s (2000) believed that language learning is ecological in nature, “Immersed in an environment full of potential meanings,” and that, “these meanings become available gradually as the learner acts and interacts within and with this environment.” It seems clear to me that an impoverished environment is also an environment in which learning is impoverished.  With that in mind, this year I tried a few experiments to see how I could change and hopefully enrich that environment.  So I thought the start of 2014 was a good chance to go over my class notes and see what worked and what didn’t:

Short Walks: For two hours on Friday afternoon, I have total and absolute control of what I want to do in my classroom.  Those two hours are also elective classes for the students, each week the students freely choosing which lessons they will attend.  So for one of those hours I took the students on a walk through the neighbourhood.  Students took their dictionaries, notebooks, and simply walked.  The only rule was that if they had something to say, they try to do so in English.  The first walk was met with large swaths of silence interrupted by scattered bursts of one word conversation.  We passed a storefront with peeling paint and old glass windows that had warped and caught the sunlight in pools of colour.  Which led to reactions like, “pretty,” “good style,” “I like it.”  The second walk was more of the first.  We passed a construction sight and students looked at a giant crane tearing down a building, opened up their dictionary and made notes.  But they didn’t really talk to each other.  What were the students getting out of our walks?  Were these words jotted in notebooks leading to anything? I added a bit more structure to the walks, encouraged the students to take photos with their cell-phones of anything they were interested in and then try and share with another student why they took the picture.  This led to more conversations.  In particular, I made note of a student who laid her hands against an old wooden pillar of a temple gate, looked up something in her dictionary, took a picture, and said to her friend, “It feels ancient.”  As we head into our third semester in Japan, the weather has made a sharp turn to cold and wet and I’m not sure I can continue our walks.  And I have no idea if the students have taken away from the experience what I was hoping they would take away, that the chances to think, feel, and express themselves in English are only limited by their ability to notice them.

Rethinking a conversation: one of the most talented language learners I’ve ever met once explained to me her main method for picking up a new language.  After she had a particularly enjoyable conversation with someone in her native language, she would sit down and try and reconstruct the conversation in the language she was currently learning.  I decided to share this idea with my students to see what they could do, so twice a week they were required to pay particular attention to a conversation in which they were engaged and then imagine having the same conversation in English.  To the best of their ability, they were then to write the conversation down in English.  Student feedback was mixed to say the least.  Many of them felt overwhelmed by the task.  A few mentioned that by the time they started working on reconstructing the conversation in English, they had forgotten too much to get very far.  But two students turned in full English versions of their conversations (one about a new part time job a friend had started, the other a conversation about elementary school mates with an childhood friend).  Following up later, I found out that one of these students was still using this technique every day.  She rode home on a train with a friend who got off about 20 minutes before she did.  The rest of the ride she tried to imagine having the same conversation in which she had just participated in English.

Overheard Listening Practice: this activity is a bit tricky and also a bit thorny ethically.  It started out when one of the students suggested we go to Karaoke as a class after school on a half-day.  I’m usually happy to join my students out for a group meal or for some singing.  But this time I said I would go, but first I wanted to do a bit of in-class listening practice.  I told them that I would call the Karaoke centre and make reservations, in English.  The students needed to listen and try to write down my half of the conversation.  I made a very conscious effort to avoid blatant foreigner speak.  The man on the other end of the line, Mr. Miyagawa, was incredibly kind and we managed to make a reservation for that afternoon for me and 12 students which included a large Karaoke room and the all you can drink service for two hours.  I did talk slower than usual and added a fair number of pauses as I spoke.  The students wrote diligently from the beginning of the conversation to the end.  As a class we then reconstructed the complete conversation with me supplying Mr. Miyagawa’s language.  After we had a complete conversation on the board, the students practiced it using some fairly standard dialogue exercises.  For our annual class New Year’s dinner, I called a restaurant and we did the same thing again.  After class, some of the students were discussing what had happened.  One of the students said that they felt bad for Mr. Miyagawa.  But another student quickly said that Mr. Miyagawa’s boss must have been really impressed and it probably bolstered his image at work.  Most of my students work at part time jobs and there is always the chance that someone will come in and talk to them in English.  Perhaps they will begin to see common work interactions with customers (even in Japanese) as a chance to think about and even practice English.  On the whole, while I think this activity is useful, I find myself worrying over the fact that Mr. Miyagawa (and Ms. Kurakami at the restaurant) where unwitting participants in a class activity.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t break any laws, but if/when I do this again, I think I will probably find a way to check with the person I’m talking to and see if they are OK with the situation before launching into the activity.

Leo van Lier (2000) postulated that perhaps the way we think about second language acquisition within a western empiricist tradition is too reductionist to capture what really happens when a person learns a language.  The fact that we break down language learning into component parts and then believe that these parts snap together inside our student’s head to build up a language system, basically the Lego block idea of language learning, can’t capture the complex and dynamic nature of language learning which takes place not only inside our students, but is born out of the interactions of our students with the environment.

In an article on affordances and their relationship to second language acquisition, Leily Ziglari (2008) looks at a number of definitions of ‘affordance’ and notes that the common terms in the definitions are, “relations, possibility, opportunity, immediacy, and interactions.”  Looking back on the second semester of the school year, I realise that in trying to broaden the ways in which my students perceived their environment and perhaps increase the number of English language affordances, I had done a pretty poor job of paying attention to the very first term Ziglari highlights (and which is also one of van Lier’s main points as well), relations.  Specifically, I think I could have (and should have) paid more attention to the relations that my students have with each other.  Helping students recognise that there is all kinds of English fruit they can pick in their efforts to become English speakers is just part of the story, and perhaps the lesser part at that.  The fact is, my learners are strolling through the very same orchard.  They are often times reaching for the very same affordances.  2014 will be all about finding ways to let my students turn to each other and compare the colour and texture and taste of the language they are discovering. Because perhaps the very fruit of learning is simply how much sweater it is, how much longer it lingers, when shared with others.


Van Lier, L. (2000). From input to affordance: Social-interactive learning from an ecological perspective. In J.P Lantolf (Ed.)Sociocultural theory and second language learning, 245-259.

Ziglari, L. (2008). Affordance and second language acquisition. European Journal of Scientific Research, 23(3), 373-379.