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3.1. Elements of listening
Most introductions to the comprehension of speech stress three elements: (i) access to
vocabulary, (ii) parsing, and (iii) memory processes.
(i) Access to vocabulary / words
At one level, in order to comprehend a sentence you have to work out what the words
mean. The mind has to relate the words that are heard to the information that is stored about
them in the mind – their meanings, etc. For example, a native speaker can answer the question
“Is the word ‘blish’ English?” almost instantaneously, somehow working through many
thousands of words in a few moments. Such feats show the human mind is extraordinarily
efficient at organizing the storage of words and their interconnections. The context
automatically makes particular meanings of words available to us. For example, to a person
reading a research article, the word “table” means a layout of figures. To someone reading
about antiques it means a piece of furniture. To someone reading a surveyor’s report on a
house it means the depth at which water appears in the ground, and so on. Somehow the
context limits the amount of mental space that has to be searched to get the right meaning.
(ii) Parsing
Parsing refers to how the mind works out the grammatical structure and meaning of the
sentences it hears. Take a sentence such as “The man ate breakfast”. To understand the
sentence fully means being able to tell who is carrying out the action and what is affected by
the action, and also to realize that “ate breakfast” goes together as a phrase while “man ate”
does not. Even if our minds are not consciously aware of the grammatical technicalities,
nevertheless they are working out the structure of the sentence automatically. Grammar is not
just in the back of or minds but is active while we are listening.
The process of parsing can be either ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’.
‘Bottom-up’ parsing means building the sentence up in our minds bit by bit, putting the
sounds into words, the words into phrases, the phrases into a whole sentence. So “the” is put
with “man” to get a noun phrase “the man”; “ate” goes with “breakfast” to get a verb phrase
““ate breakfast”; and the noun phrase “the man” and the verb phrase ““ate breakfast” go
together to yield the structure of the whole sentence.
‘Top-down’ parsing on the other hand means starting from the whole sentence and
breaking it down into smaller and smaller bits. Given a sentence like “The man ate breakfast”,
the top-down process tries to find a noun phrase, which in turn means trying to find first an
article “the” and then a noun “man”. If it succeeds, it next tries to find a verb phrase, which
means trying to find a verb “ate” and a noun phrase “breakfast”. If the quest to find a noun
phrase and a verb phrase succeeds, it has found a sentence, complete with its structure.
In principle, the mind could parse the sentence in either the bottom-up or the top-down
direction. In practice listeners get the best of both worlds by using both types of process.
Features such as the intonation pattern allow them to fit words and phrases within an overall
structure, a top-down process. Particular words indicate the start of a phrase and allow them to
build it up word by word, a bottom-up process.
(iii) Memory processes
The memory processes in listening are closely connected to those discussed earlier. All
comprehension depends on the storing and processing of information by the minds.
3.2. The teaching of listening
3.2.1. Methods of teaching listening: How does this view of listening compare with that
in teaching guides such as Mary Underwood’s Teaching Listening (1989)? She recognizes
three stages of teaching: pre-listening where the students activate their vocabulary and their
background knowledge; while-listening where they develop the skill of eliciting messages;
and post-listening which consists of extensions and developments of the listening task.
A development in the last few decades has been task-based teaching of listening. The
students carry out a task in which they have to listen for information in a short piece of
discourse and then have to fill in a diagram, check a route on a map or correct mistakes in a
text. The COBUILD English Course I (J. Willis & D. Willis, 1987), for example, asks the
students to listen to tapes of people speaking spontaneously and to work out information from
them. Lesson 9 has a recording of Chris telling Philip how to get to his house in Birmingham.
The students listen for factual information, such as which buses could be taken; they make a
rough map of the route, and they check its accuracy against the A-Z map of Birmingham.
A teaching motivation for task-based listening activities is that information is being
transferred for a communicative purpose. In the COBUILD example the student is practicing
something that resembles real world communication. As Vivian Cook points out (Second
Language Learning and Language Teaching, 1994: 61), it is sad, however, that the
information that is transferred in such activities is usually about trivial topics or irrelevant to
the students’ lives. The factual information the students learn in the COBUILD exercise is
how to get around in Birmingham, somewhere only a few of them are ever likely to go. Often
such exercises deal with imaginary towns, or even treasure islands. On the one hand, task-
based exercises often neglect the educational value of the content that can be used in language
teaching. On the other hand, much psychological research shows that, the more important the
information is to the listener, the more likely it is to be retained.
Listening-based methods of teaching: So far listening has been taken as a process of
decoding speech – working out the message from the sentence you hear. However the main
focus in recent discussions of teaching methodology has been on listening as a way of
learning language rather than as a way of processing language. This process is called
codebreaking: listening means working out the language code from the ‘message’.
Therefore a distinction is made between (i) decoding speech and (ii) codebreaking speech:
(i) Decoding speech has the aim of discovering the message using processes that are
already known (i.e. processing language to get the ‘message’).
(ii) Codebreaking speech has the aim of discovering the processes themselves from a
message (i.e. processing language to get the ‘rules’).
One of the first to interpret listening as codebreaking was James Asher’s Total Physical
Response Method (TPR) (Learning another Language through Actions, 1986), which
claimed that listening to commands and carrying them out was an effective way of learning a
second language. A specimen TPR lesson reported by Asher consists of the teacher getting the
students to respond to the commands:
Walk to the window; Touch the window; Walk to the table.
Touch the table; Juan, stand up and walk to the door.
Jaime, walk to the table and sit on the table.
The students follow the directions the teacher gives. TPR came from psychological theories
of language learning, its unique feature being the emphasis on learning through physical
Other listening-based methods have also been successful. According to J. Gary and N. Gary
(Comprehension-based language instruction: practice, 1981) the benefits of concentrating on
listening are that students do not feel so embarrassed if they do not have to speak, the memory
loss is less if they listen without speaking, classroom equipment such as tape recorders can be
used more effectively for listening than for speaking, and so on.
One of the major schisms in contemporary teaching methodology is between those who
require students to practice communication by both listening and speaking and those who
prefer students to listen for information without speaking.
Stephen Krashen (1981) brings these listening-based methods together through the notion
of ‘comprehensible input’. He claims that acquisition can take place only when people
understand messages in the target language. Listening is motivated by the need to get
messages out of what is heard. L2 learners acquire a new language by hearing it in contexts
where the meaning is made plain to them. Ideally the speech they hear has enough ‘old’
language that the student already knows and makes enough sense in the context for the ‘new’
language to be understood and absorbed. Krashen claims that all teaching methods that work
utilize the same fundamental pedagogical principle of providing comprehensible input: ‘if x is
shown to be “good” for acquiring a second language, x helps to provide CI [comprehensible
input], either directly or indirectly. Krashen’s codebreaking approach to listening became a
strong influence on language teachers in the 1980s. It is saying essentially that L2 acquisition
depends on listening – decoding is codebreaking.
