Tag Archives: classroom interaction

Improvisation and Creativity in EFL Classroom Discourse

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Today I finished reading From Corpus to Classroom. Language Use and Language Teaching (O’Keefe, McCarthy & Carter 2007). In my view, this is a well-written and in many ways thought-provoking book that provides a wide-ranging (largely introductory) overview of corpus-based research and its implications for foreign language learning and teaching. Since I am particularly interested in the role of improvisation and creativity in EFL classroom discourse (see Kurtz (2001) as well as the TEFLSPEAK-G series of posts on this blog), I found the following passage most interesting:

“There is a long way to go in understanding creativity in the spoken language and in exploring the applications to the classroom of such understandings, but the first steps have been taken in recognising that it has been generally underplayed within the language teaching classroom. It is something that we need to work on to bring the best out of us as learners, teachers and collaborators in the language classroom. It is a fundamental aspect of a more humanistic approach to language teaching. And it is the kind of evidence supplied by corpora of spoken language that enable these first steps to be taken.” (O’Keefe, McCarthy & Carter 2007: 197).

However, I did not find any references to research findings not published in English in this book. The more I read, the more I  became aware (once again) of the dominance of the English language in academic communication – which raises a number of fundamental questions (see, for instance, Gnutzmann 2006).


Gnutzmann, Claus (2006). Fighting or fostering the dominance of English in academic communication?” Fachsprache, 2006 (28), 195-207.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

O’Keefe, Anne; McCarthy, Michael & Carter, Ronald (2007). From Corpus to Classroom. Language Use and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Foreign Language Learning without the Foreign Language

posted by Engelbert Thaler, Freiburg University of Education, Germany

There used to be a time when English was actually spoken in the EFL classroom. The rationale behind this out-dated practice was to learn the language by using it. English language teachers did their best to make students use English as they regarded the development of students’ target language competence as the main goal of their profession. Things were bound to change, however. Scholars, teachers and administrators were no longer content with such a reduced raison d’ệtre.

In a first step they decided to enlarge the list of objectives students were supposed to attain. The four basic skills as well as the language domains of vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics simply were not sufficient. Much needed aid turned up in the form of the competence concept. Students should not focus on oral and written language use, but develop intercultural competence, method competence, inter-personal competence, intra-personal competence, media literacy and further indispensable assets.

In a second step the teacher’s role had to be redefined. The sage on the stage was replaced by the guide on the side, i.e. an EFL teacher was no longer a knower, language model, transmitter, corrector, linguist, expert, or giver (of information), but a counselor, facilitator, tutor, helper, learning manager, learner trainer, learner, and motivator.

The third step consisted of inventing alternative learning methods and approaches which allowed for ample use of the students’ native language. Innovative concepts like Freiarbeit (free work), Stationenlernen (learning at stations, carousel approach), project work, Wochenplan (weekly plan), drama approach, kinesthetic techniques, learning in motion, Community Language Learning, to name but a few, cater for manifold needs, among which the need to speak the target language may not rank highest. In particular, group work proved to be of utmost value, as it guarantees the immediate retreat into the mother tongue, with group members joyously chatting in German on private experiences they had the day before.

The triumph of pedagogy over language still needed support in academic discourse and school administration. That is why TEFL conferences abound with avant-garde scholars presenting high-flown projects which do not work in actual classroom situations; ambitious authors contribute to TEFL journals praising new methods and procedures which they have not tried out in class; young teachers are rewarded by their headmasters for projects which aim at everything but language development; teacher trainers and scholars are jumping on the language-free bandwagon leaving behind all those antiquated Sprachmeister associations.

In the post-language era the ultimate aim of foreign language teaching is the creation of an all-competent personality … who speaks German. May they live happily hereafter.

For Learners, the Mother Tongue is the Mother of all Languages

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

The mother tongue (MT) taboo – still the didactical correctness in many countries of the world –  is a patent absurdity.  There are practices bordering on the bizarre, which have been repeatedly reported in the literature. Personally, I have heaps of anecdotal evidence to support my claim. Here are just a few episodes taken from retrospective self-reports collected over many years from German university students of English who wrote about themselves as pupils and language learners:


