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Issue 3

Four techniques that ensure results
Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher

A great challenge in the English language classroom is


Use surveys and questionnaires to
get students thinking about their
ideas and opinions.

Have students plan how they'll
state their ideas by writing notes
before speaking.

Use reading and listening texts
to choose key words and phrases
that can enrich discussion.

Keep an inventory of language
students already know, and
make it easily available for
visual reference.

successfully engaging learners in free discussion. Teachers typically report that

students sit silently; produce single, short, fossilized utterances; or revert to
using their first language.

Many teachers attempt to encourage class discussion through interesting and

engaging topics. All too often, however, few students actually participate fully
or successfully. Consequently, many teachers try to solicit the views of nonparticipants, usually with meager results. In the end, both the teacher and
students feel dissatisfied.
Traditionally, classroom discussion was left to the end of the class or lesson.
After completing a series of controlled activities and limited pair-work tasks
or perhaps after a reading and some comprehension activitieslearners were
presented with a list of discussion topics related to the lesson's theme. Recently,
in newer task-based lessons, the order has been reversed; it is now a common
practice to begin with discussion, with the expectation that the discussion itself
would generate language and ideas.
Neither method has achieved satisfactory results for the majority of our
students. It is our goal in this article to help teachers approach classroom
discussion as a process in order to more successfully develop students' fluency.
We will present four essential techniques that in our experience support learner
confidence and increase both quantity and quality of expression.

Impediments to successful classroom discussions

Students are often not successful or productive in classroom discussions
because they lack vocabulary, grammar mastery, subject knowledge, or
interest in the topic. It is important, however, to consider the psychological
2008 Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher

Discussion Topic: Vacation preferences

and psychosocial hurdles they face as well. Adult and

young-adult students often have many ideas to express
but worry that they will be judged by both their peers and
their teachers. (It's worth noting, however, that we all
confront these same fears when participating in
discussions in our own language in non-classroom
settings. We wonder Is what I'm thinking about saying
silly or off-topic? or Will the other participants think

Whats important to you in a vacation?

Check 4 all that apply.
I like

I'm stupid? etc.) These very same fears confound

students who try to support their ideas in a new language.

q exciting vacations

q unusual vacations

q relaxing vacations

q inexpensive vacations

q interesting vacations

q _________ vacations

I like vacations with

An effective way to mitigate the dual impediments of lack of

confidence and inability to access and produce appropriate
language is to give students time to prepare their ideas and
words. Since one rarely has time to prepare for a discussion
in real life, it could be argued that allowing students time to
prepare is an artificial dynamic. Nevertheless, we
recommend that classroom discussion be viewed,
essentially, as a rehearsal for real discussion and that
preparation time be a key step toward that goal.

q lots of history and culture

q great food

q lots of nature and wildlife

q beautiful hotels

q lots of sports or

q warm weather

physical activities
q lots of family activities

q nice beaches

q lots of entertainment

q friendly people

q people who speak my

q _________


When students are confrontedunpreparedwith a

discussion topic, they typically approach it narrowly. In
considering an ideal vacation place, they may think only
about the weather, or whether or not theres a beach there.
The survey, however, suggests sixteen different topics that
might be included in the discussion, which greatly broadens
students' ideas. This will almost certainly increase the
quantity of subjects that students will include in their
discussion. Finally, and perhaps even more importantly, the
survey clarifies to the student what the teacher's
expectations might be of topics to be included in the
discussion, reducing anxiety and encouraging confidence.

A process approach to discussion building

The following four techniques comprise a process approach
to building productive discussions in class and greatly
improve outcomes for students at all proficiency levels.

1. Idea framing
Surveys and questionnaires are effective devices that help
students frame the ideas they will express. These devices also
help define and delineate for students the teacher's expectations,
and reduce the anxiety that one's ideas are silly or off-topic. As
an example, let's look at how a survey can achieve these goals.

2. Notepadding
Giving students an opportunity to write notes provides
them with a chance to consider the way they will express

In order to help students frame their ideas for a topic, we

can provide them with a survey like the one at the top of the

their ideas. Let's assume the discussion topic is students'

opinions about appropriate and inappropriate dress.
Again, students will probably have a narrow view of what
might be discussed, perhaps only considering the question
of how to dress on the street. A notepadding activity,
however, can both broaden students' ideas of what to
include as well as provide practice for how they will state
those ideas, as in the example on the next page.

next column.
The survey gives students an opportunity to think about
what's important to them in a vacation. If they compare
answers with partners, students may agree or disagree about
what makes an ideal vacation, and this helps them frame
their ideas for the fuller discussion to follow.

