Tag Archives: improvised speech

MIDTESOL 2016 Conference: Innovation and Improvisation

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Midtesol 2016 Conference Kansas City

The MIDTESOL Annual Conference 2016 will be held September 30 to October 1 at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown in Kansas City, MO. The conference theme is “Innovation and Improvisation“.  I have been doing qualitative research on improvisation and improvised speaking for about twenty years now, so I am very glad to say that my proposal for a paper entitled “Structure and Improvisation in the EFL Classroom” has been accepted for presentation. This is what I am planning to talk about:

Improvisation is a complex phenomenon that has attracted little attention in foreign language learning and teaching research until now. Since improvisation is not only related to cognition and competence, but to goal-directed and spontaneous behavior and performance as well, it is difficult to bring in line with the traditional view of teaching as transmission of knowledge and skills, i.e. of delivering a prescribed curriculum, attending to a particular methodology, following a specific procedure, actuating a lesson plan, and interacting in pre-arranged ways. Moreover, since it encompasses attunement to a situational context (including attunement to others, also referred to as ‘tact’ or ‘tactfulness’ in scholarly discussions), spontaneous decision-making, and problem-solving, improvisation also contrasts with current educational ideologies and trends that place extreme emphasis on standardization, outcome-orientation, and testing.

In my video supported talk, I am going to illustrate and discuss the potential of improvisation for flexible (or ‘adaptive’) instruction in the EFL classroom. I will also present an instructional framework for enhancing oral proficiency which is based on the assumption that increasing the improvisational demands on EFL learners by confronting them with progressively less predictable communicative settings and scripts can contribute substantially to the gradual transformation and expansion of their participatory repertoires in the target language English.

CAES International Conference: Faces of English Theory, Practice and Pedagogy

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

The Centre for Applied English Studies at Hong Kong University will be hosting an international conference titled “Faces of English: Theory, Practice and Pedagogy” in Hong Kong on 11-13 June 2015. According to the organisers, the conference aims to bring together academics, researchers, practitioners and research students from around the world to discuss the interdependence between theory and practice, with papers which focus on the analysis, description and teaching of English in order to better understand the ways in which theory, research and pedagogy interact and inform each other. It also welcomes participants to share practical ideas and teaching materials related to the use of English in a variety of social, professional, educational and virtual contexts.The keynote speakers and post-conference workshop facilitators are:

Rod Ellis, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
Keynote: Teacher as input; Workshop: Consciousness-raising tasks for grammar teaching

Bonny Norton, University of British Columbia, Canada
Keynote: Digital ways, unequal worlds: Identity, investment, and English language learners in changing times;  Workshop: Critical practices in the assessment of writing

David Nunan, The University of Hong Kong
Keynote: Language learning beyond the classroom;  Workshop: Designing projects for out-of-class learning

Wen Qiufang, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China
Keynote: Production-oriented approach to teaching adult English learners in Mainland China;  Workshop: How to implement POA in English teaching

Ken Hyland, The University of Hong Kong
Keynote: Anecdote, attitude and evidence. Does English disadvantage EAL authors in international publishing? Workshop: Writing for international publication in Applied Linguistics and EFL journals

I have been invited to give a talk on ‘Standards-based instruction in EFL classrooms in Germany: Creaticide by design?’. This is my abstract:

Looking at recent education reforms in the U.S., the American education psychologist David Berliner (2012) cautions against placing too many expectations on standards-based reforms, on thinning down school curricula, and ultimately, on conceptualizing education in terms of testing and measurable outcome primarily. In his view, reducing education to competency-based instruction and the demonstration of knowledge and skills in centralized performance tests may eventually have some undesirable backwash effects. Sooner or later, frontline practitioners might adopt a ‘teaching to the test-mentality’ which in turn could contribute to a classroom learning atmosphere overshadowed by fear of failure. In this context, Berliner (2012) warns against ‘creaticide by design’ in the classroom.

In my talk, I would like to briefly outline and problematize the state-of-the-art of competency-, standards- and test-oriented theorizing in Germany, placing special emphasis on the (largely neglected) role of creativity and improvisation in learning English as a foreign language. Based on qualitative-empirical case research carried out in a number of EFL classrooms in Germany over the past 20 years, I would also like to illustrate how teachers can foster creativity and improvisation in meaningful, task-driven, partly scripted and unscripted classroom settings.

Berliner, D. (2012) ‘Narrowing Curriculum, Assessments, and Conceptions of What It Means to Be Smart in the US Schools: Creaticide by Design’, in Ambrose D. and Sternberg, R.J. (eds), How Dogmatic Beliefs Harm Creativity and Higher-Level Thinking. New York: Routledge, 79-93.

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 (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.

Rogoff, Barbara (1998), „Cognition as a collaborative process.“ In: Damon, William (Ed.). Handbook of Child Psychology. Fifth edition. Volume II: Cognition, Perception, and Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 679-744.

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (1)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

TEFLSPEAK-G (the acronym refers to the many facets of non-native target language discourse in German EFL classrooms) is a sub-variant of English which is – at least in detail – almost unknown in the so-called Inner, Outer and even in parts of the Expanding Circle of the English-speaking world. It is, however, by no means new. Its history is quite outstanding and it can at least be traced back to the European EFL reform movement about a century ago when learning to speak the target language became one of the core objectives of teaching English as a foreign language. Certain features of TEFLSPEAK-G may even have evolved much earlier than that, probably as a result of the dominance of the old grammar-translation method that was used in many schools throughout Europe at that time.

In a nutshell, what are the main characteristics of TEFLSPEAK-G and its usage in many secondary schools in Germany?

