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.