  •  I really hated the fact that the teacher we had in grades 7-9 refused to explain English words we didn’t know in German. She just wrote the word up on the board, but only a few pupils understood her English explanations. Even when we asked her nicely if she could give us the German equivalent she became angry. But I’d better stop talking about her, as it makes me angry. Sonja
  • He very often demanded silence with the word (as I grasped it): [pikwait]. To me this was one word and I was absolutely proud when some day I recognized the words “be” and „quiet”, although I had already sensed before what he meant. Only then could I correct the pronunciation in my mind because I had identified the isolated words. Vanessa 
  • Mrs. […] tried to explain the meaning of “tall” and “small” to us, by having a little girl standing next to a huge boy. We all had no clue what she wanted from us. She repeated “Henrik is taller than Carina. And Carina is smaller than Henrik.” In addition to this she waved about with her hands. These actions confused us even more. Corinna 
  • When someone dared to ask for an equivalent, he/she was reprimanded for not paying attention. He strictly rejected the use of the mother tongue, we were forbidden to use it; if we did, we had to do some extra homework. There  never was a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom. Nicole 
  • He tried to teach us by means of the direct method. I say he only “tried to” because it did not work. This became obvious whenever he tried to explain new words, especially adjectives which described emotions or someone’s character. As certain emotions are difficult to describe, we often had only a slight hint of what he could mean and still could not grasp the real meaning of the word. Bettina
  • He practised the direct method in an orthodox form. That meant from the very beginning our mother tongue was excluded […]. We did not have the possibility of talking about real interests, but about those things we had learned before. We did not ask real questions to get real answers, we just imitated the phrases we learnt from the teacher or from the textbook. Dagmar

This is madness. And it’s scandalous. Robert L. Allen once wrote: “I discovered that even though dragging an elephant into the classroom would undoubtedly make the lesson more lively, the students would still associate the word elephant with their own name for the animal.” 


But the use of the mother tongue doesn’t stop here. All too often its role is restricted to meaning-conveyance. It should also be used to make foreign language constructions transparent. The technique of “mirroring” (as I prefer to call it) is a great way of making grammar learning fast and simple. See






We must be ready to fight a war on two fronts: against the teacher who conveniently lapses into the MT, which he shares with his pupils, simply because he is not fluent and flexible enough in the language he teaches; and against the native speaker with little or no command of his pupils’ MT.  Both groups of teachers are unlikely to know effective well-crafted bilingual techniques.


If we set things right here, millions of language learners will be positively affected.


TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (10)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

As described in the preceding posts, task-based improvisational enactments consist of scripted and unscripted communicative sequences: a) an opening part which functions as a scripted lead-in intended to ‘break the ice’ and to reduce speaking inhibitions, b) an unscripted middle part leaving enough space for a wide range of spontaneous ideas and interpretations, topics and improvised peer-to-peer exchanges, and c) a scripted final-part with which the improvised dialogue can be brought to an end once the participants feel that they cannot or do not want to go any further (in order to avoid embarrassment and speaking anxiety resulting from possible communicative breakdowns; this is the so-called ‘communicative emergency exit’ which is usually missing in traditional role-plays and simulations).

Each enactment is followed by teacher-guided or teacher-supported whole-class reflection. Here, the focus is not primarily on communicative problems and linguistic deficits, but on communicative success and on expanding the learners’ participatory repertoire in the target language. Explicit error correction is, of course, not neglected, but it is integrated in a way that is not threatening to the learners’ willingness to speak English. This then serves as a basis for subsequent enactments becoming increasingly more elaborate and flexible in terms of spontaneous target language use, as a number of classroom studies and scientific publications show (see, for instance, Kurtz 2001; Siebold 2004a (with DVD-/ROM video sequences), 2004b, 2006; Rossa 2007). From the teacher’s perspective, parts a) and c), i.e. the scripted communicative frame, can be and should be prepared in advance, whereas part b), the improvisational part in the middle, is unpredictable and emerges on the spot in the classroom. It is this part which requires teachers to distance themselves from what Sawyer has appositely referred to as educational “script-think” (2001: 36).

In this way, improvisation tasks seek to bring together two basic facets of authentic, natural, everyday communication in the EFL classroom: a) the predictability of socio-communicative scripts and behavioral patterns (unwritten scripts, socio-functional routines or event schemata) and b), the unpredictability of spontaneous ideas and topical shifts within a given socio-communicative framework.

All in all, improvisations are designed to bridge the (in some respects) artificial gap between acquisition and learning, direct and indirect, implicit and explicit foreign language instruction in secondary school EFL environments by providing a situated communicative infrastructure for classroom talk-in-interaction that is flexible enough to allow for systematic teacher-led instruction, mediation or support (scaffolding) as well as for more self-regulated, student-centered discovery learning, experimental target language use and, ultimately, the gradual emergence of communicative competence and performance in action-oriented, meaningful and challenging scenarios (see my previous post on Handlungsorientierung, i.e. on action-based / action-oriented foreign language learning and teaching on this blog).