3.2.2. Principles for listening comprehension in the classroom
The research activities suggest a set of principles for conducting listening activities in the
second/foreign language classroom.
i.. Increase the amount of listening time in the second language class. Make listening the
primary channel for learning new material. Input must be interesting, comprehensible,
supported by extralingustic materials, and keyed to the language lesson.
ii. Use listening before other activities. Have students listen to the material before they are
required to speak, read, or write about it.
iii. Include both global and selective listening. Global listening encourages students to get
the gist, the main idea, the topic, situation, or setting. Selective listening points student
attention to details of form and encourages accuracy in generating the language system.
iv. Activate top-level skills. Give advance organizers or discussions which call up
students’ background knowledge. Do this before students listen. Encourage top-down
processing at every proficiency level.
v. Work towards automaticity in processing. Include exercises which build both
recognition and retention of the material. Use familiar material in recombinations. Encourage
over learning through focus on selected formal features. Practise bottom-up processing at
every proficiency level.
vi. Develop conscious listening strategies. Practise interactive listening, so that they can
use their bottom-up and top-down processes to check one against the other.
3.3. Some dimensions of language and the listening act
3.3.1. Listening – a dynamic process, not a passive one
Listening along with reading has had a traditional label of “passive skill”. Nothing could be
further from the truth. A. Anderson and T. Lynch (Listening, 1968) reject a conceptualization
of listening as a “passive act”. They argue that such a perspective on listening fails to account
for the interpretations listeners make as they “hear” the spoken text according to their own
purposes for listening, their expectations and their own store of background knowledge.
Implications for instruction: One of the obvious implications for instruction is to bring
students to an understanding that listening is not a passive skill, but one that not only is active
but very demanding. This can be done gradually as part of listening activity work, especially
activities that are in the communicative modes. Learners can come to realize that just as it is
“work” to become better readers, writers, and speakers in a second language, listening skill,
too, doesn’t happen magically or as an overnight phenomenon.
3.3.2. Listening in two active communicative modes:
i. Two-way communication: Every day we engage in communicative listening in one way
or another most of our waking hours. Probably the first mode that comes to mind is listening
in two-way communication, or “interactive” listening. Here the reciprocal “speech chain” of
speaker/listener is obvious to us. Here there are two (or more) active participants who take
turns in speaker-role and listener-role as the face-to-face (or telephone) interaction moves
ii. One-way communication: A second mode is listening in one-way communication.
Auditory input seems to surround us as we move through the day. The input comes from a
variety of sources: the media (e.g. radio, television, films); instructional situations of all kinds;
public performances (e.g. lectures, religious services, plays)
Implications for instruction: Second/foreign language learners need to have instructional
opportunities in both two-way and one-way communicative modes.
3.2.3. Listening and language processing, bottom-up and top-down
In accounting for the complex nature of processing spoken language it has been
hypothesized that “bottom-up” and “top-down” modes work together in a combined
cooperative process.
Bottom-up processing: Bottom-up comprehension of speech refers to the part of the
process in which the “understanding” of incoming language is worked out proceeding from
sounds, into words, into grammatical relationship and lexical meaning, and so on.
Top-down processing: here the processing of language comes from an internal source.
Learners understand the incoming speech from the context: the preceding linguistic context,
the situational context.
3.3. A developmental view of listening skills
3.3.1. Profile of the beginning level student in listening
True beginners in a second/foreign language are lacking in bottom-up processing skills
because they have not yet developed the cognitive categories against which the language must
be heard. They are not yet able to segment the speech stream into word units, to tell where
one word begins and another ends. The new phonemic system is an unbroken code: Sounds
which native speakers consider similar may be perceived and classified as different; sounds
which native speakers consider different may be perceived and classified as the same.
Learners have no idea about phonological rules which change sounds in certain environments,
or cause reductions of sound. The structural competence of beginners also places limitations
on their bottom-up processing skills. They are not familiar with rules for word formation,
inflections, or word-order rules. Their vocabulary store is nonexistent and there is no area of
grammatical understanding that they could use to unlock the meaning of the whole.
The true novice stage is of very short duration. After a few hours of instruction, most
learners can use their understanding of linguistic categories to decode new utterances.
Despite its brevity, the novice stage is important for the development of positive attitudes
towards listening. Learners should be encouraged to tolerate uncertainty, to use their real-
world knowledge and analytical skills, and to enjoy their success in comprehension.
i. Techniques for global listening: one important usage of global listening is the
presentation of new material. Until the students are skilled readers, it is best to present new
material aurally. Teachers may select any part of the lesson for a global listening experience,
or may write their own short text based on the lesson.
Texts for global listening should be short and preceded by a pre-listening activity.
Wherever possible, the theme and situation of the story should be presented visually by
drawing on the blackboard, overhead projector, or a large poster. New vocabulary can be used
in short, illustrative sentences before learners hear it as part of the lesson.
The pre-listening stage should develop learners’ curiosity about how all the phrases and
words they have heard will fit together in a context.
ii. Selective listening techniques: The teacher can bring some patterns or structures into
conscious awareness through selective listening exercises. Listening goals for beginners are
listed below, with exercise types to promote them. The classification of exercises as bottom-
up or top-down does not indicate that only one kind of cognitive activity can occur during
each exercise, but rather that some exercises promote predominantly bottom-up responses,
and some exercises promote predominantly top-down activity.
- An exercise is classified as bottom-up if focus is on the form and the exercise deals with one
of the structural systems of English.
- An exercise is classified as top-down if the focus is on meaning and the listener uses global
listening strategies.
- An exercise is classified as interactive if the listeners must us information gained by
processing at one level to check the accuracy of their processing on another level.
Exercise types for beginning level listeners
Bottom-up processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Discriminating between intonation contours in sentences
Listen to a sequence of sentence patterns with either rising or falling intonation. Place a
check in column 1 (rising) or column 2 (falling), depending on the pattern you hear.
Goal: Discriminating between phonemes
Listen to pairs of words. Some pairs differ in their final consonant (stay/steak), and
some pairs are the same (laid/laid). Circle the word “same” or “different” depending
on what you hear.
Goal: Selecting details from the text (word recognition)
Match a word that you hear with its picture
Top-down processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Discriminating between emotional reactions
Listen to a sequence of utterances. Place a check in the column which describes the
emotional reaction that you hear: interested, happy, surprised, or unhappy
Goal: Getting the gist of a sentence
Listen to a sentence describing a picture and select the correct picture.
Goal: Recognize the topic
Listen to a conversation and decide what the people are talking about. Choose the
picture that shows the topic.
Interactive processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Build a semantic network of word associations
Listen to a word and associate all the related words that come to mind.
Goal: Following directions
Listen to a description of a route and trace it on the map
3.3.2. Profile of the intermediate-level learner
Intermediate-level learners continue to use listening as an important source of language
input to increase their vocabulary and structural understanding. Although they may have
internalised the phonemic system of the language fairly well, they may have little
understanding of the complexities of phonological rules which govern fast speech: reductions,
elisions, etc. They need practice in word recognition and in discriminating fine differences in
word order and grammatical form, registers of speaking, etc. Intermediate-level learners have
moved beyond the limits of words and phrases, their memory can retain longer phrases and
sentences. They can listen to short conversations or narratives that are one or two paragraphs
in length. They are able to get the gist or to find the main idea.
i. Techniques for global listening: At the intermediate level, it is no longer necessary to
provide learners with simplified codes and modified speech. Indeed, intermediate-level
learners need to hear authentic texts with reduced forms, fast speech features, hesitations,
some non-standard dialects, and a variety of different voices. There are several definitions of
authenticity in materials. D. Porter and J. Roberts (Authentic Listening Activities, in ELT
Journal, 1987, 36:1, pp. 37-47) state that authentic texts are those “instances of spoken
language which were not initiated for the purpose of teaching…not intended for non-native
learners”. In contrast, teacher-made texts are easily identified by limited vocabulary, complete
sentences, repetition of target structures, exaggerated intonation, clear enunciation.
