Conversation Classes: Dealing with Meaning First (example)

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In a previous article about Conversation Classes, I mentioned (as a kind of tangent in the comments section) what I refer to as “Processing the Text for Meaning First” and how much this bugs me when teachers don’t do it.

It actually bugs me the most as applied to grammar or vocab lessons (and I’ll write another article about that some other time), but what I want to do today is follow-up on that conversation classes article and give you an example of helping students process whatever text you’re using and the “input” or “springboard” for your discussion and show how little changes can have big flow-on results in your discussion classes.

It doesn’t matter what the text is. I could be any, or a combination, of the following:

- a short personal anecdote told to the class
- a short written text or passage from a longer text
- a simple print advertisement
- an excerpt from a movie (one or two scenes, say)
- an interview or discussion, etc. (i.e. a listening text)
- a short magazine or newspaper article

and on and on and on!

You’ll notice that I’ve focused on “short” in a number of places. The reason for this is simple: We’re considering a Productive Skills lesson here (and, specifically, a conversation class); not a receptive skills lesson (i.e. listening or reading).

This means that you don’t want to spend too much time on the text.

And this is where it usually all goes wrong.

Teachers are aware that it’s not a listening or reading lesson and therefore gallop ahead and get students to speak about the article. Too soon, though. That’s the problem.

The Balance

There’s a balancing act you have to do in this kind of lesson between spending too much time decoding the text (and therefore doing something that more resembles a Receptive Skills lesson) and not doing enough of the conversation part.

If you spend too much time processing the text for meaning, students don’t get to focus on the conversation element and you don’t really meet your main aims for that lesson.

Even worse, if students are paying for conversation lessons, then they’ll get pretty annoyed with this in short order - and rightly so.

On the other hand, those same students who’ll complain if you spend too much time dealing with the Input Text, will also complain that “It’s too hard!” if you just gloss over the text and ask them to produce language too soon. And again, rightly so.

Now, I don’t like being in the “Can’t either way” situation (i.e. where students will complain that you’re not doing enough actual conversation, and will also complain if it’s too hard) and that’s where the balance comes in.

How to Do It

The solution is relatively straight-forward: Make sure students process the text and in doing so provide them with enough support for the speaking task you’re going to set.

Let’s take a look at just one way to do that in this article and perhaps I’ll write another article at some point with other ideas that I use…

Idea 1. Prediction Task Using Pictures

You could, for example, introduce the topic and get students engaged with it (This is an astoundingly simple two-step process that I’ve been teaching trainees to do for a long time and which I call “book-ending.” More on that another time).

Then, introduce the first task and use a worksheet or OHT (overhead transparency) with some pictures on it.

Get students to work with a partner to name as many things as they can and describe what’s happening.

Elicit all this language to the board, concept-checking and drilling as you go.

This will not only help students process the Input Text (in a moment), it should also be starting to input some of the vocab and structures they’ll (presumably) need to do the speaking task.

Sidenote: The reason I say “presumably” is because I’d recommend that the speaking task in some way resemble or “echo” whatever the input task is. That is, if the listen to two people planning a holiday, they should then be asked to plan a holiday (either as a roleplay using fictitious contextual information or as a simulation, where they “play themselves”)… OR… if the task is to going to ONLY be a discussion, then it should directly discuss the THEMES raised in the Input Text, but start by referring to the Input Text and then “expanding out” from there.

They then do the prediction task by working together to discuss the order they expect things to happen in.

You can elicit their different ideas to the board quickly and then they listen to you, or a recording, or read an article, or whatever recounting the story and put the pictures in order, say. (It doesn’t have to be a sequencing task, incidentally; you could do other things as well, but this one is simple and commonplace and does the job.)

Tip #1: If possible, make sure that at least two of the pictures are showing something similar so that (a) students have to listen or read carefully and (b) during checking time you have the opportunity to focus on the negative forms of some of the structures being used - ahead of the speaking task.

Tip #2: Include a picture that is NOT part of the story. This could, depending on the picture, generate some initial discussion as simply as asking students to talk together and say how the story and the outcome would have been different if that picture had been included in the story. And at which point would it have been located.

Don’t make a big deal of this; it’s not a reading or listening lesson.

On the other hand, you want to be confident that students have fully apprehended the key issues contained in the text otherwise your discussion is not likely to work as well.

So, you could set a few True/False and/or (easy) short answer questions, play the recording/tell the story/ask students to read/etc. again and then check with their partner to justify their answers before eliciting to the board and then steering them to whatever you want to focus them on and then set up the discussion.

Note: These questions need to actually focus/highlight the key pivot points in the story and the main themes raised.

Or… you could ask them to summarise the text and the main issues (be clear and specific with your instructions for this kind of task) and then re-tell it to a student in another group (i.e. someone with whom they haven’t already discussed the text and who, therefore, may have different ideas and or interpretation). They can make notes in L1, but they then have to find the vocab they need and tell (NOT READ!) their summary in L2.

Following all of this, you could do whatever language input you had planned that you figured would help students with the task. You’ll most likely find that half of the language you’d planned to look at has been dealt with already, but in a MUCH more student-centred way. It may or may not even be necessary to do this stage of the lesson, depending on your group.