For further illustration, here is another transcript of an improvisational enactment (9th grade learners of English at a secondary comprehensive school in Germany). Learners are sitting in a circle. (T = teacher; L = learner).

T: Ok, let me throw the dice now. Oops, that was an accident .. em .. I can’t see it from here. It’s behind that chair now. Yvonne .. Can you help? Can you see it?
L13: Yes .. em .. it’s fifteen.
T: Right .. thank you .. Who has got fifteen? Mario? Good .. Let’s give Mario a nice round of applause… Come on everybody… Clap your hands! … Applause … Yvonne, why don’t you throw the dice now?
L13: Me? Do I really have to, Herr Schneider?
T: Where’s the problem? Come on … go ahead.
L13: OK. Six.
T: Who has got six? Dennis? Fine, now we can begin.
Ls: … Applause
T: Oh yes. Sorry … right .. let’s .. em… let’s clap our hands for Dennis and .. em .. Mario. Mario and Dennis … Are you ready? .. OK, quiet please … go ahead.
L6: Em … Just a moment please. We must find out who begins first. .. 15 seconds. We are ready .. we meet us in a youth club, OK?
T: OK you two .. so you’re in a youth club now … go ahead. And the others .. listen please!

Scripted part of the exchange, the lead-in (on OHT):
L15: “Hi [Dennis]!”
L6: “[Mario!] What a surprise! I didn’t expect to see you here today.”
L15: “Well, after last night I just had to come.”
L6: “Why?”

Unscripted, improvised, spontaneously created, and as such unpredictable part of the exchange:
L15: Well I don’t know .. em .. how I can tell you this .. em .. Meike was in the ‘Sound Garden’ (a local disco) yesterday.
L6: Meike?
L15: Yes, Meike .. you remember? Your girl-friend.
L6: Em .. But I don’t have a girl-friend.
L15: Never mind, now you have one and her name is Meike.
L6: OK OK .. 5 seconds.. Meike .. em .. my new girl-friend. .. 10 seconds… alone. Em … Was she alone in the ‘Sound Garden’?
L15: At first.
L6: And later?
L15: Later she wasn’t alone. (Outburst of laughter in class).
L6: Yes … I understand .. em .. but what did you saw? What was she doing? Tell me.
L15: Em .. well .. em .. I saw her .. em .. with Christian .. em .. and he kissed her.
L6: HE? (pointing at the ‘real’ Christian in the classroom)
L15: Yes … he.
L6: So YOU kiss MY girl-friend? (addressing Christian to include him in the improvisation)
L3: No, it wasn’t me, wirklich nicht [German] (honestly).

Scripted / ‘emergency’ exit (on OHT):
L15: “Well .. I can see you want to be left alone. I think I better go now.”
L6: “OK .. thanks for letting me know.”
L15: “See you then .. [take care].”
L6: “Bye.”
Ls: …. Applause

Follow-up / classroom discussion:
T: Now before we listen to Mario and Dennis again… before we listen .. em .. to the cassette .. let me first ask you what you think about their .. em .. conversation .. 3 seconds .. Let’s collect … yes … let’s collect your first impressions .. 10 seconds .. Yes, Simone?
L1: I think it was very funny.
T: Oh really? Can you say why?
L1: Because Dennis play so cool .. em .. when he was angry about Christian .. em .. after Christian have kissed his girl-friend Meike.
T: Mmh .. OK.. what about the others? What do YOU think of the conversation?
L13: Dennis was good but Mario not.
T: Mario wasn’t? Why not?
L13: Because Mario is the best friend of Dennis .. em .. so he .. em .. I think he… em .. he must not tell Dennis about Christian and Meike.
T: You mean he shouldn’t have told him?
L13: Yes .. it’s not fair. He is not a reporter.
Ls: … mumbling …
T: OK .. calm down please. We can’t go on if you all speak at the same time. Isabell .. you wanted to say something?
L7: Hey, hör doch mal auf [German] (stop that) Tim. I want to say something!
T: Tim! Come on! Stop teasing her!
L7: I think Mario and Dennis are good friends .. and good friends have no .. äh .. Geheimnisse [German]?
T: Secrets. (writes it on the board).
L7: Yes .. and Mario wouldn’t be .. ehrlich [German]?
T: Honest.
L7: Mario… he .. he wouldn’t be .. What was the word?
T: Honest. (writes it on the board)
L7: He wouldn’t be honest if he doesn’t tell his best friend.
T: So you think that friends should always be honest to each other?
L7: Yes.
T: Mmh .. in Isa’s opinion honesty … Ehrlichkeit .. honesty (writes it on the board) is very important .. you should always be honest to your friends .. do you all agree? .. No? … 3 seconds … Who doesn’t?