The need to introduce authentic material into students’ listening repertoire by the end of
beginning level is supported by the fact that most listening in the world outside the classroom
does not conform to simplified codes.
ii. Techniques for selective listening: Intermediate level students who were trained with
simplified codes and with clearly pronounced models may not recognize the same words and
phrases in normal fast speech. At the intermediate level, accuracy in discriminating
grammatical features is very important, e.g. certain unstressed endings, articles, inflections,
function words.
Exercise types for intermediate level listeners
Bottom-up processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Recognizing fast speech forms
Listen to a series of sentences that contain unstressed function words. Circle your
choice among three words on the answer sheet – for example: “up”, “a”, “of”
Goal: Recognizing pertinent details in the speech stream
Listen to a short dialogue between a boss and a secretary regarding changes in the daily
schedule. Use an appointment calendar. Cross out appointments that are being changed
and write in new ones.
Top-down processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Listen to identify the speaker or the topic
Listen to a series of radio commercials. On your answer sheet, choose among 4 types of
products and identify the picture which goes with the commercial.
Goal: Discriminating between registers of speech and tones of voice
Listen to a series of sentences. On your answer sheet, mark whether the sentence is
polite or impolite
Interactive processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Recognize missing grammar markers in colloquial speech
Listen to a series of short questions in which the auxiliary verb and subject have been
deleted, e.g. Got a match? (have you…)
Goal: use cultural background information to construct a more complete understanding of a
text: Listen to one side of a telephone conversation. Decide what the topic of the
conversation might be.
3.3.3. Profile of the advanced-level learner
Advanced students are no longer simply learning to listen, or listening to learn the language.
They are listening in the language to learn about the content of other areas. Advanced learners
can listen to longer texts, such as radio and television programmes. Their vocabulary includes
topics in current events, history and culture. However, their understanding of the language
remains on a fairly literal plane, so that they may miss jokes, slang, and cultural references.
Exercise types for advanced-level listeners
Bottom-up processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Become aware of sentence level features in lecture text
Listen to a segment of a lecture while reading a transcript of the material. Notice the
incomplete sentences, pauses, and verbal fillers
Top-down processing goals and exercise types
Goal: Use the introduction to the lecture to predict its focus and direction
Listen to the introductory section of a lecture. Then rea a number of topics on your
answer sheet and choose the topic that best expresses what the lecture will discuss.
4.1. Within the communicative framework of language teaching, the skill of speaking
enjoys special status. It has become apparent in recent years that there have been marked
changes in the goals of language education programmes. Today, language students are
considered successful if they can communicate effectively in a second/foreign language,
whereas several decades ago the accuracy of the language produced was the major criterion of
a student’s success or lack of success.
These developments in language teaching – called the ‘proficiency movement’ by some
researchers and the promotion of ‘functional’ or ‘communicative’ ability by others – have
moved us away from the goal of accurate form towards a focus on fluency and
communicative effectiveness (Th. Higgs, Teaching for Proficiency, 1984).Thus, the teaching
of the speaking skill has become increasingly important.
Accordingly, rather than implementing activities and exercises which focus strictly on
accuracy (such as those using memorization, repetition, and uncontextualized drills) many
teachers have concentrated on promoting communicative competence in language learners by
using “communicative activities” – those which rely more on the students’ ability to
understand and communicate real information. The aim of such “fluency activities”, as C.
Brumfit (Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching, 1984: 69) calls them, is “to
develop a pattern of language interaction with the classroom which is as close as possible to
that used by competent performers in normal life.” Informal, unrehearsed use of language is
encouraged, along with a relaxed classroom environment.
However, this does not mean that a focus on accuracy has no place in the communicative
classroom. Some research, for example, that carried out by Th. Higgs & R. Clifford,
(Curriculum, Competence and the Second Language Teacher, 1982) suggests that forcing
communication too early without any regard for accuracy can result in early fossilisation.
Since a linguistic or grammatical base may be necessary before fluency can be attained, some
researchers believe that grammar should be explicitly taught and that this is possible through
communicative means.
4.2. Speaking activities (or activities used for promoting the skill of speaking)
The goal of a speaking component in a language class should encourage the acquisition of
communication skills which can foster/ promote real communication out of the classroom.
For use in the ESL/EFL classroom, there are as many speaking activities and materials
available as there are creative teachers. For the purpose of this discussion, we have organised
oral skill activities into four distinct types: drills, or linguistically structured activities,
performance activities, participation activities, and observation activities.
4.2.1. Drills, or linguistically structured activities: Such activities need not be void of
meaning, as were some of the more classic manipulative techniques associated with the audio-
lingual approach, with its repetition drills and pattern practices. Rather, it is possible to
contextualise such activities and thus meet some of the requirements of a communicatively
oriented design.
In controlled practice the teacher can model the forms to be produced, providing
linguistically correct input. The students are then allowed to practice the material, and the
teacher follows up by reinforcing the forms practiced. What is important is that the students
are allowed to speak about what is true, real, and interesting.
The structured interview is an example of this, where students question each other and
answer factually, thus exchanging ‘real’ information, while at the same time repeating and
reinforcing specific structures (e.g. yes-no, or wh- questions).
Some language games can also provide opportunities for controlled practice. Again, it is
important to model the structures for beginning students, either verbally or by writing the
forms on the blackboard. Picture games which require students to match texts with pictures
are ideal for beginning students who need to practice manipulating certain structures (e.g., the
word ‘cup’ with a picture of a cup; or, for more advanced students, a sentence which
describes one step in a process with its corresponding diagram).
4.2.2. Performance activities: ‘Performance’ activities are those in which the student
prepares beforehand and delivers a message to a group. A good example of such an activity is
the student speech, which could be made as specific in content as necessary: a course in
conversational or social English might assign students to simply tell a story from their own
experience, in a casual, social setting.
Peer evaluation can be a useful component of oral performance activities since:
i. the “audience” becomes involved in such a way that students, as members of the audience,
become more than simply passive listeners;
ii. the evaluation process helps students to gain confidence in their own ability to evaluate
iii. the evaluation activity itself becomes an opportunity for real, spontaneous interaction since
the “message” (the evaluation) is important to the student performer.
The evaluation sheet, drawn up by the teacher beforehand, has the purpose to structure the
evaluation so that it meets the goals of the activity, with such criteria as:
- content: is it focused? clear? original? has enough detail been provided?
- organisation: is it logical? are there appropriate transitions?
- delivery: is the volume adequate? are notes relied on too much?
- other comments could include specific points on grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation
Self-evaluation: another follow-up activity involves audiotaping or videotaping students
during their initial performances and allowing them to evaluate themselves. With self-
evaluation, students listen to or watch their recorded speeches and evaluate themselves
according to the same criteria the teacher uses. A useful option for this follow-up task would
be for students to look at their transcription and rewrite it, correcting the grammar and
vocabulary errors.
A variation on the speech given by one person is assigning two or more people to deliver a
talk. This variation has certain advantages: Not only does this allow more content to be
conveyed, but also it gives students needed practice in negotiating tasks and sharing
information. An additional benefit is that students are less likely to feel nervous or pressured
when the responsibility for giving a good speech is shared among a group.
