IATEFL 2015 | Candy van Olst: How does just chatting become a purposeful conversation? | Talk summary

Posted: April 12, 2015 in Conferences
Tags: , ,

Abstract. In a classroom of more advanced learners, learning to talk and talking to learn become indistinguishable. Building purposeful conversations that prompt learning is not an innate skill. I’ll define the elements of purposeful conversations that need to be taught and practised in order to develop the ability to initiate and maintain conversations that foster a wide range of social and academic skills.


Why teach conversation?

Reservation 1. Candy van Olst had a worry that ‘conversation classes’ might be a waste of time. It’s very easy to feel guilty about ‘just chatting’ in class. So, is a conversation class just a cop out?

To answer that, she asked herself: Candy, have you ever learnt anything from a conversation? Have you ever been persuaded?.. and she realized that you are actually the result of the conversations you’ve had in your life.
What about language acquisition? Again, she realized that she had learnt a lot from language users who were better than her. The goal of the conversation is to learn and to find stuff out and we should give them that level of control over language and their communication. 

Also according to ‘classics’ (Vygotsky and Krashen) conversation is an incredibly valuable learning tool.

Reservation 2. Students could practice communication on facebook. However: it’s very different, crucially, asynchronous so it might be that social media does not provide the same quality of communication. Also, the medium encourages what Candy van Olst calls microwave thinking: we can think about this but not for very long.

Arguments in favour of teaching conversation: 

First, what do students genuinely want? They want to

  • have an intelligent, coherent, rich, purposeful conversation the same way that can do in their mother tongue.
  • think critically
  • speak clearly
  • evaluate different point of view
  • collaborate

This is very ‘high ideas’ but you can’t avoid that and say ‘no, let’s do present perfect’.

Also, conversation

  • develops verbal skills, listening comprehension etc
  • builds critical thinking skills.
  • develops empathy, especially in a multicultural class. You get exposed to different value systems and beliefs, recognize bias, build solid relationships through understanding and trust – if you have a reasonably well-developed and intelligent conversation
  • brings psychological benefits: if you can maintain a conversation that people actually listen to, you get confidence in your linguistic ability; by expression your belief you discover who you are. Take ownership and responsibility for what you say.

How to push students there in the reality of the classroom?

In order to teach conversation, you need to understand it. A source that Candy van Olst found very useful was the work of Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford

Zwiers and Marie Crawford distilled five elements that every meaningful conversation has. Speakers

  • elaborate and clarify (clarify, etc)
  • support by giving examples (experience / outside sources / world knowledge)
  • build on / challenge other’s ideas, making them justify it (it’s not ‘creating parallel monologue’)
  • paraphrasing (indicates that you have enough control of the language to reengineer what’s beins said)
  • summarize – important as it indicates understanding

This is challenging even for a native speaker, so students have to be taught and supported.

How can this be achieved linguistically?

  • Speaking in paragraphs, not sentences. (=> conjunctions and subordinate clauses – ‘which / where / that / although / unless’. I’m from Spain and I’m from Barcelona where I …) 
  • Transitions and connectives: cause and effect (For this reason / therefore / in order to), additional information (As an example), U-turn clauses (On the contrary, however…), sequencing (for summarizing)
  • Language to nuance your comments: hedging, qualifying, soften, expressing uncertainty (suggest, should, suggest, as far as I’m concerned, maybe) X is a terrible actor => From what I’ve seen, I think he isn’t as good as others.
  • Managing interaction: the means to ask intelligent questions that allow the conversation to extend and develop. How do you know that? Why do you think that; phatic language that shows that you’re present and encourage others to elaborate. Really? Wow, I haven’t read that. Wow, that’s really interesting. 

It is so great to see a taxonomy of skills required for a conversation. Big focus of the courses that I teach is helping students communicate in their specific context / genres (e.g. IT scrum meetings and customer interviews), so there’s always a lot of emphasis on functional language, e.g. clarifying or hedging. However, I’ve always had this nagging worry that I might be leaving entire layers of communication out, and I’ve long felt that I need a coherent framework.

Another difficulty that I’ve encountered is analyzing authentic scripts for functional language. Analyzing real spoken data is a passion of mine. I teach IT professionals and so I’ve obtained some recordings of software developers discussing professional problems. What I wanted to do is try and isolate patterns and high priority functional language. But I’ve discovered that it’s very difficult to see structure in a chat. As Chia Suan Chong pointed out in her talk yesterday, real life language is not clear cut and it’s very difficult to put language into categories. I think that having a framework to refer to might make it easier to home in on high priority language in authentic data and devise coherent awareness raising tasks. Off to order the book. 🙂


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

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