The Language Teacher
November 2002

Template-Based Conversation Cycle

John Hopkinson

Aichi Gakuin University



Key Words:Groupwork, conversation technique, grammar
Learner English Level: All
Learner Maturity Level: All
Preparation Time: Five minutes
Activity Time: 15-45 minutes
Materials: None

This activity allows students to create short conversations in which they fit personal information into phrasal or grammatical templates. It requires no preparation beyond a little thought, maximizes speaking practice time, can run for some time, and appears to be highly enjoyable. In fact, the first time I tried this I was astonished that the students--in a relatively reticent class--didn't seem to want to stop even after 45 minutes or so.

For the purpose of this exercise, a template is nothing more than a sentence with gaps the student must fill in, such as:

When I _____, I used to _____, but now I _____.

As you can see from the examples further on, I try to make the templates as rhetorically natural as possible. Explaining how certain conversational markers such as you know to presage a new topic are used or how rhetorical questions may be used to provide emphasis.

Step 1: Firstly, write a number of diverse templates on the board, arranged in a circle with arrows between them, so as to create a clockwise cycle. Label the template in the twelve o'clock position as the starting point, perhaps by underlining it, or by writing start in a different color chalk.

Step 2: Students can then form themselves (or be formed) into small groups. It is important that the number of students in each group differs from the number of templates in the cycle, so that each time the cycle is completed the students are not creating the same kind of sentences.

Step 3: Label the students in each group A, B, C, etc., and indicate that they are to take turns completing sentences in the forms of the templates on the board. Indicate that having reached the start point again they are to continue, as they will be making different sentences each time around. Simply creating sentences is not particularly interactive, so in the center of the cycle where it will always be under the students eyes, I write a kind of role script At its simplest this could be something like:

Your turn: Make a sentence.
Others: Ask a question about that.
Or more challengingly:
Your turn: Make a sentence. Give another piece of information.
Others: React. Ask two questions. Give an opinion.

This opens a chance for the instruction and practice of conversational techniques, as well as language structure.

Step 4: After 10 minutes or so, stop the exercise and ask all the As to raise their hands. They should then bid their group farewell and move on to another group. Repeat this step every 5 or 10 minutes, nominating a different letter each time, and off they go, mingling, getting to know each other, and practicing English, while the templates provide an element of control. As the classrooms at the university where I work feature that bane of language teachers everywhere--rows of desks and seating bolted to the floor--I usually ask my students to do this exercise standing up in the aisles between the desks, which facilitates the subsequent changing of group members.

Step 5:The templates themselves are interchangeable too; once the structures in the cycle have been thoroughly practiced they can gradually be erased and replaced by others. Thus a cycle with the aim of providing controlled practice of functions of a specific grammatical topic, the present perfect tense perhaps, might contain templates such as:

You know, I've never_____ but _____.
The _____est _____ I've ever _____ is _____.
I haven't_____ yet today / this month / recently.
Did you know that I've been _____ for _____ now?

It can quite naturally be made to segue into an entirely different cycle such as reviewing structures studied in previous lessons. In the template gaps, one could also write grammatical indicators (such as a small n to indicate a noun), to remind students what kind of grammatical element is required.

This exercise has turned out to be extremely flexible, useful, and has the added charm of simplicity with minimal preparation.

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