"Turning up the heat": Energizing Conversation with Cassette Recorders

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Duane Kindt, Nanzan University


  • Key Words: Conversation, Learner development
  • Learner English Level: High beginner and up
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior high to Adult
  • Preparation Time: Approximately 30 minutes
  • Activity Time: 45 minutes

I'm sure you've noticed that some students in English language classes tend to speak English only when you are standing near them. This presence pressure is, however, not very effective. So what can we do, especially if active communication is our goal, to "turn up the heat" on students' language production? One way is to use cassette recorders.

Before recording, I introduce a topic-based speaking task (e.g., describing a part-time job) with one of an eclectic assortment of activities. Then I refer students to examples: conversation cards and a conversation transcript from former students performing the same task (Kindt, 2000). Guided by those examples, students prepare their own conversation cards (e.g., see Part-time jobs card, Figure 1).

In the next class, students bring their completed cards, and we review the topic and example conversation. Then students prepare to record by practicing two or three times with different partners.

Getting a large group of students to record is not as difficult as it may sound -- even with only one recorder per group of three or four students. One student records a 3- to 5-minute conversation on his or her cassette tape, then removes the cassette and passes the recorder to his or her partner. The partner takes the recorder, moves to a new partner, and records the next conversation. After the second conversation, the recorder is again passed to the partner who did not record, and the process repeats until all students have a taped conversation.

The benefits of recording

There are several benefits of using recordings beyond simply "turning up the heat." Students also transcribe and self-evaluate parts of their recordings. This process, called Recording Conversations for Student Evaluation (RCSE)--a variant of Videoing Conversations for Self-Evaluation (Murphey and Woo, 1998) -- allows students to look more closely at their language use and to learn from one another. After transcribing for roughly 30 minutes, students make a Conversation Noticing Card. To complete the Noticing Card and prepare to talk with classmates about what they learned from the RCSE process, students answer the following questions: (1) What did you think about recording your conversation? (2) What are a few things you said that you liked? (3) What were a few things your partner said that you liked? (4) What are your goals for the next conversation? and (5) What grade would you give yourself for this conversation? An example of one student's answers to these questions is in Figure 2.

Students come to the next class and talk to two or three classmates about the recording process, their transcriptions, and their noticing cards. They note any new words and expressions from their partners, and I give them global feedback both verbally and in a class newsletter. The newsletter summarizes their action comments, which are similar to action logging (Murphey, 1993), but written on the back of their conversation cards (Figure 3). Thus, recordings and transcriptions give teachers valuable data for developing subsequent lessons and materials.

What recordings cannot do

Recordings do not show non-verbal communication (though several students tried to remember such communication and entered it in their transcriptions). Also, tape recorders cannot replace or recharge their own batteries, and this takes time. Numbering the recorders and keeping a log of "dead" machines is helpful. Recorders cannot adjust their own speed, make students speak directly into the microphone, or eliminate external noise. Students making these mistakes soon learn how to make successful recordings. By the second or third recording, most students feel comfortable with the system.

Comments from students on the first day of recording

Students' written comments generally support the use of recorders:

"I think it made me improve my English skill. Because I can learn a lot of words from partners."

"It was fun . . . because I could listen how I speak English."

"I think to know how I speak is good progress."

Some comments, however, are cause for concern:

"I tense up and can't speak better than usual." "My partner and my voices are trembling. I should prepare more."

"I didn't know my voice was different from the voice I hear. I was shocked and surprised."

As students get used to hearing their voices and realize the benefits of preparation, these kinds of comments diminish.

Comments also supported the RCSE process:

"Writing transcription was so interesting."

"My friend's transcription did very well. Next I will hold out to make this card."

"My partner teach me my fault."

"I had some reflection about transcription. So, this card is very useful."

In fact, not one student in my classes has written that the recording process is without value.

A word of caution--and encouragement

While it is true that turning up the heat on students who are not ready can be disastrous, it is extremely difficult to get all students perfectly ready for just about anything. Through classroom experience, understanding of how our students interact, and their ongoing and written feedback, we can at least approximate when the class is "ready," and then use recorders to get them more focused on communicating in English. Oh! And remember to bring several extra batteries and cassettes.

Internet resources

Interested teachers can learn more about recording conversations, conversation cards, and class newsletters at:





RCSE and VCSE are supported by generous Pache-IA grants from Nanzan University.


Kindt, D. (2000). Don't forget your SOCCs! Nagoya: Sanseisha.

Murphey, T. (1993). Why don't teachers learn what students learn? Taking the guesswork out with action logging. English Teaching Forum, January, 6-10.

Murphey, T. & Woo, L. (1998). Videoing conversation for self-evaluation: Educational video's diamond in the rough. The Language Teacher, 22(8), 21-24.