If you do do it, though, it will provide further support for the task. One thing you could focus on here if they’ve already dealt with the target structures is pron. Drill the examples of linking and weak sounds and contractions and so on. Drill particular intonation and stress patterns, especially if they are likely to be used in the discussion and will affect the meaning. Focus on the patterns, e.g. How about doing s/t; not How about do s/t.

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The Benefits

This simple picture task approach to dealing with the text has at least five benefits:

1. It generates a lot of “mini-discussion” before you actually get to the “main” discussion task. That loosens students up, it’s “safe” because it’s done in pairs or small groups and isn’t “public,” and they can ask the teacher any questions they have and/or consult their dictionary very easily if they need to.

2. It provides language input that will not only help them process the Input Text more easily, but will also help with the productive task that follows.

3. You, the teacher, get the chance to diagnose where their weaknesses are, be that the vocab they need to do the task, certain structures and/or functional language they need to do the task, pron that needs to be focused on ahead of the task, issues that seem too sensitive or inappopriate for this group and, therefore, may need dropping from the discussion, etc.

4. The text acts as a good springboard for the discussion later, but also as a meaningful text from which you can “pull out” language (and then go through the Meaning, Pronunciation, Form sequence) that will help the students have greater success on the speaking task.

5. The lesson “appears” to start with some kind of “speaking” activity, which will appease students who have paid for a “Conversation Class.” If you start in on the text too soon, they might dig in their heels, making them unlikely to be in the right frame of mind once they do actually get to the discussion task you have planned.

Important Sidenote Here

People are strange. Students often “invest” in a particular position or point of view and won’t step down from that position in the face of contrary evidence.

For example, if you launch into the reading task too soon - without having done a “bookend” and without “warming up” the students, some students might get pissed off because they’re thinking “Dammit, I paid for a CONVERSATION lesson, not a READING lesson!” And they’ll get huffy and put up their barriers to whatever you’re doing. Quite often they’ll also “poison the well” by complaining in murmurs to the students around them.

Then, when you “unveil” the marvellous speaking task you had planned, and which these by now shirty students would have otherwise liked, you get a very flat response and a distinct sense of “reluctance to speak.”

It’s not because the students don’t want to speak, it’s just that they made up their mind at the beginning of the class that they were pissed off and that this wasn’t a conversation class. Then, despite blatant evidence to the contrary (e.g. you set up the discussion smoothly and in good time, allowing plenty of time to cover all the questions, get feedback, do an error-correction slot, blah blah blah…), they won’t have it.

And they don’t want to “lose face” by folding theor position on the matter. They have to “ride it out” and “be right.”

Back to the Point! (Kind of… :razz: )

None of the ideas I’ve suggested need take up a huge amount of time and with practice you’ll be able to move through all those stages fairly smoothly.

At first, you’ll probably find that a LOT of students actively dislike this approach because it doesn’t fit the traditional model of what a “discussion class” should look like.

But those very same students will sit there in silence and complain that things are too hard and/or that they don’t have a chance to speak because the other students always dominate the class, or whine, whine, whine… if you try to “discuss stuff” for 50 minutes.

Don’t give in to that kind of stupidity. I’ve found over the years that students often only THINK they know what they want. Hey, who’s the language teaching expert around here? It’s usually not them!

Our job is to help students improve their ability to USE the language. And quite often (Oh, Lordy me! VERY, VERY often! Who am I chiding here?!), both students and teachers have all sorts of ridiculous notions about what effective language teaching and learning involve. And they’re usually wrong, I have to say.

That’s not to say I think my students are morons or any other such nonsense. It simply means that they are not language teachers. And those who are (I’ve trained plenty of experienced teachers, too) often suffer from the same kinds of misconceptions regarding what constitutes effective language teaching.

On the other hand, when you DON’T buckle to their initial whining about it being “too hard” or “taking too much time and not allowing enough time for discussion” or the score of other flimsy objections I’ve heard in an attempt to justify what almost always amounts to this:

“I don’t understand this and it doesn’t fit my model of good teaching… therefore I am going to assume that it is bad. I can’t just say that because it would clearly display my ignorance so I need to construct some kind of rational position that makes me feel like my argument is justified.”

… then something magical happens: Students start to get better results!

They find that, in the case of conversation classes, they are able to join in the discussion and hold the floor for longer because of all the support work which preceeded the discussion.

They find that their comprehension of what other students are saying has increased because of the vocab and grammar focus before and after the Input Text (and, again, preceeding the discussion).

They find that they’re able to hear things more clearly because of the pron focus on elements of connected speech, and that other students are able to hear their ideas more clearly - therefore being able to respond in a meaningful way to the point rather than simply jumping in with whatever they wanted to say because they couldn’t actually understand the student in question.


Things spiral up: Students are able to perform better on the speaking tasks so they’re more motivated to take part next time. By taking part more often and getting more involved, they find areas of weakness they need to work on. The teacher can also identify areas of weakness and actively work on exercises and tasks that help students build these areas. The discussions run more smoothly because people are listening to each other more. The lessons are designed to focus on the key issues and provide a structure (five discussion questions is NOT enough structure) for generating ideas to discuss.

And on and on and on…

The thing is, when you do all this stuff well (i.e. processing the text for meaning and combining that with providing support for the task) and/or the students let their knee-jerk reactions fall by the wayside once they experience how effective it is, it’s all relatively “invisible” so instead of dreading conversation classes, students start to enjoy them and these lessons become much less like a trip to the dentist for you.

Your comments, as always, are very welcome… :smile:


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