3. Text-mining

Discussion Topic: Clothing do's and don'ts

When learners attempt to engage in discussions

On the notepad, write some clothing dos

and donts for visitors to this country.

without adequate preparation, their coping

mechanism is to rely on the language they feel most

in offices and formal restaurants:

comfortable withthe most elementary and fossilized

language in their repertoire. In a discussion on food
and health, for example, students may only feel
comfortable producing simple statements such as
Salad is OK. We can, however, broaden our students'
repertoire of language by actively mining reading or

in casual social settings:

listening texts (as one mines for gold or precious

gems) for thematically linked sets of words and
expressions that serve as models for student use.
in religious institutions:

The reading text below can be mined for language that

can become a part of students' productive expression
about food and health. Mined language that could
be helpful for discussion has been circled.

On the notepad, students write notes to describe the do's

Discussion Topic: Healthy eating

and don'ts for appropriate dress in specific situations: in

offices, in formal restaurants, in casual social settings, and
in religious institutions. In this way, the topic has been
broadened from the students' original limited assumptions.
And again, the material written on the notepad will form
support for the discussion because not all students will
have written the same rules. As a result, students will


Here are some tips for healthy eating at home,
work, and elsewhere. Try some of these ideas.

have in front of them concrete ideas to express as they

agree and disagree about the topic when they actually
discuss it.

The act of writing sentences to describe the rules gives

learners quiet time to think about how they will
express their ideas. This way, they have time to draw
upon previously learned language they might not have
used otherwise. They also have time to create more
complex statements than they might have without
preparation. So preparing for a discussion through
notepadding has both qualitative and quantitative

Start your day off right! Eat breakfast.

Take a piece of fruit to munch on during your
commute. It tastes great, is filling, and
provides energy.
Use lite dairy products, which are low-fat
and better for your health.
If you like to eat meat, trim all visible fat.
Fried foods? Snacks? Desserts? Sweets?
They taste great but are not great for you.
They are high in calories and can be high in
fat, salt, and sugar.
Pack your own snacks of raw veggies. Buy
healthy snacks like pretzels.
Cut down on portion size so you don't eat too
much unhealthy food.
Eat everything in moderation.

Text-mining will greatly accelerate the process of building a

repertoire of usable language, which will increase students'
quality of expression and their ability to find the language
they need when engaging in a discussion.

If we want students to use this mined language when

they begin discussing the topic, they need to practice
it. One simple approach is to have students write
sentences using this language. However, here are two
ways to get them to use and personalize this language
more actively.

4. Wordposting
Another challenge to students is remembering to use
known languageeven recently learned language. As
previously stated, when students are challenged they
almost always rely on the most comfortable and easily
accessed language, which is the simplest and the most
fossilized. If students are to begin using new language, they
need support for that.

a. Target mined language through questions. Encourage

students to reply in complete sentences using that language.
For example:

T: What do you usually start your day off with?

S: I usually start my day off with coffee.

Many textbooks attempt to provide language support for

discussion by displaying lists of words and expressions
entitled Useful Language. Though such language might be
relevant to the discussion, the lists usually include new
words and untaught expressions that are difficult to use
because they are incomprehensible or present structural

T: What would you like to cut down on?

S: I'd like to cut down on fatty foods.
T: What do you usually munch on between meals?
S: I usually munch on chips between meals.
In order to maximize the impact and memorability of this
mined language, students should be encouraged to keep
their books open to the reading text and to refer to it freely
as they formulate their own answers.

A simple technique that provides support, focuses attention,

and encourages students to push themselves beyond their
safe fossilized language is wordpostingproviding lists
of previously taught, known words and expressions.

b. Use brainstorming as a way to encourage memorability,

acquisition, and usage of mined language. Again, encourage
students to use the language in complete sentences.

Wordposts displayat a glancelanguage students can

and should include in their discussions. Wordposts can be
provided in a number of ways. Here are three:

T: Name some foods that taste great but aren't

great for you.
S: Ice cream tastes great but isn't great for you.

a temporary list on the board, which students can

refer to during a discussion activity

T: Name some foods that are great for you but

don't taste great.
S: Peas are great for you but don't taste great.
T: Name some foods that are high in calories.
S: French fries are high in calories.
T: Name some foods that are low in fat.
S: Seafood is low in fat.

photocopied lists distributed to students to refer to

during discussion (These can be taken home, inserted
in a notebook, and used when writing an assignment
or studying for tests.)

a permanent word wall of large-print lists added to

classroom walls throughout the course and left there
for easy reference when needed

Most importantly, no matter how

wordposting is delivered, students should
be encouraged and reminded each time to
consciously refer to and use the language as
they prepare for new discussion topics and
as they actually engage in those discussions.
In organizing wordpost lists, it is important
not to be encyclopedic, which would lessen
their at-a-glance value. An attempt should
be made to group words and expressions
logically, by part of speech, or by social
purpose. Below is an example of a wordpost
that could be created to support the
discussion topic mentioned earlier in this
article: Healthy eating.

