One of the conventional wisdoms says don’t correct or interrupt the flow during a conversation class. We can see the point and it’s fine as far as it goes. But the danger is that it develops into a demand low activity.
I do not want just to correct/interrupt. I want to constantly tend to, upgrade and intervene in order make sure the fire is burning hot. So….personally I don’t have any problem, throughout the classdebate on public transport / law and order etc, in constantly upgrading their language using the tools of minimal interference. For example, my interventions are either silent, or sotto voce but clearly on a different wavelength from the discussion, and might be to the effect:
- “Yes, but in English please” (ie join it up and make it faster)
- Or I gesture to join the words up
- Or I say “Ok you got it, now faster please…”
- Or I point at a phoneme or the chart, ie attend to that
- Or if another vocab item is needed I give it silently via the chart
- Or I wordlessly invite a repeat, which allows a self correction/improvement
- Or I wordlessly invite word addition, deletion, or changed order
- Or I may just point in the direction of the chart, which means “Check out your pron…”
- Or I might say “Now could you summarise what you said….”
So all my interventions are paradoxically NOT interruptions, but the ARE upgrades, which keep the students watchful and alert while they have their conversation. I find this enhanced quality of attention also leads to a better conversation, better English, and greater learner engagement and satisfaction with achieving something worthwhile.
By the way, I don’t write down a list of errors to deal with at the end of these so-called ‘fluency’ phases. I am aware that is standard practice, but I deal with problems either exactly when they arise, in the heat of the moment, at the point of purchase, or never. I’m not recommending this, but it’s what I do. And what I have is multiple ways of upgrading language (structure, vocab, word order, pron) without interfering (much) in the stream of what is being said.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment: These students have not paid their time/money to come and have that debate on public transport. If that was their overriding focus they’d go elsewhere for such a debate. They have come to learn English, and they don’t want me tiptoeing round a mediocre conversation about transport out of desperate fear of stopping the flow. The time to improve and upgrade the flow is during the flow, not when the flow has stopped. I think I can have a better flow of conversation by subtly upgrading it constantly throughout until they are all on the lookout for content, form and quality themselves. You can do this once you are confident with minimal upgrade techniques (which include pronunciation of course) ie minimal intervention with maximal upgrade.
12 responses to “Demanding Higher in a Conversation Class”
Thank you for taking the bull by the horns and addressing the unaddressable: Intervention vs. fluency.
I, too, despair of the “intervention during accuracy activities X laissez-faire during freer conversation” paradigm. So many problems with this model:
1. Intervening during accuracy activities is certainly the easiest thing for the teacher to do, but not necessarily the most effective. I think it’s intervention when students are trying to convey their own meanings that helps the most.
2. At higher levels, there’s usually less controlled oral practice in class. This means that if we stick to the time-honored principle of no intervention during meaning-oriented work, there’ll be very little feedback at intermediate / advanced levels, which, ironically, is when students would profit from feedback the most.
3. I use delayed feedback techniques very sparingly. too. One, students rarely remember making whatever mistakes we choose to highlight. Two, I think feedback works best when students have a chance to try things out again – to have another go at getting right whatever they got wrong. This means that “Well, this is what you should’ve been saying all along. See you next Tuesday” is probably not a very effective thing to say.
I really like the sorts of interventions you propose. During fluency-activities, to keep demand high, teachers ought to train themselves to listen with two ears: one for meaning, one for form.
Also, I think it’s important to bear a few parameters in mind:
1. Emotional impact: I tend to intervene a bit less if the message carries a lot of emotional significance (“my dog die on Tuesday”).
2. Length of utterance: The shorter the turn, the easier it’ll be to intervene and the less likely students are to lose their train of thought.
3. Likelihood of recurrence: I tend to intervene more if I feel that a particular utterance is likely to resurface in the discussion – you know, nipping it in the bud.
Adrian, again, thank you. I hope this gets read by lots of teachers.
Great article Adrian. I work in some places where we have to give follow-up error correction sheets. One week I sent the wrong one and nobody noticed.I then realised that nobody ever reads them.Correcting and supporting during the activity is far better. Students remember it too. I then recycle and extend it later on.This is far more suitable for adults and Business clients in my opinion.
Phil, your story reminded me of a lesson I observed once. The teacher seemed very keen on delayed feedback and avoided any other sort of intervention at any cost. He did jot down lots of mistakes and wrote them on the board at the end of the lesson. It turned out, though, that the mistakes he chose were not the most recurrent ones, or the most relevant ones (intrinsically and/or to the task at hand) or the ones that were closest to students’ probable ZPD. He probably chose the mistakes that he HIMSELF liked correcting. You know, maybe neat explanations he’d come up with, fun examples and so on.
I thought of that too so I generally make lots of notes based on their level, their goals etc. I often use a sheet with columns for errors, basic language (for their level) +better suggestions and other language which you would expect someone of their level or the next to use. This helps me see gaps in their speaking as well as errors. I tend to avoid slips. Then, after the class I highlight the most relevant notes, group them and add on 20% more to push them further. I also include websites for further practice and reading/listening for further exposure and challenge.
As I said in my post, most students never read this document. Yes, in an ideal world they would but in mine they respond best to help during the conversation.
Thanks Adrian for bringing up a subject that has been haunting me for some time. How can I really help my students to speak better/be fluent??
I, too, feel that if there is no intervention at the moment they are making mistakes, the students will leave class feeling great for speaking a lot but totally unaware of their poor quality production. They feel happy, I feel frustrated. But, frequently, when intervention occurs, they are so concentrated in giving their opinion that they don’t even pay attention to your intervention…..
That’s true, Laide. That means you’ve got to decide right there and then how to intervene (if at all). In my experience, the one technique that does NOT work is interrupting students mid-sentence. Other than that, there are lots of things we can try. It all depends – on the students, on the circumstances, on their English (more fluent than accurate? more accurate than fluent?), on the emotional attachment to the sentence containing the mistake…
Interesting post, thanks.
I agree students need to be challenged, but I think that more than teacher intervention, it’s the task (or exercise) that has to help the students push the enevelope a bit. I think that a more direct, and, ultimately, downright honest approach to teacher intervention such as the one you use with your classes makes perfect sense, but it is inextricably linked with the context one operates in. As an example, in France, where I’m based, a great majority of my students often harbor very antagonistic, negative feelings towards English and learning English because when they were in school, they were often ridiculed by their teachers, or were scolded for making mistakes (god forbid!), or made to feel inadequate some way or other. Now, I know that’s not the kind of intervention you’re advocating, but I need to be cautious and tread very carefully because no matter how gentle and sensitive I try to be, to some students just trying to regain confidence, my attempts to upgrade the exchange as you call it, will smack of school and will be perceived as yet another put down.
Of course, I’m not in favor of anything goes, I’m just saying that in some cases, with some students short on confidence, delayed feedback may actually work best. Until they’ve learned to trust the teacher, but with some, this may take some time. So, demand high, but with an eye to where the human being is at.
Just slightly off the subject: it’d be interesting to expand a little and discuss Trainer’s intervention in TT sessions, maybe not here?
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I think this is an excellent idea and has given me few more ideas – one that I have (from a colleague) is an ‘S’ on a stick and I simply hold it up while students are speaking to help them to remember to add it to the verb. Thanks for the new techniques to try!
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