Key Words: Discourse competence
Learner English Level: Beginning to advanced
Learner Maturity Level: Young adults and older
Preparation Time: Very little
Activity Time: 15 to 90 minutes
While I was vacationing in Fiji several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a Japanese woman who had been listening to "Radio English" religiously every morning for seven years. In spite of this, she couldn't speak a word of English. Since that time, I have also encountered a number of other Japanese people whose exclusive source of English language education had been "Radio English." I likewise noticed that their English ability was either nonexistent or extremely stilted. Now, while there could be a number of reasons for their inability to use English, one highly plausible explanation could be that even though they had been receiving a plethora of input, they had never had the chance to actually use the language. In other words, no output! As Woodfield (1997) states:
If asked how language is acquired, many teachers would reply that it is through comprehensible input, through understanding messages in the L2 that are just a little above one's current language level.... It seems intuitively true, however, that not only comprehension, but also production, has a direct role to play in acquiring a language. (p. 19)
Naturally, our goals in the language classroom should be not only for students to comprehend the language, but also for them to speak it both accurately and fluently. One of the components of "communicative competence" (as outlined by Canale and Swain 1980; Canale 1983) is "discourse competence." Omaggio Hadley (1993) defines discourse competence as
[involving] the ability to combine ideas to achieve cohesion in form and coherence in thought. A person who has a highly developed degree of discourse competence will know how to use cohesive devices, such as pronouns and grammatical connectors (i.e. conjunctions, adverbs, and transitional phrases), to achieve unity of thought and continuity in a text. The competent language user will also be skilled in expressing and judging the relationships among the different ideas in a text (coherence). (p. 6)
One way of achieving the aim of developing accuracy, fluency, and discourse competence is by having students reproduce stories. While the reproduction of stories is not a new technique, what is different in this approach is that students are required to tell the same story a number of times. After each telling, the students read their stories again, and then retell it to a new partner. In this way, they are able to focus on and then self-correct the errors (which are still fresh in their minds) with the next telling. As a result, the students are able to tell their stories a little more fluently and accurately each time. Furthermore, by telling the story to a different student each time, they are continuously engaged in authentic communication.
First, you will need to have a different story for each student. While I like to use stories from True Stories In The News or More True Stories, any stories can be adapted for this activity. I recommend writing the directions on the blackboard:
- Choose a story.
- Read the story silently for 10 minutes.
- Turn your story over and tell it to your partner. You cannot look at the story while telling your partner. You cannot use Japanese.
- When you are both finished, read your story silently again. This time take 5 minutes. Turn your story over.
- Find a new partner. Tell each other your stories. Remember not to look at the story.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5. (This can be repeated any number of times depending on time factors, etc.)
- Now write the story without looking at it. (Optional)
As stated earlier, any stories can be adapted to this activity. While I have not had the opportunity to use them, I believe that stories from the SRA reading lab might be an excellent choice. Also, L.A. Hill's Stories for Reproduction have a number of short stories graded at different levels.
Another variation, at the advanced level, would be to have the students change their stories in some way. This would enable the students to use their imaginations and it would also act as a preventive measure with the tendency of a few students to tell the stories verbatim.
Also, this activity can be assigned as homework with the first ten to twenty minutes of a conversation class devoted to having students working in pairs telling each other their stories. It gets the students warmed up and into the mode of using only English.
It is important to choose stories that are easy for the students to comprehend. Since comprehension of a language is usually a few stages higher than what a student can produce, it is essential that the stories are not too difficult. Students need to feel challenged, but not frustrated. Feelings of success will usually lead to an increase in motivation; feelings of frustration will lead to students giving up, and hence, apathy.
The overwhelming majority of the feedback I have received from students about this specific activity has been extremely positive. Some representative comments are:
I think that this activity is useful. By telling a story each other, we can remember to speak several patterns about one story. And by being continued and continued, we notice our mistakes our telling.... First I couldn't tell a story smoothly. Maybe I had many mistakes. But by repeating reading and telling, I could notice my mistakes.
[E]ach time we tell the story, our speaking get better and better.
I can self-correct my mistakes each time. I cant explain my story to partner well at first. But after I look at a paper again, I can remember more detail than first.
This activity is useful. I cannot understand the contents of long English story once completely. So I was able to think and correct about the story, and also I was able to put my English knowledge to practical use after my reading in this activity.
This activity is not only useful, enjoyable, and motivating, but offers a respite from lessons which tend to focus on grammar points and/or language functions. It helps students to become more fluent and more accurate speakers. It also allows for the development of discourse competence (which seems to be lacking in the practice activities of many textbooks). Moreover, acquisition is reinforced through use of the four skills of reading, speaking, listening, and writing.
Canale, M. (1983). From communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy. In J. Richards and Richard Schmidt, eds., Language and communication. London: Longman. (Cited in Omaggio Hadley, 1993).
Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1:1-47 (Cited in Omaggio Hadley, 1993).
Omaggio Hadley, A. (1993). Teaching languages in context. Boston, Mass.: Heinle & Heinle.
Heyer, S. (1987). True stories in the news. New York: Longman.
Heyer, S. (1990). More true stories: a beginning reader. New York: Longman.
Hill, L.A. (1982). Stories for reproduction. Tokyo: Oxford University Press.
Woodfield, D.J. (1997). Output and beyond to dialogue: a review of Merrill Swain's current approach to SLA. The Language Teacher, 21(9), 19.