Monday, January 16, 2012

Using Dialogues

Using dialogues

For a long time memory and rote learning was out of fashion and was dismissed as part of a redundant “behaviourist past”. Recently this attitude has been readjusted. It seems to me that we can take advantage of childrens’ well-developed capacity for rote learning and memorisation.

The concept of “chunking” has highlighted the fact that a lot of day-to-day language is made up of pre-fabricated pieces of language which are easily retrieved from the memory of the speaker and easily processed by the listener. For example the exchange (for adults)

· “How do you do”

· “How do you do”

is easily remembered and hardly needs grammatical analysis. It is the formulaic exchange between two adults meeting for the first time in a formal situation. Neither party has to reconstruct this utterance each time they find themselves in this situation. The chunk is readily available in the memory and produced effortlessly. A lot of language is of this type. In fact to such an extent that we can often finish each other’s sentences. And in English this frequently happens between friends. (Politeness dictates that we try to avoid doing this when we speak to a new acquaintance or stranger.)

The argument is that the teacher can provide a lot of formulaic utterances for the students to make use of.

There are of course situations when we communicate a complex or new idea. During this type of transaction the speaker slows down their delivery and carefully selects the vocabulary and grammar to transmit their message as carefully and precisely as possible. This is demanding on both the speaker and the listener. For both it is “new”. This type of conversation is arguably less frequent.

If you can provide the learners with a range of pre-fabricated chunks, they may be able to communicate quickly and effectively by throwing up walls of communication rather than building the walls of communication brick by brick. Many young learners are accustomed to exercising their memories and are proficient at memorising and producing an extensive range of items, for example in the playground chants and songs or in the classroom the multiplication tables. This ability deserves to be exploited to the benefit of the learners.

If the speaker had to construct their message word by word each time they wished to communicate, the cognitive effort would rapidly exhaust them. It is hard work. Equally, the listener would have to engage in such a concentrated mode of listening that they too would rapidly become exhausted.

In addition there is a strong argument that, given the human need to find patterns and connections to make sense of the world around them, the students, if given enough data (language chunks), will start to deduce and acquire a lot of the basic grammar which glues the language together. It will not be a conscious process necessarily, but it will be happening.

Elicited dialogues

Dialogues are a useful way to get students using language embedded in a meaningful context. The exchange can be restricted and controlled by the teacher demanding accurate production. The skilful teacher will provide clear clues and prompts to convey the meaning to the students. Pace and clarity is critical. The procedure should be demanding, engaging and fun. It should not go on for too long.

These are accuracy-based activities where the teacher elicits familiar language from the students or provides new language meaningfully and builds up the short conversation or story with students getting lots of careful practice of the language. Do you remember the dialogue we did on the 2nd day between the 2 friends? One of them had just been to the hairdresser and looked like Dracula! This was a procedure I followed:

A basic procedure

1) Select the language to be practised. This can include tenses, functional language and vocabulary.

2) Write out a dialogue / narrative which you feel would be appropriate and useful or select it from the coursebook.

3) Revise / focus on the target language e.g. look like

4) Revise /pre teach any key vocab students will need.

5) Use prompts (mime, pictures, drawing etc), to show the context and meaning.

6) Elicit the first line from the students.

7) Practise the first line round the class. Lots of individual practice. Everybody should be able to say the first line accurately!

9) Move on to elicit- establish- practise the next line as above.

10) Recap to include the first line with one student.

11) Elicit- establish- practise - recap the next line and so on till you have built up a short dialogue orally.

12) Students now write it. Check this written record for accuracy...spelling etc.

13) Students could use the framework of the dialogue to substitute other ideas and language.


• Picture stories (large cards or photocopies)

• WB drawings.

• WB word prompts

• Photos.

• teacher mimes / students mime

• Video

Remember to be unrushed and steady in your procedure. Demand accuracy once the dialogue is established. Do not allow variations to intrude. This will confuse the students and allow the dialogue to “wobble”. Your skilful correction is essential.

To summarise the steps.

· Elicit/Give line 1 via clear clues prompts

· Drill it

· Elicit/Give line 2 via clear clues prompts

· Drill it

· Re-elicit line 1 and join it to line 2. (The students can now say line 1 and line 2 in conjunction

· Elicit/Give line 3 via clear clues prompts

· Re-elicit line 1 and join it to line 2 and 3 (The students can now say line 1,2 and 3 in conjunction


Peter Redpath 2012

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