posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany
When beginning learners of English as a foreign language are confronted with a challenging communicative task such as Bus Stop, how do they manage to keep the exchange going? What kinds of improvisation strategies (e.g. compensatory strategies) do they employ spontaneously? How do they negotiate meaning and coordinate turn-taking when speaking without a script? How do they help each other when target language vocabulary problems occur? How important are code-switching and code-mixing?
The following transcript documents a short dialogue between two 11-year-old German 5th grade students (after about nine months of learning English in a comprehensive school in Germany) (L = learner; T = teacher; … = pause; ? = intonation suggesting a question):
T: All right .. Benjamin .. throw the dice now
L1: It’s .. twelve /twölf/
T: So .. who has got number twelve … Dilek? … O.K. .. Once again Benny
T: Kerstin? … Very good. … Dilek and Kerstin .. go to .. em .. the bus stop and sit down please … [applause]
T: Are you ready? Let’s count …
[Whole class] THREE .. TWO .. ONE .. ACTION …
L16: Hello .. my name is .. Kerstin
L12: Pleased to meet you .. em .. Kerstin .. I’m Dilek
L16: Are you waiting /ai/ for the bus?
L12: Yes .. how about some sweets?
L16: Thank you…. [cue:] I’m on the way to the supermarket, you know … I’d like to buy … [begin impro:] … mmh … apples // apples .. bananas .. chocolate
L12: Bananas and chocolate? … for you?
L16: No .. that is for my little … brother
L12: I’m driving to .. the pet shop
L16: Pet shop? What is this?
L12: It’s for dogs, cats … and animals .. [5 sec] .. It’s in Selby Road [reference to EFL textbook used]
L16: What’s your hobby? // .. [2 sec] .. hobbies?
L12: My hobbies? .. [5 sec].. Yes .. em .. swimming
L16: Swimming? Is .. er … swimming difficult?
L12: Sorry no idea … [end impro] … Oh .. here comes my bus .. I .. go .. nice talking to you .. bye ..
L16: Good bye
T: O.K. very good … let’s stop here .. that was very good indeed .. thank you Dilek and Kerstin .. well done
The transcript indicates that even at a very early stage of their interlanguage development, schoolchildren are able to communicate effectively. In the exemplary sequence above, they do not simply ‘get a message across individually’, but interactively co-construct a target language exchange all on their own, using a number of creative, more or less convincing strategies such as, for instance, variation of intonation (rising / falling) or meaning (general / specific) or change of topic, etc. Their target language repertoire is limited, of course. Nevertheless, instruction should not be reduced to the correction of target language pronunciation and grammar errors. The focus of teaching needs to be on the tiny little ‘communicative nuclei’ that the transcript shows, for instance: “L16: Pet shop? What is this? – L12: It’s for dogs, cats, and animals”.
More to come. Stay tuned.
PS.: Much of what has been published on task-based instruction is based on research carried out outside secondary school EFL classrooms. In his book Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching, Rod Ellis (2004: 336-337) points out that “… there have been few attempts to adopt this kind of teaching in institutional contexts (such as high schools) and few truly task-based courses published to date …”. The ongoing research project Improvised Speaking in Secondary School EFL Classrooms (Kurtz 1996 – …) is just one (of these attempts).