Role-plays and dramas, if performed in front of the class, can also function as
“performance activities”. In some cases, students could write the role-plays or dramas
themselves: this would be appropriate in a course that is organised around speech functions or
conversational strategies (.g. complimenting or thanking behaviour, greetings and closings).
Finally, debates can serve as an opportunity for a classroom performance activity for
intermediate and advanced learners. Students can select a topic, plan their research and
information gathering strategies, pool the results of this research, and plan their presentations,
making sure to anticipate questions from the other team.
4.2.3. Participation activities: “Participation” activities can be some of the most diverse
and interesting in the oral communication repertoire. These are activities where the student
participates in some communicative activity in a natural “setting”.
The guided discussion: one of the most commonly used participation activities is the
guided discussion, where the instructor provides a brief orientation to some problem or
controversial topic, usually by means of a short reading. Students in small groups discuss the
topic, suggesting possible solutions, or resolutions.
Discussion-leading activity: alternatively, students themselves can be assigned the
responsibility of a discussion-leading activity in more advanced classes. In this situation, they:
- select a topic
- find a short background article or write a summary of the topic
- draw up a list of questions for consideration by the rest of the class
Some of the same evaluation techniques discussed above can be used for this activity (peer
evaluation, audiotaping or videotaping)
Recording a conversation: Another more innovative participation activity requires
students to audiotape/record a spontaneous conversation that they have with a native speaker
of their choice. If this is difficult, students can converse with the most advanced language
students. The goal of these conversations is for the student to obtain ‘data’ that are natural and
spontaneous. After the conversation is recorded, the students transcribe, on their own, an
excerpt of the conversation that they find interesting. After the initial conversation data are
audiotaped, transcribed, and checked by the teacher for faithfulness to the tape, there are
many options for activities based on them. One use of the material is for vocabulary-building:
the students note down unfamiliar words or idioms in the native or fluent speaker’s language.
This procedure can be used as an exercise in discovering regularities of conversation
strategies (how to disagree, how to register surprise or sympathy).
The interview: Another participation activity that elicits enthusiastic student response is
the interview. In it, the students interview their native speaker acquaintances about some
meaningful or memorable aspect of their lives. Another variation is to have students interview
native speakers for their opinions on a given subject. After the interviews have taken place,
the students organise their information and present it to the rest of the class. This can be
particularly interesting when native speakers express conflicting views when responding to
the topic.
4.2.4. Observation activities. These are activities in which a student observes and/or
records verbal interactions between two or more native or fluent speakers of the target
language. This technique is useful for building student awareness of language as it actually
used in the real world, and since the student is taking the role of non-participant observer, s/he
is free to concentrate on the subject without fear of performance errors, a problem for
beginners, whose productive skills usually lag behind their receptive capabilities.
There are many possibilities which can serve as the focus for this assignment: how and
when people greet each other, make requests, thank each other, compliment one another,
disagree, etc.
4.3. Acquisition of conversational discourse
4.3.1. Interaction in discourse
Normally sentences are not said in isolation but spoken in a particular situation. They do
not mean much without knowing how the successive sentences are linked together, and how
they relate to the situation. In one sense ‘discourse’ concerns how the participants influence
each other while talking. They interrupt, they ask for more information, they adapt what they
are saying, etc. This is called ‘interactive discourse’ as there is a give-and-take between the
participants. Hence interactive discourse, which is spontaneous language with give-and-take,
usually occurs in speech rather than writing. But language can also consist of connected
speech or writing that has been prepared and gone over: usually this is written language, for
instance a set of instructions on how to work a video-recorder, but sometimes it may be
prepared speech such as talks or lectures. This is ‘non-interactive discourse’ in that the
reader or listener cannot affect what happens.
A related distinction made by Gillian Brown and her colleagues (Brown, G., Anderson, A.,
Shillcock, R., and Yule, G., Teaching Talk: Strategies for Production and Assessment, 1984)
is between listener-related talk and information-related talk.
Listener-related talk - ‘chat’ – forms the basis of social life. People talk to each other to
maintain social relationships.
Information-related talk however has the purpose of transferring information from
speaker to listener. It might be a doctor directing a nurse how to treat a patient, or a teacher
imparting information in a classroom. Only information-related talk can be non-interactive.
4.3.2. Discourse moves in conversation
If two people are talking, each of them has a choice of what to say and how to say it. There
are certain opening moves for the conversation that can be chosen, then a choice of follow-up
moves, a further choice of conversational moves linked to these, and so on until the final
exchange that ends the conversation. So a conversation might start with ritualistic greetings:
Hello, John.
Hello, Mary.
Then one speaker broaches a topic of conversation, which continues for a while:
Have you heard about Brian?
No. What’s happened?
Oh he’s gone off to Australia.
How amazing!
The conversation continues till the speakers signal a close:
Well I’d better be off now. Goodbye.
Some of these exchanges are predictable: if one person says a greeting – “Hello” – the
other has to say a greeting in return – “Hello”. Other exchanges come in ‘adjacency pairs’
with straightforward linguistic connections between the moves [Adjacency pair: a pair of
discourse moves that often go together, e.g. question and answer].
A question “What’s happened?” has to be followed by an answer such as “He’s gone off to
Australia”. Other connections are less obvious: a move that gives information “He’s gone off
to Australia” – calls for a polite reaction “How amazing!”
Much of conversation is made up of such pairs of moves – greeting and reply, question
and answer, statement and reaction.
Some psychologists such as J. Bruner (Child’s Talk, 1983) have suggested that a child
learns the first language through such routines. Conversational interaction is vital for children,
not just for the moves themselves that they are learning, but for the grammatical rules and
lexical items they are using in the moves. The components of language are learnt through the
moves of conversation.
Much of this knowledge of interaction is transferred from the first language to the second:
knowing how to construct a conversation in one language means it can be done in another, to
some extent.
Languages do not differ over the moves themselves so much as over what makes up the
moves. We all greet each other; we all ask questions and provide answers; but we do so
differently in different languages. For example, the main difficulty in going from one
language to another is represented by conventions over politeness. In this respect, the
Germans prefer more direct ways of making a request than such indirect English forms as
“Could you tell me the way to the station please?” Or, the Japanese consider it polite not to
disagree with the speaker.
4.3.3. Teaching conversational discourse
Evelyn Hatch (Discourse Analysis and Second Language Acquisition, 1978) has advocated
an approach to L2 learning based on conversation analysis – the analysis of conversations
between native and non-native speakers.
In native to non-native conversations the native speaker uses more topic clarification
moves than usual because of the increased unintelligibility of L2 speech. The non-native
needs particular moves for stating topics unambiguously and for making certain they are
continuing to be understood. While all these indeed occur from time to time in native-to-
native speech, the proportions of each move inevitably change in conversations involving
non-native speakers.
Vivian Cook (Language functions, social factors and second language teaching, 1985)
found for instance that non-native speakers are more formal and polite than native speakers
when making requests from strangers and when thanking them. They tend to say “Thank you
very much” rather than “Thanks” for example, regardless of who they are speaking to.
Similarly, another researcher, P. Porter (Talking to Learn: Conversation in Second
Language Acquisition, 1986) compared natives and non-natives on the same discussion talks.
The non-natives had a smaller repertoire of ways of expressing themselves, for example, not
using the past tense for giving their opinions, and expressing disagreement directly rather than
through face-saving ‘hedges’.
