ESL teachers are good at what they do.
They teach grammar, vocabulary, reading…the pieces of language students need to know. But what can get laid by the wayside, even for the best of teachers, is an aspect of language not so easily diagramed in a text book. Discourse. Discourse is simply language used in conversation. Yes, ESL students spend lots of time talking to one another in class, doing speaking activities and such. But just because two people are speaking doesn’t mean they are having a conversation, especially when it’s prompted by the textbook. So how does an ESL teacher begin to address discourse skills in the classroom?
Here are some tips and strategies you can teach your students for navigating discourse successfully in English.
3 Aspects ESL Students Need to Know about Turn Taking in Discourse
What English Speakers Expect
Good conversation has certain qualities. Some qualities are shared by many cultures, and others are less common. Native English speakers tend to have some common expectations when it comes to conversation. ESL teachers cannot assume their students know these expectations, so it’s worthwhile to go over them with your class. Here are some of the expectations you should review with your ESL students to prepare them for successful discourse with native speakers.
- Shared speaking time: In a good conversation, everyone participating should have relatively equal speaking time. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who wouldn’t let you get a word in edgewise? They lacked appropriate discourse skills. They were dominating the conversation. It’s frustrating, and you can leave the conversation feeling as though you have been spoken at rather than spoken to. ESL students can err on the opposite end of the spectrum. They can be timid and afraid to participate in conversation because they lack confidence in their English skills. ESL teachers would do well to point out to their students that a good discourse skill is holding your own in the conversation, participating, not letting the other person dominate. Not only that, it’s expected by native speakers, too.
- Not speaking over the other person: Even when speakers share speaking time, one person can feel as though they were not respected in the conversation. That can happen when one person speaks over the other. They interrupt. They do not allow the other to finish their thought before jumping in with their own. If you teach your students to actively listen, listening to understand rather than to respond, they will probably not interrupt their discourse partner. Still you should address this discourse skill with your students. They need to understand that if another person speaks over them in conversation, that person is showing a lack of respect toward them as well as a lack of social skills.
- Easy shifting between speakers: The opposite of speaking over one another is smooth transitions between speakers, and that is a characteristic of good conversation. Depending on what a speaker wants to say, they can use different phrases and strategies to make those transitions. I’ll give you a few specifics in just a few minutes.
- Easy shifting between topics: One thing that makes real life conversations different from fabricated ones in the ESL classroom is that they often cover a multitude of topics. While conversation exercises often have students talking about one particular thing or using a certain grammatical structure, real life conversations jump from one topic to the other. Sometimes the speakers aren’t even aware they are moving from one to another. That’s because transitions are usually smooth. You can assure your students that if they are moving from one topic to another in conversation and those shifts are smooth or unnoticeable, they are displaying good discourse skills.
- Little to no silence: Have you ever heard of the seven minute silence? It’s a phrase coined to talk about that awkward silence that tends to happen in natural conversation. Some people say it happens every seven minutes. And while it may not be possible to avoid awkward silences all together, the best conversations do not have them. That’s another characteristic of good discourse. The awkward silences are few and far between if they exist at all. You may need to point out to your students that silences in English conversations are generally considered awkward and may be a signal that your student is not holding his own in the conversation.
Strategies for Good Discourse
Not that your students know what good discourse looks like in English, here are some tools they can use to practice it.
- Speakers can use phrases to signal they want to interrupt the other person, without speaking over them. Try phrases such as the following: before you go on…can I say something here?...I hate to interrupt but…sorry to interrupt but…oh that reminds me of something…
- Speakers can signal that they are not ready to turn the speaking role over to their partner. They can use sounds such as um and ah to hold the speaking role while they are thinking of something else to say. Note the sounds used to hold the speaking role are not the same in every language. For example, when I was learning Chinese, I was taught that instead of saying um, I should say shema…. You may want to take a moment to discuss what sounds are used in your students’ native languages to hold the speaking role in discourse.
- Speakers can also signal that they would like their partner to wait before interrupting by using certain phrases. Teach them the value of phrases such as the following: I can see you want to say something but…if you could just let me finish before you jump in… can you hold that thought for just a minute…just let me finish what I was saying… By using these phrases, transitions between speakers will be smoother and speakers are less likely to talk over one another.
- Body language is a good way to communicate your conversation intentions to another person. Maintaining eye contact is always good in English conversation. Speakers can also signal that they would like the other person to take over the conversation by raising eyebrows, learning their head toward the other person, or gesturing with their hand that they would like the other person to speak. To keep the other person from speaking, they can shake their head or hold up one finger as if to say “hold on a second”.
- After someone interrupts, a person may want to take back the speaking role or continue with what they were saying. They can return to what they were saying with phrases such as the following: as I was saying… before you spoke I was going to say… that’s interesting but I still think…good point…anyway….getting back to my point….
- When a person is finished speaking, he may need to signal his partner to take up the conversation. At such times, he can use phrases such as the following: what do you think…do you have anything to add…you’ve been awfully quiet…I’d like to hear what you think….any thoughts…
To give your students some life-like discourse practice, try the following activities.
- Have students do a skit in which they do poor turn taking in conversation. Then have them perform it again showing good turn taking in conversation.
- Record a conversation between three or four students. Have them watch the video and assess how well they took turns, noting anything bad that they did as well as anything good that they did.
- Have one person tell a story that has some mistakes/lies in it. The other person listens and must interrupt when they think they hear a falsehood. If they are right they earn one point. If they don’t interrupt within ten seconds of a falsehood, the speaker gets a point. Switch roles and see who ends up with the higher score
Going from dialogue to discourse is important for your ESL students.
Use these tools to help them know what to expect in conversation and how to navigate its waters.