This was followed by a brief ‘focus on form‘-sequence which culminated in a contextualized target language exercise, based on L7: He wouldn’t be honest if he doesn’t tell his best friend. After that, a new improvisation sequence was initiated.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Tübingen: Narr.

Rossa, Henning (2007). Improvisationen als interaktive Lernarrangements: Anwendung eines Konzepts zur Förderung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache Englisch dargestellt auf der Grundlage eigener Unterrichtserfahrungen in einem Grundkurs der Jahrgangsstufe 11 des Gymnasiums. (2. Staatsarbeit). Available online, click to read here

Sawyer, R. Keith (2001). Creating Conversations. Improvisation in Everyday Discourse. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2001.

Siebold, Jörg (Hrsg.) (2004a). Let’s Talk: Lehrtechniken. Vom gebundenen zum freien Sprechen. Berlin: Cornelsen. [mit DVD-Videodokumentation].

Siebold, Jörg (2004b), “Interaktion und Sprachproduktion in improvisierten Schülergesprächen.” In: Deringer, Ludwig (Hrsg.). Innovative Fremdsprachendidaktik. Kolloquium zu Ehren von Wolfgang Butzkamm. Aachen British and American Studies. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 149-166.

Siebold, Jörg (2006), “Unter der Lupe: Improvisierte Gespräche in einer 6. Realschulklasse.” In: Praxis Fremdsprachenunterricht, 4, 27-32.

More to come. Stay tuned.

Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” – How to Resist Questionable External Influences in Everyday Foreign Language Classroom Practice

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlruhe University of Education, Germany

Social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo is perhaps best known for his “Stanford Prison Experiment”, a world-renowned simulation study of the psychological and behavioral effects of imprisonment carried out in 1971. The study had to be terminated after only a few days because the situation in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building created inhumane and unacceptable dynamics between the male college students who participated voluntarily as either guards or prisoners. As is well known, the experiment showed that students participating as guards became increasingly authoritarian, cruel and sadistic, while their ‘prisoners’ became increasingly depressed and rebellious, showing signs of extreme stress. In The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo (2008) attempts to unearth “how good people turn evil” by coupling a detailed review of the “Stanford Prison Experiment” with a rigorous analysis of the real-world situational dynamics and the appalling, inexcusable behavior of some of the American soldiers and military police officers that became apparent in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a few years ago. Zimbardo argues convincingly that the destructive or ‘evil’ instances or patterns of behavior surfacing in Abu Ghraib were to a large degree predictable, and, more generally and rather worrying, that certain social settings and situations are likely to influence and transform normal, everyday people in ways that are detrimental, or as was the case in the Abu Ghraib prison, even scandalous and barbarous.

In my view, this book is a ‘must-read’, especially (though, of course, not only) for educators, school administrators and education policy makers, because it provides readers with a number of eye-opening insights into the origins, dynamics and sometimes extremely negative and occasionally even fatal consequences of human behavior in complex social settings and situations, especially in high-pressure contexts. As Zimbardo (2008: 445) points out, “[…] human behavior is always subject to situational forces. This context is embedded within a larger, macroscopic one, often a particular power system that is designed to maintain and sustain itself.” In order to fully understand how and why people behave and act the way they do in a certain (institutional) context, it is therefore essential to view not just the individual person, but the specific situation and the power system in the background, as these factors determine behavior in a number of often subtle ways as well (see also Kurt Lewin’s field theory).

How does this relate to foreign language education in the 21st century? It would be absurd, of course, to compare classrooms with prisons, teachers with prison guards, and learners with ‘inmates’, etc. But does this mean that what teachers do to foster foreign language learning is not subject to situational forces, and not influenced by the political / administrative system of the day? And should we not keep in mind that particularly from the point of view of the pupils, there is by definition an asymmetrical distribution of power in any classroom setting?