The fact that conversation consists of moves and the idea that learning takes place through
conversational moves can come together in teaching. V. Cook’s beginners book (People and
Places, 1980) uses a teaching exercise called a ‘conversational exchange’. The students, for
example, are shown pictures of various clothes; they hear model conversations showing two
conversational moves, stating opinion and reacting:
Jenny: Joe’s suit is very nice.
Edna: Is it?
Jenny: Peter’s jeans are horrible.
Edna: Are they?
Then they have to supply Edna’s side of the conversation for a few exchanges, working out
the appropriate answer according to their opinion of the clothes. Finally the students supply
both sides of the conversation. The basic concept is indeed that learning takes place through
interaction in limited exchanges: conversation is taught as linked conversational moves. As
soon as possible in each exercise, the students have to choose which expression to use and
have to fit it into the situation meaningfully.
Conversational Analysis comes close to some communicative teaching through its belief
that second languages are learnt under the pressure of conversation. Interacting with other
people through a series of conversational moves is not just what the learners are aiming at: it
is the actual means of learning. But the concept of a ‘move’ outlined here is not quite the
same as the idea of ‘function’ in most communicative teaching, which is usually concerned
with functions such as ‘arguing’ or ‘apologising’ that might occur in several different
conversational moves. A teacher using a communicative method should remember that
functions never occur by themselves but always in a sequence of conversational moves.
4.4. Language and input in the L2 classroom
4.4.1. Second language learning inside the classroom: Let us start with the language
interaction that occurs in all classrooms: most face-to-face conversation is interactive and
listener-related. Some situations give one participant a more directive role than the others:
one person can be called the ‘leader’ who takes the initiative, the others are ‘followers’ who
respond to it. Let us take a short classroom exchange:
Teacher: Can you tell me why you eat all that food?
Pupil: To keep you strong.
Teacher: To keep you strong. Yes. Why do you want to be strong?
This exchange has three main moves:
i. Initiation (the opening move by the teacher): The teacher takes the initiative by requiring
something of the student, say through a question such as “Can you tell me why you eat all that
food?” The move starts off the exchange; the teacher acts as leader.
ii. Response (the student’s response to the teacher’s opening move): the student does
whatever is required, here answering the question by saying “To keep you strong”
iii. Feedback (teacher evaluation of the student response): the teacher evaluates the
student’s response
This three-move structure of initiation, response and feedback is very frequent in teaching.
4.4.2. Language in the language teaching classroom
Several teaching methods have tried to maximize the amount of speaking by the student:
- the audio-lingual method approved of the language laboratory precisely because it
increased each student’s share of speaking time.
- communicative methods support pair-work and group-work partly because they give each
student the chance to talk as much as possible
Other methods do not share the opinion that teacher talk should be minimized (teacher-
talk: the amount of speech supplied by the teacher rather than the students)
- conventional academic teaching emphasizes factual information coming from the teacher.
- listening-based teaching sees most value in the students extracting information from what
they hear rather than in speaking themselves. One argument for less speech by the students is
that at least the sentences that the students hear will be correct examples of the target
language, not samples of the interlanguages of their fellow students.
4.4.3. Authentic and non-authentic language
A further distinction is between authentic and non-authentic language.
Here is a typical textbook dialogue taken from Flying Colours I (Garton-Sprenger &
Greenall, 1990):
Nicola: Do you like this music?
Roger: Not very much. I don’t like jazz.
Nicola: What kind of music do you like?
Roger: I like classical music.
This is non-authentic language specially constructed for its teaching potential. People in
real-life conversations do not answer questions so explicitly, do not speak in full grammatical
sentences, and do not keep to a clear sequence of turns. Instead they speak like these two
people who were recorded while talking about ghosts for the course-book English Topics
(Cook, 1975):
Mrs. Bagg: Oh, how extraordinary.
Jenny Drew: So…’cos quite a lot of things like that.
Mrs. Bagg: I mean were they frightened? ’Cos I think if I actually…
Jenny Drew: No.
Mrs. Bagg: … saw a ghost because I don’t believe in them really, I would be
frightened, you know…
This is an example of authentic language, defined by D. Little et al. (Authentic Texts in
Foreign Language Teaching: Theory and Practice, 1988) as “created to fulfil some social
purpose in the language community in which it was produced”. Until recently, teaching
provided the students with specially adapted language, not only simplified in terms of syntax
and confined in vocabulary but also tidied up in terms of discourse structure.
With the advent of methods that looked at the communicative situation the students were
going to encounter, it began to seem that the students were being handicapped by never
hearing authentic speech in all its richness and diversity. Hence courses have proliferated that
turn away from specially constructed classroom language to any pieces of language that have
been really used by native speakers, whether tapes of conversations, advertisements from
magazines, or a thousand and one other sources.
Two justifications for the use of authentic text in communicative teaching are put forward
by D. Little et al (1988): i. Motivation and interest: students will be better motivated by texts
that have served a real communicative purpose; ii. Filling in gaps: designers of course-books
may miss some of the aspects of language used in real-life situations.

The goal in learning to read should be meaning. Whether the teacher favours a skills-
oriented approach (which advocates form over meaning) or a communication approach
(which stresses function over form) is a personal decision, since experts disagree on the merits
of each. However, language teachers should remember that the communication approach is of
more recent theoretical formulation, and this holistic, top-down approach may constitute the
wave of the future.
5.1. Developing reading skills
In the past language teachers typically gave students very little assistance with reading other
than to teach them grammar and vocabulary. Conceiving of reading as an active mental
process greatly expands the reader’s role since primary responsibility for meaning shifts from
the text itself to the reader. Thus, language teachers now have a much greater range of
possible procedures to follow prior to, during, and after the reading assignment to assist
students to read more effectively.
Viewing reading as a communicative process rather than as a language learning process
leads to several important conclusions. Students do not need to know all the words/vocabulary
and grammar to comprehend a major portion of the text and to recreate the author’s meaning.
They can learn to read at a much higher level of proficiency than in the past when the
preoccupation with grammar deprived them of the opportunity to read for meaning. They can
learn reading strategies that enable them to read at much higher levels of proficiency. Also,
teachers can initiate activities that heighten students’ motivation and increase their level of
H. Loew (Developing Strategies Reading Skills, 1984) offers practical advice for teaching
reading skills. Thus, the researcher urges language teachers to encourage students to guess, to
tolerate ambiguity, to link ideas, to paraphrase and to summarize, to stop worrying when then
come across isolated, unknown words, which are sometimes not vital to comprehension.
Teachers can also help students by discussing the title, theme, and cultural background before
reading. Prior to the first reading assignment teachers should teach students how to skim, find
the main idea, and modify their hypotheses. Teachers should give them practice using the
dictionary, taking notes, underlining, skimming and rereading. And before making any
reading assignment, teachers should be sure that the reading task is clear to the students.
