Tag Archives: improvisation

Focus on Form in the Foreign Language Classroom: Planned, Incidental, Improvised?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In this presentation, Danijela Trenkic and Michael Sharwood Smith (2001) raise some fundamental questions concerning ‘form-focused instruction’ (more precisely, they focus on learners’ attention to formal aspects of the target language in communicative SLA environments). Does it make sense to focus on form (FonF) in the classroom? Trenkic and Sharwoold Smith come to the conclusion that “there is a place for FonF instruction and feedback in [the; JK] language classroom” and “that there is a possibility that it can ultimately influence ‘knowledge of language’” – “a question to be theoretically and empirically addressed by future FonF research.” This is vague, but due to the paucity of FonF research carried out in actual secondary school foreign language classrooms, it is almost impossible to come up with further (research-based) recommendations, appropriate and suitable to the needs of all language learners. Here are, nevertheless, some additional thoughts on this subject:

As two thousand years (and perhaps more) of foreign language learning and teaching show, focusing on the form of the target language is indespensable. However, since (intercultural) communicative competence is the ultimate goal of instruction today,  ‘form-focused instruction’ needs to be placed in the wider context of developing accuracy, complexity, fluency and appropriateness as a whole.

At present, ‘message before accuracy’ seems to be the best guideline for orchestrating everyday classroom discourse and interaction in secondary schools, but – in the age of standards-based instruction and increased orientation toward measurable, skills-oriented outcome – balancing out form-focused and message-oriented communication has (arguably) become more difficult. How can learners be prepared best for the annual assessment and testing marathon (largely focused on skills, on accuracy and on discrete-point testing)? How is it possible to develop communicative complexity, fluency and situational appropriateness under these  circumstances?

Task-based instruction appears to be a promising strategy, but as research in this area shows, it is still unclear when and how a focus of form should come (before or after the task?). At any rate, mixing up form-focused and message-oriented discouse should be avoided as far as possible (see, for instance, Doff & Klippel 2007: 198-204). – ‘As far as possible’ means that learners should only be interrupted by the teacher if their utterances are unintelligable, inappropriate, etc. Otherwise, teachers run the risk of demotivating learners to use the target language productively and spontaneously.

Spontaneity (in general) should not be underestimated in this context. Since instruction always takes place in the here-and-now of the classroom situation, planning a focus on form is possible, and – whenever new grammatical structures are introduced – necessary and advisable, but in everyday classroom discourse and interaction, reacting flexibly to what learners say on the spur of the moment is equally important (i.e. treating errors spontaneously,  expanding learner utterances immediately, etc.). Future FonF research should therefore be directed at developing a more comprehensive pedagogical framework which takes into account the discrepancies of planned and unplanned (incidental), scripted and unscripted (improvised). process- and product-oriented  instruction and learning.


Doff, Sabine & Klippel, Friederike (2007). Englischdidaktik. Praxishandbuch für die Sekundarstufe I und II. Berlin: Cornelsen.


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.

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.

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].

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (8)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisations are task-driven classroom activities designed to promote spontaneous, increasingly self-regulated peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. The following example is intended to illustrate how literary texts can be used to create meaningful, stimulating and challenging opportunities for improvisational communication (in secondary schools).

The Improvisation ‘Suddenly, as if by magic’

The starting point for this communicative activity is a text passage from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (Stoker, 1897/1995: 363-365). In the novel, this is the scene where Professor Van Helsing, Arthur, Jonathan and Quincey are in the tomb where poor Lucy (who is ‘un-dead’ already) is buried (story time: September 29, night). They are equipped with all sorts of ‘useful’ things, a lantern, the Bible, a set of operating knives, a heavy hammer, and a round wooden stake sharpened to a fine point at one end. The climax is reached when Van Helsing lifts the lid off Lucy’s coffin and urges Arthur to drive the stake through Lucy’s heart to end her miserable existence as a vampire.

Before the actual improvisation can begin, teachers need to make sure that their learners fully understand the text passage in terms of vocabulary and grammar as well as setting, central characters, plot development, etc. Instead of resorting exclusively to traditional, teacher-centered and IRF-based TEFLSPEAK comprehension techniques, EFL practitioners should come up with suitable, more creative pre-, while- and post-listening and reading activities as, for instance, described in Collie & Slater’s excellent resource book ‘Literature in the Language Classroom’ (1992). This is essential in order to avoid dramatic shifts in the overall methodological design of the learning and teaching process. Since this part of the novel reads almost like a stage description, it can be used for developing traditional role-plays as well (which can also serve to prepare the ground for the subsequent target language improvisational activity).

