posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany
Why is improvised speaking important and valuable? How can it be incorporated into foreign language classroom practice in a systematic way? Focusing on English language teaching, Davies & Pearse (2000: 82-84) point out that in order to “develop the ability to participate effectively in interactions outside the classroom”, learners need to be accustomed to “combining listening and speaking in real time”, because “in natural listening-speaking situations the listeners must be able to handle [..] shifts of topic and unpredictable language in listening, and then they must be able to improvise their responses.”
In The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (Carter & Nunan 2001), Bygate (2001: 18) underlines the importance of improvisation as well, emphasizing that “improvised speech needs practice, but around some content familiarity.”
Lack of familiarity with content is of course not the only barrier to unscripted, increasingly self-regulated improvised speaking, i.e. to developing learners’ target language participatory abilities in secondary school foreign language classrooms. There is rather a whole range of potential barriers that may impede the development of spontaneous and flexible target language production in institutional settings, for instance:
- lack of creativity, flexibility and balance in the overall instructional design (focus on form versus focus on meaning; language as system versus language in use; scripted versus unscripted teaching; whole class, teacher-led discourse versus small-group, learner-led discourse; planned (largely predictable) versus unplanned (incidental, spontaneous, largely unpredictable) interaction in the target language;
- overaccomodation of teacher talk (TEFLSPEAK) combined with a forced immediacy of learner contributions in traditional IRF-sequences; textbook dependency and overuse / misuse; one-sidedness of error-treatment (because learners are viewed as deficient, and not primarily as successful communicators);
- thematic content failing to attract learners’ communicative interests (why should foreign language learners say anything, if there is nothing interesting to talk about from their perspective?);
- high level of speaking anxiety in the classroom; lack of learners’ self-confidence; lack of social cohesion inhibiting target language negotiation of meaning and lively peer-to-peer interaction;
- overemphasis of traditional PPP (presentation – practice – production) procedures; reduction of learners’ production to a disadvantageous minimum;
- overadjustment of target language production activities to test requirements and standardized test items (i.e. teaching to the test); lack of distinction between language learning versus language assessment activities and tasks – which, in my view, is a shortcoming in current empirical SLA research as well, resulting in serious problems concerning the ecological validity of some of the findings);
- uncontrolled use of the mother tongue, especially in learner-led, small group activities (see Butzkamm’s comment and his recommendations on this blog).
The “cultivation of the speaking skill”, as Rivers (1968/81: 94) put it forty years ago, takes time and patience. Next to and in combination with intercultural learning in institutional contexts, it is probably the most difficult challenge foreign language teachers are faced with in the Internet Age. Remembering what Rivers (1968/81: 246) wrote about this important aspect of learning is by no means anachronistic or inconsistent with modern foreign language education in the 21st century:
“The flowering of natural language use will come in its own time; it cannot be forced. When students begin to interact naturally, if only for a few minutes, we must be quick to recognize the change and let the natural interaction take over until its energy is spent. Being able to withdraw and leave students space and room to take over and learn through their own activity is the mark of the real teacher.”
However, qualitative research on improvised speaking indicates that EFL teachers can do a lot more to encourage learners actively to speak freely. Improvisational enactments can help to foster flexible target language production beyond incidental classroom speaking, if they are integrated into (well-balanced) classroom practice as early as possible and, above all, on a regular basis.
Bygate, Martin (2001), “Speaking.” In: Carter, Ronald & Nunan, David (2001). The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 14-20.
Davies, Paul & Pearse, Eric (2000). Success in English Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rivers, Wilga (1981). Teaching Foreign Language Skills. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (first edition 1968).
Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. [Improvised Speaking in the Foreign Language Classroom]. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr. [also available at Google books].