J.V. Aspatore (“But I don’t Know all the Words”, in J. C. Alderson and A. H. Urguhart
Reading in a Foreign Language, 1984) describes a method of teaching reading skills in a
second/foreign language that focuses on:
i. eliminating the student’s fear of giving a “wrong answer”: an important problem that
students have with reading is that they are afraid. They are more concerned with getting the
correct answer that than with the more important process of how to get the answer
ii. discouraging overuse of a dictionary: they depend too much on the dictionary, and have
problems making the transition from short readings to log ones.
iii. teaching recognition of cognates, roots and the use of certain prefixes and suffixes: to help
students overcome these problems, she suggests that teachers ask them to read and underline
unknown words without looking up the meaning in the dictionary; to use contextual clues to
guess the general meaning; to skip unknown words and to focus on cognates, roots, prefixes
and suffixes.
iv. using a variety of texts
v. utilizing skimming, scanning and decoding processes
F. Grellet (Developing Reading Skills: A Practical Guide to Reading Comprehension
Exercises 1981) discuses useful reading practice techniques:
i. One technique is to have students work their way through comprehension problems by
inferring the meaning through word formation and context. They should also learn to pick out
the important words that form the core of each sentence, and they need to be aware of the use
of referent and connecting words to establish relationships in and among sentences and
ii. Another technique is to practise timed readings to improve reading speed.
iii. A third technique is to learn to use scanning and skimming techniques to preview reading
material, predict what the selection is about, and develop expectations about the content of the
St. Krashen and T. Terrell (The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom,
1983) outline the following communicative reading strategies:
i. read for meaning
ii. don’t look up every word
iii. predict meaning
iv. use context
5.2. Reading activities
5.2.1. Pre-reading: The purpose of pre-reading (as with pre-listening) activities is to
motivate the students to want to read the assignment and to prepare them to be able to read it.
Prepared students can complete the assignment better with less effort, and they are able to
participate more fully and with greater satisfaction. Prepared students rapidly gain confidence
in their ability to learn a second language, and they tend to be more highly motivated and
more enthusiastic than students who struggle to complete their homework assignments.
L. Ringler and C. Weber (A Language-Thinking Approach to Reading, 1984: 70) call pre-
reading activities enabling activities because “they provide a reader with the necessary
background to organize activity and to comprehend the material… These experiences involve
understanding the purpose(s) for reading and building a knowledge base necessary for dealing
with the content and the structure of the material.” The two authors say that pre-reading
activities elicit prior knowledge, build background, and focus attention.
5.2.2. Reading the assignment. Students may read the assignment in or out of class.
Initially, the teacher may have them read the assignment or at least begin to read it in class so
that s/he can help those who need assistance to develop productive strategies for recreating
the author’s meaning. Normally, however, students read assigned material as part of their
homework because class time is more valuable for communication practice that students
cannot get out of class.
When students read out of class, the teacher has no opportunity to provide immediate
assistance. However, s/he can help students to read by giving them specific guidelines for
what to do while they are reading. During the preview, the teacher has introduced the students
to the topic and the related vocabulary. They have made predictions about what might happen,
and they have created their own expectations about how the reading may develop. Based on
these predictions and expectations, they proceed through the reading either confirming or
rejecting their hypotheses. In case of errors they make new predictions based on the new
knowledge they have gained from the reading. This process of guessing, confirming or
rejecting, reformulation and comprehension continues until they gain understanding.
The authors recommend that the teacher ask students to underline the main ideas and
supporting facts. They suggest that the teacher implement this idea by first giving them a
reading that has already been underlined. The students read the underlined parts and predict
the rest of the reading based on this skeleton of information. In subsequent readings the
students themselves do the underlining.
Another practice is to teach students to make a story map as they read. Following this
technique, they learn to show important relationships in the reading by putting main ideas,
events, and characters in adjoining circles. The map may consist of main ideas and sequential
details, comparisons and contrasts, or causes and effects.
5.2.3. Post-reading: The first step in post-reading activities is to clarify the meaning of
any unclear passages and their relationship to the author’s overall message. The teacher
should encourage students to ask any questions that they may have about the reading at this
point in the class. The teacher’s task is to clarify problem passages by focusing on meaning
whenever possible without calling the students’ attention to grammar and vocabulary except
as a last resort.
Russell Stauffer (The Language Experience Approach to the Teaching of Reading, 1980)
advocates three types of teacher’s questions:
i. What do you think? (to make the students think)
ii. Why do you think so? (to cause them to think about their opinions)
iii. Prove it! (to force them to present evidence for their conclusions)
L. Ringler and C. Weber (A Language-Thinking Approach to Reading, 1984) divide post-
reading activities into two basic categories:
i. those in which students recall information from or react to the text;
ii. those designed to develop greater communicative fluency in the four language skills. These
activities may include dramatizations, role-plays, simulations, reports, and debates.
Teachers should avoid fact questions that can be answered directly from the text. It is
preferable that students prepare a summary or paraphrase of the content because these
activities require a global recall of relevant information. Further activities can focus on the
students’ ability to draw conclusions, or give opinions. An effective post-reading activity
requires students to reprocess the material from the reading. They suggest identifying key
ideas, pointing out rhetorical devices describing the author’s biases, comparing cultural
differences, debating both sides of an issue presented in the reading, and developing skits or
plays based on the reading.
During post-reading activities students have the chance to have some fun participating in
communication activities while increasing their facility to use the reading to communicate
their own thoughts and feelings. The teacher should not move on to other readings until the
students have had sufficient time to explore the topic from several perspectives and to use the
language and ideas in different communicative contexts. He should not permit students to
leave a reading until they have expressed their personal reaction to the content. He should not
feel obligated to rush from one story to another in a prescribed period of time regardless of the
students’ abilities and interests. The goal should be to use language to express meaning in
creative and stimulating ways, not to cover a preselected quantity of material.
5.3. Discourse: script and schema theory
Reading is a cognitive process that is rather restricted in the L2. Reading, like speaking,
occurs in a context rather than in isolation. The meaning of a text is not found just in the
sentences themselves, but is derived from the previous knowledge stored in the reader’s mind
and the processes through which the reader tackles it.
5.3.1. Schema theory
Schema (pl. schemas or schemata) refers to the background knowledge on which the
interpretation of a text depends.
A well-known experiment carried out by J. Bransford and M. Johnson (Contextual
prerequisites for understanding, 1982) asked people to read texts such as the following:
The procedure is actually simple. First you arrange things into different groups
depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how
much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is
the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any
particular endeavour. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many…

To make sense of this text a particular piece of information is required: the passage is about
washing clothes. A person who doesn’t have this information does not get much out of the
text. If the topic is known, the passage is straightforward and the comprehension level is much
higher. The sentences themselves do not change when we know the topic, but the
interpretation they have in our minds does. The background knowledge into which a text fits,
sometimes called the schema, plays a large role in how it is read.
Lack of context affected readers’ comprehension; also, the use of vague words (‘things’
or ‘facilities’ instead of ‘clothes’ or ‘washing machine’) was a hindrance.
5.3.2. Scripts and discourse
A crucial element in the understanding of discourse was given the name of ‘script’ by R.
Schank in the 1970s (R. Schank and R. Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding,
A script is according to Schank and Abelson “a predetermined stereotyped sequence of
actions that defines a well-known situation”. While in recent years Schank has developed his
ideas beyond this, nevertheless the script has been a very influential view of how memory is
organised. Some scripts are virtually the same for speakers of different languages; others
differ from one country to another. Thus, the script for eating-out may require all restaurants
to have waitress-service, or to be takeaway, or to have cash desks by the exit or other
variations. Many of the stereotyped problems of foreign travel that people recount show
conflicts between scripts – eating sheep’s eyes, loos for mixed sexes, asking if food tastes
good, all are absent from the scripts in particular cultures. Or indeed the script may be totally
absent: most people have no script for a Finnish sauna.