Research on foreign language teaching and learning has been dominated by psycholinguistic paradigms for many years, focusing primarily on the cognitive processes involved in target language instruction, but the foreign language classroom is much more than just a ‘society of individual minds’ (see Minsky 1986). It is an institutionally organized social microcosm which is also embedded in a larger setting – in a macrocosm of the socio-political, socio-economic and educational ‘systems’. This ‘mega-system’ is extremely powerful, and in recent years has wielded a massive influence on individual teachers that increasingly (at least partially) runs counter to the promotion of Bildung and Erziehung in foreign language classrooms, i.e. to academic and personal development in a holistic sense. Teaching to the test is just one example (for a more detailed discussion see my personal view on foreign language education in Germany today on this blog).

Zimbardo’s most recent book which deals with contexts and aspects of human behavior that are definitely not comparable to foreign language classroom settings is nevertheless thought-provoking. He encourages readers to think about “how to resist influences that we neither want nor need but that rain upon us daily.” (2008: 446). “Learning to resist unwanted influences” (2008: 446) is probably a recommendation too vigorous with regard to foreign language education, but teachers need to be aware of the influences exerted by the ‘mega-system’. They should distinguish carefully between what is based on research and what is predominantly politically and/or economically motivated by influential stake-holders and specific interest groups, and then rather base their foreign language instruction on scientific facts and expertise.

Minsky, Marvin (1986). The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Zimbardo, Philip G. (2008). The Lucifer Effect. Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.

Giving the Wrong Signal? The Role of ‘Signal Words’ in Teaching Tense and Aspect in the EFL Classroom

posted by Ulrike Altendorf, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

What would German learners of English do without ‘signal words’? — ‘Signal word’ is TEFLSPEAK-G, a literal translation of the German classroom term Signalwort that refers to temporal markers, mostly adverbial and prepositional phrases, taught as automatic triggers of certain tenses or aspects. Ask a non-native student of English – at secondary school or at university level – when to use, for example, the present perfect and you will get the following: a list of ‘signal words’, mostly just, ever, never, since and for, and, if you are lucky, the odd grammar rule of the categorical type.

And why not? After all, ‘signal words’ have many advantages. They work with little cognitive effort. They are easy to remember and even easier to put into practice. They spare us the onerous meta-linguistic discussion that modern teaching professionals, many of them still working in the wake of Krashen, seek to avoid. They also spare us to go into detail about a complex and still under-researched area of English grammar that even advanced students and non-native teachers of the language tend to feel insecure about.

However, it is, in my opinion, exactly the heavy reliance on ‘signal words’ that plays an important role in creating this insecurity in the first place. It makes non-native speakers dependent on a ‘safety anchor’ which is often misleading and even more often absent. As Schlüter (e.g. 2000) has shown for the present perfect, only about a third of his approximately 3,000 verb phrases were specified by temporal markers. And if the desired temporal marker occurs, it does not necessarily ‘trigger’ the tense or aspect that students expect on the basis of didacticized grammar rules. Never, for example, which EFL learners usually interpret as a ‘signal word’ for the present perfect can also occur with other tenses including the simple past. In the BNC (British National Corpus) World Edition it occurs even more frequently with the simple past than with the present perfect.

Apart form leaving students in the dark about the correct functioning of tense and aspect in English, ‘signal words’ also deprive them of communicative options. After all, tense and aspect can be used to express a range of attitudes and functions, including tentativeness and annoyance. These and other communicative functions should be available to advanced learners of English, especially if their language education prides itself in aiming at communicative competence. In order to become familiar with these options, advanced learners need to be introduced to the more complex functioning of tense and aspect, from an early, at least intermediate level onwards. It is true that ‘signal words’ come in handy for pre-pubescent beginners. With increasing cognitive maturation and language proficiency, however, teachers should gradually move away from the gross oversimplication of the ‘signal-word’ strategy. For this purpose, one should also move away from the old-fashioned prejudice that language work is inevitably boring, theoretical and irrelevant. In the hands of an able teacher, language work can be interesting and intriguing as well as cognitively demanding.

The approach outlined by Jürgen Kurtz in this blog provides a flexible methodological framework for such an undertaking. In message-oriented communication students will encounter or be made aware of situations in which a more skilful handling of a particular tense or aspect would have helped their communicative cause. In the related medium-oriented intervals, the relevant meta-linguistic information can be provided, also inductively. In the following message-oriented section, the newly acquired insights can immediately be put to the test. Unmotivated pondering over seemingly superfluous linguistic structure, which some students will have forgotten again at production stage, will hopefully become a thing of the past.

Schlüter, Norbert (2000). “The present perfect in British and American English: selected results of an empirical study.” In: Christian Mair & Marianne Hundt (Eds.). Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 313-320.

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (9)

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].