As a sub-variant of ‘EFLese’ (Mario Rinvolucri), TEFLSPEAK-G deviates in many regards from everyday language use in English-speaking countries, for the most part because it is carefully controlled classroom discourse aimed at providing a scaffold to stimulate classroom interaction and to facilitate foreign language learning. As such it is very often closely related to EFL textbooks produced in Germany and based on individual non-native teachers’ beliefs of how English works and how it should be used most effectively and efficiently under the given institutional circumstances. In more detail, we can say at least that:

One of the central features of TEFLSPEAK-G use in the classroom is the quantitative imbalance of teacher talk and student talk. In TEFLSPEAK-G dominated lessons, the teacher often speaks as much or even more than all the students together. In addition to this, students rarely ask questions. Instead, they are predominantly expected to answer teacher questions or react to verbal or non-verbal prompts. The typical interactional pattern consists of three moves: teacher-question or teacher-initiated (visual) prompt; student-answer; teacher-feedback, often focused on the treatment of formal errors. As a result, English dialogues produced in German classrooms are reciprocal to a certain extent, but they are a long way away from being authentic compared to natural everyday English exchanges outside the classroom (see the large-scale empirical study DESI (German-English-Student-Achievement International) at www.desi.de).

TEFLSPEAK-G tends to pertain to the more formal norms of written language, rather than the specific grammar of authentic speech outside the classroom. Typical features of ordinary spoken English such as tags of all kinds, pragmatic markers and co-operative speech overlap are either under-represented or completely missing (instead, German tokens like ‘ähm’ or … may occur). One reason for this is that they can hardly be found in EFL textbooks (including the manifold resources accompanying them) which are still quite often the one and only basis of classroom discourse. In consequence, TEFLSPEAK-G discourse appears to be relatively stiff, distant and pedantically controlled by the teacher on the one hand, on the other lacking the relaxed atmosphere as well as the spontaneity and flexibility of authentic oral exchanges.

As ‘textbook talk’ that is often tightly controlled and generally lacks many substantial elements of authentic conversation, TEFLSPEAK-G does not prepare learners very well for English as it is used outside the classroom. Being able to make a grammatically correct oral contribution to a lesson once in a while is one thing. But it is hardly comparable to the ability of actively participating in spontaneous real-life conversations where contextual inappropriateness can lead to more serious problems (in terms of intercultural misunderstandings) than formal correctness.

Of course, TEFLSPEAK-G is a communicative compromise that is, to a certain extent, necessary and unavoidable, because of the dual status of English being the target language and central learning objective and, at the same time, the main medium of communication and instruction in the EFL classroom. Teachers who restrict themselves to using TEFLSPEAK-G only, without trying to systematically elaborate their individual classroom language towards naturalness need to be aware, however, that they run the risk of being perceived by their pupils as communicative control freaks who continuously make use of the same ‘didactic’ jargon, and who seem to expect their pupils to become functional only within this specific field of language use. As a negative by-product of all this, speaking anxiety is quite often considerably high in German EFL classrooms.

In general, this leaves German learners of English with a serious problem. On the one hand, they are constantly exposed to a variant of English which can differ significantly from what is commonly used outside the classroom. On the other hand, they are expected to ultimately become functional in a remarkable variety of real-life situations in the English-speaking world.

My short outline of classroom English usage in Germany would be unbalanced and unfair, though, if the attempts undertaken by large numbers of secondary school teachers to make EFL classroom interaction more natural and flexible were not taken into consideration. A number of widespread approaches, techniques and procedures need to be mentioned in this context, e.g. situational teaching, language games, role-play and drama, simulation, to name just a few. But how effective and efficient are they?

Although we do not have enough empirical data worldwide, and we do not have enough classroom-based in contrast to classroom-oriented research, many EFL teachers in Germany share one basic experience. Stephen Speight, one of my former colleagues at the University of Dortmund, Germany has described this experience in the following way:

“‘Situational teaching’ some­times means that children memorise their roles in playlets, and can rattle off a tele­phone conversation or a chat around a tea-table in a grand style. As a rule the ability to ‘think on one’s feet’ which is so essential a feature of any real conversation, is not taught. As a result, the slightest variation in the dialogue is likely to cause a breakdown.”

I would like to add some anecdotal evidence here. This is what I observed and wrote in my teaching diary during an excursion to London with a group of German 7th graders:

‘Today I saw three of my pupils standing in front of a bakery near a bus stop where we all wanted to meet again that afternoon. They obviously intended to buy something, but they were hesitant to go inside because they were not really sure what to say. I noticed that they tried to anticipate and somehow simulate a ‘bakery situation’ in advance: What can we say when we enter the bakery? What does (…) mean in English? What happens if do not have enough money? etc. After a while they went in. But after about 30 seconds only I saw them coming out of the bakery hastily without having bought anything. Back in the youth hostel that evening I asked them what went wrong and they told me that something beyond their carefully planned ‘bakery script’ had happened. The woman behind the counter had asked them something they did not understand. So they panicked and left the bakery.’

This is, of course, no scientific evidence, but it reveals one basic problem: at least some German learners of English seem to find it difficult to make use of their so-called foreign language competence spontaneously, more specifically, they are not really able to adapt to authentic speech situations which are quite often unpredictable. In other words, they are not able to improvise, to creatively use their own linguistic resources to ‘function’ in authentic real-life exchanges.

In my view this is problematic or at least remarkable, since we already know a lot about the importance of improvisation for human survival in general and the necessity of improvised speaking in the EFL classroom in particular.

More to come next week. If you don’t want to wait, go to books.google.com for a preview of my book on improvisation tasks in secondary school EFL classrooms (in German) (“Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht”).