5.3.3. Scripts and schema theory in teaching
Patricia Carrell (Three components of background knowledge in reading comprehension,
1983) has produced a set of recommendations for language teachers: in addition to
vocabulary, Carrell sees teaching as building up the learner’s background knowledge. Thus
she stresses pre-reading activities that build up background knowledge, partly through
providing them with appropriate vocabulary through activities such as word association
practice. The techniques she suggests develop processing strategies for the text such as flow-
charting or diagramming activities. Materials should not only be interesting, but also be
conceptually complete; a longer passage or an in-depth set of passages on a single topic is
better than short unconnected passages.
Perhaps none of these ideas will be completely new to the practicing teacher. Reading
materials have after all been stressing content background for some time. Pre-reading
exercises are now standard.
The benefit for the teacher is an increased awareness of the difficulties that L2 learners face
with texts. These are not just a product of the processing of the text itself but of the
background information that natives automatically read into it. L2 learners have ‘cognitive
deficits’ with reading that are not caused by lack of language ability but by difficulties with
processing information in an L2. Even at advanced levels, L2 learners still cannot get as much
out of a text as in their first language, even if on paper they know all the grammar and
vocabulary. Cambridge university students tested by J. Long and E. Harding-Esch (Summary
and recall of text in first and second languages: some factors contributing to performance
difficulties, 1977) for example remembered less information from political speeches in French
than in English. Furthermore, advanced L2 learners still read their second language much
more slowly than they read their first. The problem with reading is not just the language but
the whole process of getting meaning from texts.
SCANNING = extracting specific information
Very often we read something or listen to it because we want to extract specific bits of
information - to find out a fact or two. We may quickly kook through a film review just to
find the name of the star. We may listen to the news bulletin, only concentrating when the
particular item that interests us comes up. In both cases we may largely disregard the other
information in the review or the news bulletin. We will be aware of this information and may
even at some level take it in, but we do so at speed as we focus in on the specific information
we are searching for. This skill when applied to reading is often called scanning. (J. Harmer,
The Practice of English Language Teaching: 183)

SKIMMING = getting the general picture

We often read or listen to things because we want to ‘get the general picture’. We want to
have an idea of the main points of the text – an overview – without being too concerned with
the details. When applied to reading this skill is often called skimming and entails the
reader’s ability to pick out main points rapidly, discarding what is not essential or relevant to
the general picture. Listeners often need the same skill too – listening for the main message
and disregarding repetition, false starts and irrelevances that are often features of spoken
language. (J. Harmer, The Practice of English Language Teaching: 183.)

6.1. Within the communicative framework of language teaching, the skill of writing enjoys
special status: it is via writing that a person can communicate a variety of messages to a close
or distant, known or unknown reader. Such communication is extremely important in the
modern world, whether the interaction takes the form of traditional paper-and-pencil writing
or the most advanced electronic mail. Writing as a communicative activity needs to be
encouraged and nurtured during the language learner’s course of study, and this course will
attempt to deal in particular with the early stages of ESL/EFL writing (beginning level).
The view of writing as an act of communication suggests an interactive process which
takes place between the writer and the reader via the text. Such an approach places value on
the goal of writing as well as on the perceived reader audience. Even if we are concerned
with writing at the beginning level, these two aspects of the act of writing are of vital
importance, in setting writing tasks the teacher should encourage students to define, for
themselves, the message they want to send and the audience who will receive it.
The present sections focus on the gradual development of the mechanics of writing,
which is a necessary instrumental skill without which meaningful writing cannot take place,
then move on to early functional writing, which can be carried out with a limited level of
proficiency in the target language. It is important to remember that in the ESL/EFL context,
writing, like the other language skills, needs to be dealt with at the particular level of
linguistic and discourse proficiency which the intended students have reached.
The proposed sequence of activities will start with focus on the mechanical aspects of
writing, as the basic instrumental skill, and gradually move on to a combination of “purpose
for writing” and language focus.
6.2. Early writing tasks
6.2.1. What do we teach? The first steps in teaching reading and writing skills in a second
or foreign language classroom centre around the mechanics of these two skills. By
“mechanics” we usually refer to letter recognition, letter discrimination, word recognition,
basic rules of spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, as well as recognition of whole sentences.
The interaction between reading and writing has often been a focus in the methodology
of language teaching, yet it deserves even stronger emphasis at the early stages in the
acquisition of the various component mechanics: in order to learn how to discriminate one
letter from another while reading, learners need to practice writing these letters; in order to
facilitate their perception of words and sentences during the reading process, they might need
to practice writing them first. It is therefore the case that writing plays an important role in
early reading, facilitating the development of both the reading and the writing skills.
Sound – spelling correspondences: English presents the learner with a number of problems
related to its orthographic rules; it is important for learners of English as a second or foreign
language to realise that English orthography is by no means a one-to-one letter-sound
correspondence system; it has its own consistency embedded in the combination of letters
with their immediate environments, resulting in what we tend to call sound – spelling
correspondences. By practising the proper pronunciation of sounds in relation to given
spelling patterns, we can provide learners with a good basis for pronunciation as well as for
the skills of reading and writing.
6.2.2. How do we teach them? The stage devoted to the teaching of the mechanics of
reading and writing aims at three different goals:
i. to enhance letter recognition
ii. to practise sound – spelling correspondences via all four language skills
iii. to help the learner move from letters and words to meaningful sentences and larger units of
Recognition and writing drills constitute the first steps in the development of effective
reading and writing habits. However, in order to acquire active mastery of the sound –
spelling correspondences, it is necessary for the learners to arrive at relevant generalisations
concerning these correspondences. Such generalisations will lead to a better understanding of
the systematic representation of sounds in English orthography.
Three major types of recognition tasks are used at this early stage of reading and writing,
each type incorporating a great variety of drills:
a. matching tasks
b. writing tasks
c. meaningful sound – spelling correspondence practice
These tasks enable the learners to develop effective recognition habits based on distinctive
graphic features. Many of these have the form of games, puzzles, and other ‘fun’ activities.
While practicing sound – spelling correspondences, students can be writing meaningful
sentences, such as the following:
There is a cat on the mat and a cake on the plate.
The ball is near the tall boy next to the wall.
These sentences contain words which exemplify sound – spelling correspondences, and, at
the same time, they are words that students have probably learned.
6.3. More advanced writing tasks
6.3.1. More advanced writing activities which start shifting their goal from the focus on the
mechanics of writing to basic process-oriented tasks will need to incorporate some language
work at the morphological and discourse level. Thus, these activities will enable a
combination of focus on accuracy and content of the message. In this section, since we are
concerned with the beginning level, we will work with categories of practical writing tasks,
emotive writing tasks, and school-oriented tasks.
In order to develop and use these more demanding writing activities in the ESL/EFL
classroom, we need to develop a detailed set of specifications which will enable both teachers
and students to cope successfully with these tasks. Such a set of specifications should include
the following:
Task description: to present students with the goal of the task and its importance
Content description: to present students with possible content areas that might be relevant to
the task
Audience description: to guide students in developing and understanding the intended
audience, their background, needs and expectations
Format cues: to help students in planning the overall organisational structure of the written
Linguistic cues: to help students make use of certain grammatical structures and vocabulary
Spelling and Punctuation cues: to help students focus their attention on spelling rules which
they have learned.
