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Deconstructing Discussions by Dan Cornford

Recently, while observing monolingual adolescent classes, I was struck by how often lessons ended in pair or group discussion tasks designed to give students fluency practice relating to the content of the lesson. The topics were clearly engaging for the age groups, provided real potential for discussion and instructions were, on the whole, clear. Yet the activities failed to achieve their potential. While ‘discuss’ may seem a simple instruction, in practice it is an immensely complex task. I’m confident that in L1, the majority of the learners involved could have talked intelligently and at length about the given topics, while in L2 students spoke little, giving no more than the bare minimum of information or opinion; conversation lacked almost any element of linguistic or paralinguistic interaction; and in several cases students quickly resorted to L1.

This article takes as its starting point discussions as planned tasks. However, it is not designed to set out a practical step-by-step guide for classroom activities, but rather to encourage readers to deconstruct and consider in more detail the underlying principles of successful classroom discussion.

A pair or group discussion often intuitively feels like a logical, valuable way to end a lesson. It frequently allows learners to react personally to the lesson content, perhaps providing opportunities to use recently acquired lexis, and most learners enjoy the chance for more open conversation.  However, for it to work (i.e. for it to have linguistic and content-related value), I think learners need three things to allow genuine discussion to take place: a structure to work around, a communicative aim and linguistic input.

‘Structure’ refers to both the internal structure of the discussion as well as the lesson surrounding the discussion. Internal structure can be achieved by giving learners a framework on which to ‘hang’ their discussion, such as: ‘Agree on two advantages and two disadvantages for each option’, ‘Make a point, justify or exemplify your point, ask if your partner agrees or disagrees and ask your partner to justify or exemplify their (dis)agreement’, or ‘Talk about at least three reasons why x would be a good/bad idea’. I think this kind of set-up can lead to more organised and meaningful discussion, promote longer contributions and encourage the use of functional language.

The surrounding lesson structure could be much more generic, applicable to a variety of discussion tasks, for example: give and check instructions, give students time to reflect or make notes, model a short passage of conversation, monitor the discussion, feedback on discussion content and feedback on language points arising from the activity. Although discussion is traditionally seen as ‘freer’ practice, this does not imply a free-for-all, devoid of any supporting structure. On the contrary, providing clear structure creates part of the scaffolding that many students need in order to participate effectively in such an activity.

A communicative aim is critical in giving students a reason to perform a task successfully. Without one, it is easy to start questioning the value of an activity and lose engagement with it. Students need to be using their language to do something, rather than just for the sake of using it. The communicative aim should be made explicit at the start of the task so that it is clear in each student’s mind. ‘Discuss’ on its own is not a communicative aim; it is a means by which an aim can be achieved. However, instructions such as ‘discuss to put in order/select the group’s favourite/rate options/persuade group members/etc.’ provide goals that add meaning to a discussion. In order that learners take communicative aims seriously, their achievement should be seen to be valued by the teacher and the rest of the class and therefore should be the primary focus of post-activity feedback. Having said that, teachers must also monitor discussion tasks carefully in order to evaluate and reward how aims were achieved, rather than simply if they were achieved.

Linguistic input should concentrate on two areas: in the short term, lexis specific to the subject of the discussion, and in the longer term, the language of discussion. The former can work in two directions: the topic of the discussion influences the language taught earlier in the lesson, and/or the topic of the discussion is defined by the previously studied language. Either way, a set of coherent stages providing language that will be useful and usable in the discussion task is key to its success. The teacher should make an effort to praise or reward the use of recently acquired lexis in any fluency activity but should not be surprised if learners have not been immediately able to incorporate new language into their speech.

Building up knowledge of the non-topic-specific language L1 speakers use to discuss is a longer term project and is likely to take the form of sentence heads, fixed expressions, adjacency pairs and the like, rather than individual vocabulary items. While it is perhaps its more general nature which makes it appear less teachable, this language is incredibly valuable as it helps form the structure of a discussion into which topic-specific lexis can be integrated. Exposing learners to the functional language of agreement, disagreement, persuasion and opinion, for instance, is vital if we wish them to participate in something approaching a fluent, meaningful discussion.

As an aside, paralinguistic features of conversation should not be ignored in class as they are an essential feature of natural discussion. Aspects such as eye contact, hand gestures and facial expressions are natural facets of L1 spoken interaction for the vast majority of students – why should we let them disappear in L2? The use of paralinguistic features also adds to the authenticity of any classroom discussion. We can rarely recreate completely natural discussion scenarios in class but we can encourage more genuine interaction by raising learners’ awareness of non-verbal features of communication and by reminding them of their importance.

Lastly, I think it is vital to make the point that learners are neither ‘fluent’ nor ‘not fluent’; rather that they sit somewhere on a fluency spectrum which they are able to move along through meaningful practice. Attention should also be paid to where each stage of a discussion task lies on the accuracy to fluency scale. If we are aiming to develop fluent (for the level) conversation, focusing on and constantly correcting non-impeding errors can be counter-productive and demotivating. As teachers, we must adjust our expectations of a ‘fluency activity’. In a discussion task, successful performance will vary between students and between classes, and we must be careful not to map our idea of fluent L1 conversation onto their developing skills of discussion.

We should bear in mind that discussions are often opportunities for our learners to take the reins, and that we cannot, and should not, dictate exactly what happens. Nevertheless, for discussion tasks to achieve their potential in the EFL classroom, they must be carefully considered from the points of view of structure, purpose and language. A thoughtful combination of these elements, plus the confidence to let students own the discussion, is a recipe for success. Discuss?

Author’s Bio:
Dan Cornford is Senior Teacher at IH Valladolid in northern Spain, where he has worked for three years, having previously taught in France and the UK. He completed the IH Barcelona Delta course in 2013 and is looking forward to getting Modules 1 and 3 under his belt soon. He can be contacted at danc@ihvalladolid.com.

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