TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (7)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisational enactments are communicative ‘journeys into the unknown’ (Johnstone 1999: 75), confronting secondary school learners of English as a foreign language with the complex challenges of unpredictable, meandering peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. Contrary to (ultra-)traditional teacher-centered focus on forms-instruction (which is of course a theoretical black and white construct), improvisations seek to enhance spontaneous message-oriented communication, focusing on stretching the learners’ interlanguage, rather than on teaching and adjusting it systematically in preplanned (TEFLSPEAK)-classroom discourse. A number of important and difficult questions concerning the provision of new language material, the treatment of errors, the reduction of speaking anxiety, the teacher’s role, etc. arise from this.

As research has shown, focusing on message-oriented communication in EFL classrooms alone is insufficient to achieve higher / the highest levels of accuracy in target language production. There is a substantial body of evidence in German Fremdsprachendidaktik as well as in international SLA research indicating that periodic attention to the target language system is crucial to ‘push’ learners to greater accuracy. With regard to medium-oriented learning and teaching, Michael H. Long (1997) suggests the following:

“In classroom settings, this is best achieved not by a return to discrete-point grammar teaching, or what I call focus on forms, where classes spend most of their time working on isolated linguistic structures in a sequence predetermined externally by a syllabus designer or textbook writer. Rather, during an otherwise meaning-focused lesson, and using a variety of pedagogic procedures, learners’ attention is briefly shifted to linguistic code features, in context, when students experience problems as they work on communicative tasks, i.e., in a sequence determined by their own internal syllabuses, current processing capacity, and learnability constraints. This is what I call focus on form.”

In addition, Long (1997) states that “[…] focus on form refers only to those form-focused activities that arise during, and embedded in, meaning-based lessons; they are not scheduled in advance, as is the case with focus on forms, but occur incidentally as a function of the interaction of learners with the subject matter or tasks that constitute the learners’ and their teacher’s predominant focus.”

This (strong) interpretation of the communicative approach to learning and teaching foreign/second languages is compelling – at least in theory. Nevertheless, in everyday EFL classroom practice it is highly difficult for teachers to manage the complex interplay between meaning-focused and form-focused communication and to find the right timing for form-oriented classroom discourse.

Target language ‘problems’ occurring in minimally guided, meandering learner talk-in-interaction can be anticipated by teachers to a very limited extent only. Therefore, proactive medium-oriented communication (focus on form: explicit and/or implicit, direct and/or indirect, inductive/deductive) and reactive medium-oriented communication need to be combined with message-oriented communication (focus on the negotiation of meaning) in an iterative (!!!) way. Higher levels of fluency, complexity, accuracy and contextual appropriateness in the target language cannot be achieved through improvisational activities alone, as the following (condensed) transcript shows (13-14 year-old 7th grade middle school (Realschule) learners of English as a foreign language in Germany; after about two years of traditional, predominantly frontal textbook-based instruction):

T:   So what are your favorite hobbies, Sebastian?
S1: I like to play computer games
S2: What do you play .. I mean .. which games?
S1: Yes.. I play Tetris
S3: Is the play interesting?
S4: not play .. it must be games
S3: OK .. the games .. are they interesting
S1: Tetris is funny
S4: Have you .. ähm .. do you play Doom II too?
S1: No .. I don’t know the game
S5: What do you do by this game?
S1: Do you mean Tetris?
S5: Yes, Tetris
S1: Well, I must .. I must put little .. (looking for assistance)
S6: Stones
S1: Yes I must put little stones down … in eine Reihe [in one row]
S7: Is the game easy or difficult?
S1: It’s more easy
S8: Which stage .. oder so [or so] .. do you play the game
T:   You mean level .. don’t you .. go on
S1: Yes .. level … which level? … level twelve
S3: Is the level twelve easy for you?
S1: It’s not easy .. well, it’s difficult .. because it’s too fast
S9: How many levels are in the game?
S1: fifteen
S10: It gives more levels
T: There are more levels
S1: Well, I don’t know
S11: Where do you play Tetris?
S1: In my room

Attempting to prepare learners for improvised target-language speaking through direct or indirect (grammar) instruction is paradoxical. In order for learners to act as “creative designers of meaning” (Swann & Maybin 2007; see part five of the TEFLSPEAK-series), they need to be provided with thematically relevant lexical target language material before and immediately after an improvisation (not just single words, but potentially useful phrases or lexico-grammatical chunks gathered from an appropriate corpus). In order to enhance the accuracy of speech production, they need to be given adequate feedback, including corrective feedback on substantial errors. Thus focus on form / focus on meaning is not an either-or, but a more-or-less decision, depending on the individual learner or group of learners.

More to come next week.
Johnstone, Keith (1999). Impro for storytellers. New York: Routledge.


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