Rehearsing Natural Communicative Behaviors with Dialogs: Seven Suggestions

Joseph Poulshock ,Tokyo Christian University



  • Key Words: Speaking
  • Learner English Level:All
  • Learner Maturity Level:All
  • Preparation Time:Almost none
  • Activity Time:Varies

Dialogs are a common way to practice language. However, they often encourage students to rehearse a number of unnatural communicative behaviors. For example, students often read dialogs with monotone intonation, and they may do this with minimal body-language. Moreover, students tend to read dialogs as written, thus failing to use creative or temporizing strategies common in real discourse. This article suggests seven means for making dialog practice more communicative. These strategies have been used successfully with beginning conversation students and should also prove helpful for more advanced levels. The strategies are defined with the acronym SPEAKER explained in detail below:

  • Short Term Memory - The ability to hold about seven bits of data briefly in memory without rehearsal.
  • Procrastination - Temporization (time-buying) techniques used when forming a response. Echoing or repeating what the speaker says for clarification, comprehension, and thinking time.
  • Ad libbing - Creative use of the language; speaking novel sentences or ideas.
  • Kinesics - Body language: nonlinguistic bodily movements, such as gestures and facial expressions.
  • Elocution - Communicative emphasis on intonation, rhythm, stress, and pronunciation.
  • Repair - Repairing mistakes naturally, as one would in real conversation, as opposed to an evaluative encounter.

Short Term Memory

Short Term Memory (STM) refers to that aspect of memory which allows us to remember briefly approximately seven chunks of information without rehearsal. For example, after hearing a seven-digit phone number, we can probably keep it in STM long enough to write it down. For dialogs, as students practice, instead of reading texts to each other, they can use STM by silently reading the text, placing a phrase in STM, and then saying it face-to-face to their partners. Thus, the use of STM in dialog practice allows students to perform other communicative behaviors as students begin to depend less on the text and more on their memories.

Procrastination and Temporizing

These terms refer to the ways native speakers use sounds and phrases to give themselves time to formulate ideas, responses, and sentences during dialog. There are many ways to buy time to formulate a response, but as students say "uh . . ." "um . . ." etc., they gain time to look at the dialog, formulate their phrase, and say it in a natural way instead of waiting painfully through a lurch of silence. Temporizing is a key aspect of these seven techniques that works together with STM as students move away from tunnel-visioned dependence on scripts to a more natural use of language.

Shadowing and Echoing

Shadowing and echoing refer to imitating or repeating what we hear speakers say to us for the purposes of clarification, comprehension, and thinking time. Murphey (1994) states that "ShadEchoing" is the action where a listener allows the words of the speaker to echo in his/her mind long enough to let STM process them. In dialog practice, listeners simply repeat (when natural or necessary) some parts or the whole of what speakers say. Thus, listeners have time to process information, and they can use this shadowing as a temporizing technique as native speakers do.

Ad libbing and Creating

Ad libbing refers to improvisation with dialogs. I have seen a script for skits done by the film actor Tom Hanks, and it was very interesting to notice that the two-time academy award winner often departed from the script. I'm not sure if this is common practice for good actors, but it seemed natural as he personalized his script. Now although our students are not actors, and they may not possess an advanced ability to create in the target language, they still can do some creative things with dialog. They can do this in other areas mentioned in this paper, such as body language and intonation, but they may also add their own ideas to the script. Moreover, if the dialog has some open-endedness in it, a motivated student may often continue asking questions of their partner and begin exchanging real information.

Kinesics and Elocution

Kinesics refers to non-linguistic communicative behaviors. It is common in many classrooms to see little kinesic energy put into dialog practice, and thus students actually rehearse negative communicative behavior. However, this is an easy problem to remedy. Teachers can model positive kinesic communication, and students can enjoy trying to communicate non-verbally as well as verbally.

Related to this is the area of elocution, I will never forget a time in graduate school when I observed a teacher who was famous for teaching pronunciation. He used simple dialogs, but turned them into dramatic productions. He would say: "Lights, camera, action!" Then like a movie director he had the students dramatize the dialog. This teacher spent a lot of time working on the enunciation of the phrases with the students. It was fun to watch, and the students seemed to enjoy doing the dialogs like jazz chants and mini-dramas. Likewise, we want our students to practice realistically in class, for monotone and lifeless readings of dialogs do not emulate most real world communication behavior.

Natural Repair

Many of my students have studied English for years, and they often have an interesting test-taking mentality about conversation. When they make a mistake, it becomes a big event in the dialog that needs to be fully corrected from the very beginning of the sentence or even the whole dialog. However, native speakers often make mistakes, but they repair them more naturally, not acting like there was some major breakdown in communication. Instead, they usually repair the mistake from the place where they made it, and then they continue on naturally. Language students should also learn this; instead of treating mistakes as failures, they need to learn to repair them as they would in their native language.


In sum, I have listed seven ways to make dialogs a better means for rehearsing real communicative behavior in the language classroom. I certainly do not want dialogs to be the central or only teaching technique. However, because they are such common fare in many language textbooks, I believe we can teach these seven techniques along with dialogs, and thus help make language education more relevant to the way real communication transpires.


Murphey, T. 1994. ShadEchoing and reformulation: KISS principles of retention and activation. Paper presented at the JALT International Conference on Language Teaching/Learning, Matsuyama, Japan, October, 1994.