In general, improvisations differ from traditional role-playing in that they are far less scripted, allowing learners to collaboratively and autonomously create a stretch of largely spontaneous classroom talk-in-interaction. Usually, the starting point of an improvisational activity is a selection of suitable cues which need to be finely tuned by the individual teacher to meet the learners’ target language communicative abilities and specific interests. In my experience, humorous cues which somehow alienate the original plot can help to increase the learners’ willingness to speak and act spontaneously. Here are some ideas to try out (for intermediate and upper-intermediate learners of English as a foreign language):

As Arthur took the stake and the hammer, Van Helsing opened the Bible and began to read. Arthur placed the point over Lucy’s heart.

Cue / Variation 1:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said: Who are you? And what are you doing here in the middle of the night? Arthur, who didn’t want to make her suspicious, answered: …

Cue / Variation 2:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said:
Arthur?! Why do you wake me up in the middle of the night?
Arthur: Well, we’re looking for your will.
Lucy: Here? In my coffin?
Arthur: …

Cue / Variation 3:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Count Dracula appeared and said:
How dare you disturb us here in the middle of the night?
Van Helsing: Well, we thought you might want to watch the beautiful sunrise with us.
Dracula: The sunrise?
Quincey: Yes. Look, we’ve brought sunglasses for Lucy and you.
Dracula: Sunglasses?
Jonathan: Yes, so the sun won’t harm you – well, only a little bit.
Dracula: Are you joking? …

As in the improvisation Bus Stop described in part three of the TEFLSPEAK-G series on this weblog, learners should be confronted with these or other communicative cues without any initial suggestions by the teacher.

After each improvisational enactment, learners ought to reflect on what they have come up with during the improvisation. There should be provision for error discussion, for enriching the learner’s vocabulary and for discussing alternative ways in which the learners might also have expressed themselves. This is of course important for more elaborated improvisational enactments based on this scene. (Repetition is highly important in the EFL classroom, but it should not be confused with or equated with memorized reproduction; for further details see Kurtz 2001, available only in German up to now).

Collie, Joanne & Slater, Stephen (1992). Literature in the Language Classroom. A resource book of ideas and activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Stoker, Bram (1897/1995). Dracula. New York: Smithmark. 

More to come. Stay tuned.

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.

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (6)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisations are task-driven learning opportunities (Lerngelegenheiten; Hartmut von Hentig 1993) designed to stimulate spontaneous peer interaction in the target language. The focus is on the natural reciprocity of comprehension and production in communication, on the functional and collaborative practice of the target language in flexible learning environments, on ‘transformation of participation’ rather than on (measurable) ‚outcome‘ and individuals‘ possessions of concepts and skills (see Rogoff 1998).

In order to accomplish an improvisation task, learners need to do more than process target language input and produce output. (The computer metaphor of learning is inadequate to capture the psychosocial complexity of negotiated interaction in secondary school EFL classrooms). Nevertheless, viewed from a purely psycholinguistic perspective, there is supportive evidence that improvised speaking is necessary and beneficial, and that spontaneous negotiation of meaning in increasingly less scripted target language (peer) interaction can contribute to improving ‘language processing abilities’. As Legenhausen (1999) states, “Transfer from code-focused exercises to free communicative practice is not as successful as envisaged by designers of traditional language courses. Traditionally taught learners heavily rely on a limited number of memorized and/or automatized structures, which then act as ‘islands of reliability’ in communicative interactions. … Deliberate instruction of forms does not ensure their accessibility and use in communicative situations. … In order for learners to fully exploit their language processing abilities, they need to be given ample opportunity for experimenting with linguistic forms in authentic communicative situations.”

More to come (for instance on task rehearsal and feedback, the teacher’s role, etc.). Stay tuned.

Hentig, Hartmut von (1993). Die Schule neu denken. München: Hanser.

Legenhausen, Lienhard (1999), “The emergence and use of grammatical structures in conversational interactions – comparing traditional and autonomous learners. In: Mißler, Bettina & Multhaup, Uwe (Eds.). The Construction of Knowledge, Learner Autonomy and Related Issues in Foreign Language Learning. Essays in Honour of Dieter Wolff. Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 27-40.

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