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Special Interest Column – 30 things to enhance your teaching? by Lizzie Pinard

To celebrate my 30th birthday (18/06/2013), I made an attempt to identify 30 things that I’d incorporated into my professional practice over the preceding year. 30 is quite a large number, but having spent an academic year at Leeds Metropolitan University learning vast amounts while tackling the Delta integrated into an M.A. ELT, I thought I should be able to pinpoint any number of things and by doing so, it would reinforce them in my mind as well has creating a record to look back on. Despite the final length of that blog post, each of the 30 items was only briefly treated. In this column, I revisit that blog post, selecting items and expanding on them.

1. Spoken English and Storytelling

What is the difference between how we say things and how we write them?

This depends on the kind of speaking and the kind of writing under discussion. A pre-planned speech may have much in common with a piece of writing on the same topic, in terms of sentence complexity, choice of vocabulary and lack of redundancy, while a casual conversation dealing with the same topic will be very different, showcasing features specific to spoken language, such as spoken discourse markers and structure (co-construction by participants who use a multitude of strategies to shape the direction of the discourse and to cope with the demands of real-time communication). We have moved beyond considering spoken English to be a poor relation of written English, indeed Eggins and Slade (1997:6) explain that ‘despite its sometimes aimless appearance and apparently trivial content, casual conversation is, in fact, a highly structured, functionally motivated, semantic activity’, but how does this translate into the ELT classroom? This is further complicated by the rise of the Internet and use of email and social media where written language closely resembles spoken language down to the use of emoticons to compensate for the absence of the paralinguistic information used in face-to-face exchanges and written equivalents of the sounds we use to show interest, confusion, dislike etc.

Spoken grammar is closely linked with how language in conversation is co-constructed and context-dependent. An interesting example of this is the use of ‘though’. In spoken English it is often used as part of an exchange and very differently from how it would be used in written English, e.g: S1: Mmm, lovely food! S2: Bit spicy though. Sometimes it is not even necessary for S1 to produce the first part of such an exchange, if this is implicitly understood by both speakers. (After I learnt about how “though” is used in spoken language, from Dr. Timmis of Leeds Metropolitan University, I listened out for use of it, both mine and others’, and found it really interesting because until then I never realised how often I used or heard it!)

It could be argued that we still tend to expect learners to learn to speak written English. Of course, it may not be useful or relevant for learners to study features of native speaker spoken grammar, but for others, learning about it, at least on a receptive level, could go a long way towards making the spoken English they hear in an English-speaking environment less opaque and more comprehensible to them.

In addition to its grammatical features, spoken language can be analysed in terms of its generic features. Indeed, analysis of the generic features of casual conversation is a fascinating area of study. For example, storytelling, described by Thornbury and Slade (2006:168) as ‘a universal human activity’, is a very common feature of casual conversation, used for building and maintaining relationships and constructing identity. Eggins and Slade (1997) divide this genre into four sub-genres: narrative, anecdote, exemplum and recount, each of which exhibits different mixtures of Labov’s (1972) six possible narrative stages (abstract, orientation, complication, evaluation, resolution and coda). Of the four sub-genres, anecdotes are the most commonly told.

Often, when we teach storytelling, we tend to focus on the role of the storyteller and the chunks of language a learner needs in order to frame their story. However, a neglected yet very important role in the telling of stories is that of the listener. This involves responding to what is being recounted through the use of supportive noises or language called back-channels. Storytellers are sensitive to listener response, using it to gauge understanding and interest in what is being recounted. Absence of this type of response can be awkward and uncomfortable, leaving the storyteller uncertain as to whether they should proceed or not with their tale. Therefore, as well as helping learners by teaching them structural features of anecdotes and the chunks of language typically used to realise this, the importance of evaluative language and non-linguistic devices, e.g. gesture, intonation, pace; it is also important to teach them how to listen supportively to English.

How can I use this knowledge in the classroom?

To raise learners’ awareness of features of spoken language, in terms of its grammar and structure, select a course book dialogue (e.g. one you have already used with your learners) and rewrite it so that it includes features of spoken grammar (spoken discourse markers, hesitation, redundancy, spoken grammar and response tokens) Or alternatively, ask a colleague to help you make an alternative recording, based on the same premise and see which features come up naturally! Learners can compare your recording or doctored transcript with the original and identify the differences. Having identified the differences, you could then select just one or two features to focus on, to avoid completely overwhelming learners. You could make a concordance that provides learners with concentrated illustrations of the use and function of your chosen features. Whether or not learners will then want to experiment with production of such features will depend on your context and learner needs.

To help learners improve at storytelling; both as speaker and as interlocutor, you could use an activity that Jones (2001) describes, which involves the production of two versions of an anecdote. One version should be bare of all structural language, evaluative devices and listener interaction, while the other should include them. Learners can be guided to notice the differences between the two versions and discuss the effect that these features have on a story. Useful chunks can be identified and recorded, and activities using these can be devised. You could give learners a bare anecdote and ask them to work together to write in examples of a given feature or selection of features.

Or, as a colleague of mine did for her Materials Development module assignment, you could find an example of a written anecdote and get a friend to record a spoken version, having done some experiential activities with the original text, for learners to compare with the written text.

In terms of response tokens, helping learners contrast their own language with English may help them avoid negative transfer of potentially inappropriate responses. For example, a typical Spanish active listening response ‘si, si, si’, translated directly as ‘yes, yes, yes’ could imply impatience, while the French response ‘bien sur’  (‘of course’) might imply arrogance. Thus, transferal of these would be a pragmatic error (O’Keeffe et al., 2007:157). Awareness of common tokens, and use of intonation, is relevant across spoken genres, not restricted to storytelling, and therefore could be a valuable use of time.

Again, you may want to limit the features you focus on within a single lesson, to avoid overwhelming learners.

If you are interested in spoken language, I recommend reading Timmis (2005, 2012) and McCarthy and Carter (1995). For learning about storytelling and other features of casual conversation, I would highly recommend reading Eggins and Slade (1997) and/or Thornbury and Slade (2006) – even if you don’t want to use their theory in your teaching, they both make fascinating reading!


Jones, R. A consciousness-raising approach to the teaching of conversational storytelling in ELTJ volume 55/2. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2001.

McCarthy and Carter (1995) Spoken Grammar: What is it and how can we teach it? in ELTJ vol. 49/3 Oxford University Press.

O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. From Corpus to Classroom. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 2007.

Thornbury S. and Slade D. Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 2006.

Timmis, I. (2005) Towards a framework for teaching spoken grammar in ELTJ vol. 59/2 Oxford University Press.

Timmis, I. (2012) Spoken language research and ELT: Where are we now? in ELTJ vol. 66/4 Oxford University Press

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