6.3.2. Practical writing tasks. These are writing tasks which are procedural in nature and
therefore have a predictable format. This makes them particularly suitable for writing
activities that focus primarily on spelling and morphology. Lists of various types, notes,
short messages, simple instructions, and other such writing tasks are particularly useful for
reinforcing classroom work.
Lists can be of various types: “things to do” lists, “things completed” lists, shopping lists.
Each of these list types provides us with an opportunity to combine spelling rules with
morphological rules and with the logical creation of a meaningful message.
“Things to do” lists are useful for practising verb bases. When assigning such an activity,
the teacher will have to indicate whether the list is personal or intended for a team. The
content specification will have to indicate whether this is a list of things to do in preparation
for some event or more of a plan for someone’s daily routine. For example, a list for a group
of students who are preparing a surprise birthday party might look like this:
Things to do
1. Buy a present for Ann (Sharon)
2. Call Ann’s friends (Mary)
3. Write invitations (Tom) etc.
Following up this type of list, we can easily move on to the “things completed” list, which
specifies the things that have already been taken care of and is therefore useful for practising
past forms of verbs. As part of this activity students will need to review the regular past
formation of verbs where –ed is added and its exceptions in spelling are taught, such as
deletion of a final e before adding –ed, as in lived; the doubling of the last consonant in
monosyllabic bases of the form CVC, as in planned, and the same doubling rule when the
final syllable of a polysyllabic verb is stressed, such as in occurred but not in opened; the
replacement of y with i when the base ends in C + y, as in tried. Such an activity also enables
students to practise the spelling of irregular past-tense formations. For example, the above list
might look like this when partially completed:
Things completed
1. Planned the games for the party
2. Wrote the invitations
3. Bought the present
4. Called the friends
Shopping lists provide us with a very good opportunity to practise the spelling of the plural
ending of countable nouns and the use of quantifiers. The sound – spelling correspondences
here consist of the plural inflection with two of its three phonetic variants - /s/, /z/ - which can
be combined with the spelling pattern s as in pens, pencils, whereas in words like brushes or
oranges the plural takes the phonetic form /iz/, an additional syllable, with such words ending
in the spelling pattern –es.
Another type of practical writing task is notes and short messages that are left for another
person. These allow students to practise brief and simple sentences with a meaningful
message. To make the activity more interesting, students can design their own message
headings and then fill them in. here is an example:
Messages for my little sister:
Wash the dishes in the sink
Feed the dog
Watch your favourite programme on TV and have a good time
Other types of practical writing activities might include the filling-in of forms and the
preparation of invitations, “greetings” and “thank you” notes, and other such written
6.3.3. Emotive writing tasks. Emotive writing tasks are concerned with personal writing.
Such personal writing includes primarily letters to friends and narratives describing personal
experiences, as well as personal journals and diaries. When dealing with letter writing,
emphasis can be placed on format, punctuation and spelling of appropriate phrases and
expressions. When writing about personal experiences – usually done in a narrative format -
spelling of past-tense forms can be reviewed and practiced.
It seems that emotive writing, in order to serve the personal needs of the learners, has to be
quite fluent. The question is: How can this be done in the early stages of the ESL/EFL course
of study? The different emotive types of writing activities are, of course, suitable for the more
advanced stages of the course, but they can be carried out, in a more limited manner, even at
the initial stages. Thus, letters can be limited to the level of structural and vocabulary
knowledge of the students at each point in time. Similarly, journals, diaries and personal
writing activities can reflect the learners’ proficiency level.
6.3.4. School-oriented tasks. One of the most important functions of writing in a
student’s life is the function it plays in school. It is still the case that much individual learning
goes on while students are writing assignments, summaries, answers to questions, or a variety
of essay-type passages. In most cases, the audience for these writing tasks is the teacher, but
gradually students must learn to write to an unknown audience who needs to get the
information being imparted exclusively via writing. Here again, at the early stages of
ESL/EFL learning, the assignments might be short and limited. Answers might be single
phrases or sentences, summaries might be a listing of main ideas. However, all of these
writing activities should be given attention both at the linguistic-accuracy level and at the
message-transmission level. It is the combination of content and organisation with accepted
formal features that will lead learners to better utilisation of the writing skill in their future use
of English.
6.4. The pre-writing stage: Techniques for getting started
Regardless of the type of writing tasks that a teacher might assign, a good place to begin
class-work is to explore the prewriting stage. The goal of the teacher should be to expose
students to a variety of strategies for getting started with a writing task and to encourage each
student to try to discover which strategies work best for him or her. Several heuristic devices
(or invention strategies) which can be explored in class for the purpose of providing students
with a repertoire of techniques for generating ideas are the following:
i. Brainstorming [Brainstorming = a way of developing new ideas, through a discussion in
which several people make lots of suggestions]
This is often a group exercise in which all of the students in the class are encouraged to
participate by sharing their collective knowledge about a particular subject. One way to
structure this is for the teacher to suggest a broad topic, such as reasons for choosing a
particular career/job, and have students call out as many associations as possible which the
teacher can then write on the board. The result would be far more material generated than any
one student is likely to think of on his/her own, and then all students can utilise any or all of
the information when turning to the preparation of their first drafts.
ii. Listing: Unlike brainstorming, listing can be a quiet and individual activity. As a first
step in finding an approach to a particular subject area (such as ‘the use and abuse of power’,
to cite an example), the students are encouraged to produce as lengthy a list as possible of all
the subcategories that come to mind as they think about the topic at hand.
iii. Free writing: This technique was suggested by P. Elbow (Writing without Teachers,
1973) for helping native speakers break through the difficulty of getting started. The main
idea of this technique is for students to write for a specified period of time (usually about 5
minutes) without taking their pen from the page. As Elbow puts it, “Don’t stop for anything…
Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder what word to use…If you get
stuck it’s fine to write ‘I can’t think what to say’ as many times as you like” (1973: 3) Freed
from the necessity of worrying about grammar and format, students can often generate a great
deal of prose which provides useful raw material to use in addressing the writing assignment
at hand.
For ESL/EFL students, this technique often works best if the teacher provides an opening
clause or sentence for the students to start with. So, for example, if the next assignment is to
write a paper about one’s personal philosophy of life, a short free writing session can begin
with the words “Life is difficult but it is also worthwhile.” The free writing generated after the
students copy this sentence and continue to write down whatever comes into their heads can
be kept private or shared with other students.
iv. Clustering: Another technique for getting many ideas down quickly, clustering begins
with a key word or central idea placed in the centre of a page (or on the blackboard) around
which the student (or teacher using student-generated suggestions) jots down all of the free
associations triggered by the subject matter – using simple words or short phrases. Unlike
listing, the words or phrases generated are put on the page or blackboard in a pattern which
takes shape from the connections the writer sees as each new thought emerges. Completed
clusters can look like spokes on a wheel or any other pattern of connected lines, depending on
how the individual associations are drawn to relate to each other. By having students share
their cluster patterns with other students in the class, teachers allow students to be exposed to
a wide variety of approaches to the subject matter, which might further generate material for
It is very important that students experiment with each of these techniques in order to see
how each one works to help generate text and shape a possible approach to a topic. The
purpose, after all, of acquiring invention strategies
is for students to feel that they have a variety of ways to begin an assigned writing task.