TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (2)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

A broad spectrum of theories dealing with the learning and teach­ing of English as a foreign language are currently under discussion world-wide, ranging from cogni­tive approaches on the one hand to socio-cultural on the other. The theories are often based on very specific concepts of what a hu­man being is, and on sometimes contradictory epistemological assump­tions about the nature of (language) learning in general. Usually, however, the underlying sets of basic anthropological beliefs and values are not made explicit. One has to read between the lines, and that is, of course, highly problematic. Roughly speaking, two differ­ent images of man (Menschenbilder) can be distinguished. Whereas cognitive ap­proaches view the foreign language learner as a mental being and an increas­ingly independent self (autonomy, awareness, ‘possession’ of competence), socio-cultural approaches stress the aspect of human in­terdependence, focusing on the learner as a social being and an interdependent self (transformation of participation in social activity, ‘language use mediating language learning’ (Merrill Swain), performance, communicative and intercultural knowledge and skills seen as a participatory potential).

Both views are important, but a convincing theoretical framework which can serve as a solid basis for the design of powerful EFL learning environments and, ultimately, the implementation of effective instructional procedures and techniques, needs to integrate both, the internal (the learner / teacher as a mental being) and the external (the learner / teacher as a social being). Theories which are too re­ductive anthropologically, separating the mental from the social, are didactically less convincing, especially or at least from the teacher’s practical per­spective, and they rather widen than bridge the gap between theory and prac­tice.  

The concept of improvised speaking roughly outlined in the following is based on the funda­mental insight that learners and teachers are not ‘dualities of social being and mental being’, and that ‘the psyche of the group – the group’s values, meanings, and volitions – is a distinct entity other than the sum of the in­dividual psy­chological orientations of teacher and learners’ (Michael Breen). …

In Germany, many EFL teachers do not seem to see their students as ‘thinking social ac­tors’ (Breen) within a community of practice primarily, but as individual ‘generators of target language input-output’. The typical EFL classroom in Germany is firmly controlled by the teacher and the textbook, and the English spoken differs in many regards from everyday language use in English-speaking countries (see TEFLSPEAK (1) on this blog). On the whole, German teach­ers do try to provide a scaffold to stimulate meaningful classroom interaction and to facilitate learning within communicative contexts, but this all too often results in a massive imbalance of teacher talk and student talk. The teacher often speaks as much or even more than all the learners together. In addition to this, students rarely ask questions. There is very little room for them to take the communicative initiative, to use language creatively, to experiment with language, to extend their participatory potential in the target language, etc. Instead, they are pre­dominantly expected to answer teacher questions or react to verbal or non-verbal prompts. The typical interactional pattern or ‘syntax of action’ (Paul Drew & John Heritage) consists of three moves: teacher-question or teacher-initiated (visual) prompt; student-answer; teacher-feedback, often focused on the treatment of formal errors. As a result, Eng­lish dialogues produced in German classrooms are reciprocal to a certain extent, but there is very little room for improvisation, for creative language use, for spontaneous speaking, for ‘stretching one’s interlanguage’ and, ultimately, for experiential learning.  

In my view, EFL learners viewed as ‘thinking social actors’, not as ‘dead bodies, talking heads’ (Michael K. Legutke) need a classroom environment that helps and enables them to flexibly make use of their limited target language resources, and this means that one highly important but often neglected aspect of classroom interaction needs to be given more attention, i.e. the ‘predictability – unpredictability dimension’ of oral communication (H.H. Stern). … 

Improvisations are task-based interactive classroom activities specifically designed to enhance spontaneous und flexible (unpredictable and less formulaic) language use in EFL classrooms. They aim at allowing learners ‘to use language freely, because they offer an element of choice; to use language purposefully, because there is something to be done; and to use language creatively, because they call for imagination’ (Tony Butterfield). The basic idea is: ‘Use what you know. Learn what you can. Make up the rest as you go along’ (Trish Berrong).  

As ‘genuine’ ‘episodes of talk-in-interaction’ (Emmanuel Schegloff), improvisations provide learners with a more or less detailed procedural infrastructure of interaction which functions as an implicitly understood, shared contextual framework (contextualized, task-based learning). They encourage risk-taking: tolerance with regard to formal correctness, focus on partial learner autonomy, on impromptu communication, and on the reduction of speaking anxiety). Above all, they try to increase the learners’ communicative confidence: Why should they try to speak freely, if they don’t have anything interesting to talk about?  

However, the learning process would be incomplete without any feedback (or feedback loop). Improvisation activities consist of two parts, therefore: improvised impromptu speaking followed by a few minutes of feedback on the learners’ performance, for which not only the teacher is responsible. Of course, feedback should not only focus on formal correctness. Pragmatic / intercultural appropriateness and the discussion of communicative options should also be a central aspect of the feedback phase.  

One prototypical activity – the improvisation ‘Bus Stop’ – will be presented here in a few days. Stay tuned.


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