I think we too often

demand instant
production which
locks students into
saying whatever they
can come up with
right away. That
means we dont let
them get to the
depth, complexity
and fluency that they
can achieve.

not be forgotten. For example, in a later

discussion about the value of exercise, it
might be appropriate to use the expression
start my day off in that new context: I
always start my day off by running in the
park. By re-entering previously learned
language in this way, students have more
opportunities to remember and internalize
it for regular use.

Discussions are unlikely to be maximally
successful without the instructor's taking a

proactive pedagogical role in their

preparation. In our experience, idea
framing, notepadding, text-mining, and
wordposting are the elements of a process approach to
discussion that together ensure that students take the time
to think and consider what to say, plan how to state their
ideas, and become able to retrieve and use essential
language. This process results in a far more productive
communication, with:
increased confidence in speaking
increased spontaneity of expression
increased quantity and quality of expression
increased variety of vocabulary
increased complexity of sentences.

Marc Helgesen, 2003

start my day off with __

__ tastes great
__ doesn't taste great
__ is great for you
__ is not great for you
cut down on __
eat __ in moderation
munch on __
high in calories / fat / sugar / salt
low in calories / fat / sugar / salt


As stated previously, students should and must be

reminded and encouraged to refer to the wordposts as
they engage in discussions. They should be praised
when they do. Students often think the discussion is a
test of their ability. Asking them to refer to the
wordposts will show them that the discussion itself is a
rehearsal for real-life discussion and a place to build
their fluencyNOT a test of what they remember. The
result of this practice is that students go beyond their
comfort zone and express themselves with more varied
and richer vocabulary.

Bygate, M., Effects of task repetition on the structure and control

of oral language,in Researching Pedagogical Tasks: Second language
learning, teaching and testing. Pearson Longman: Harlow (2001)
Helegesen, M., ESL MiniConference Online,
Helgesen, M., Adapting and Supplementing Textbooks to Include
Language Planning, in Selected Papers from the Twelfth International
Symposium on English Language Teaching and Learning. English
Teachers Association: Taipei (2003)

As time passes, the language in wordposts should be

revisited and reused in discussions of other topics so it will

About the Authors

Joan Saslow

Allen Ascher

Joan Saslow is co-author, with Allen

Ascher, of two best-selling, adult-level
English courses, Top Notch and Summit.
These two courses are, respectively, the
2006 and 2007 recipients of the
Association of Educational Publishers' Distinguished
Achievement Awards. Ms. Saslow has authored a number
of other textbook series with integrated multimedia
components designed specifically for adults learning
English. She is the author of Ready to Go: Language,
Lifeskills, Civics; Workplace Plus: Living and Working in
English; and Literacy Plus, a combined language and
literacy program for pre-literate adult immigrants. In
addition, Ms. Saslow was Series Director of True Colors:
An EFL Course for Real Communication and True Voices: An
EFL Video Course.

Allen Ascher is co-author, with Joan

Saslow, of the Top Notch and Summit
courses. Mr. Ascher has been a teacher,
a teacher-trainer, an academic
administrator, and a publisher. He has
taught in both China and the United States. In China, Mr.
Ascher trained teachers and taught English at the Beijing
Second Foreign Language Institute, and he taught ESP
classes for workers at a major international hotel. In the
United States, he taught Japanese students from Chubu
University studying English at Ohio University. In New
York, he taught students of all language backgrounds and
abilities throughout the City University of New York. Mr.
Ascher was the academic director of the International
English Language Institute at Hunter College, and he
trained teachers in the TESOL Certificate Program at the
New School.

Ms. Saslow has taught in the United States and Chile in a

variety of programs, including binational centers, as well
as academic, intensive-language, and workplace
programs. Ms. Saslow has been an editor, a teachertrainer, a language learner, and a frequent speaker at
gatherings of English teachers throughout the world. Ms.
Saslow has a BA and an MA in French from the University
of Wisconsin. She is fluent in Spanish and French.

As a publisher, Mr. Ascher played a key role in creating some

of the most widely used materials for adults, including True
Colors, NorthStar, Focus on Grammar, Ready to Go, and the
Longman TOEFL and TOEIC test prep series. He is also
author of the popular Think About Editing: A Grammar Editing
Guide for ESL Writers and is currently contributing to an
online teacher-training course. Mr. Ascher is a continuing
learner of Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese and has
an MA in Applied Linguistics from Ohio University.


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