Posts Tagged ‘spoken discourse’

temporal-distance-917364_960_720When faced with a difficult question, especially in a stressful situation like a job interview or a product presentation, some learners of English tend to fall silent and fail to let the other person know that they’re thinking.This might be especially problematic if the conversation takes place over the phone or Skype, i.e. when the person they’re talking to can’t see them and doesn’t know how to interpret their silence. Here’s a short lesson that I designed to help my learners deal with this problem.

Lesson Overview
Level: B1 – B2
Learner type: Business English or General English/Teens.
Time: 30-45 minutes
Target expressions:
Target language.PNGMaterials: a Microsoft Word worksheet (you can download a .pdf file from Slideshare below):



I’ve posted quite a few listening lessons on this blog, and up to now they were all worksheets meant to be used by a teacher in class. This time I’m sharing an online self-study lesson, for B1 level and higher, that allows learners to explore the features of connected speech and train listening decoding at their own pace. The lesson is based on a snippet from an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, an American journalist, at Toronto Public Library.


The web tool that I used to build this lesson is still in a bit of experimental stage (e.g. unfortunately right now you can’t save or print out your answers, and there might be other minor snags). Still, I hope that it will be useful for learners who need to train themselves to understand fast authentic speech.

If you try the lesson, I’d be very grateful for your feedback.

Ever since I read the great Listening in the Language Classroom by John Field, the book on developing listening skills, I became quite passionate about the need to consistently help learners cope with high frequency grammar structures in authentic speech, incorporating authentic listening work into grammar work. In the previous lesson on this blog the focus was on the way modals are pronounced.

In this new video-based lesson based on an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio, the learners practice their speaking, grammar for story-telling and again practice listening decoding, focusing on target grammar.

More specifically, the learners

  • [listening: gist] listen to scary stories that happened to Leonardo Dicaprio;
  • [grammar] explore the ways Present Perfect, Past Simple and Continuous are used in stories (Present Perfect typically comes at the beginning of the story to describe or ask about general life experience; Past Simple is used to describe a sequence of events; Past Continuous, for background information);
  • [listening: decoding skills] notice the way these tenses sound in authentic speech (some sounds get dropped from the verbs and linkers, which might make this grammar problematic for listeners);
  • [speaking] tell each other stories about the scariest/funniest/saddest things that have happened to them;
  • [spoken grammar, optional] explore using Present Simple/Continuous in stories to achieve a dramatic effect and using ‘He goes’ to report what someone said.

Videos used in the lesson:

Story 1 (Tasks 1 – 8)

Story 2 (Optional task 10)

Level: Intermediate/Upper-Intermediate (B1/B2)

Time: 90-120 minutes


  • an editable Microsoft Word worksheet (docx). If you don’t have Microsoft Word, you can download the .pdf file from Slideshare:
  • [for listening decoding work] A power point presentation (zip) where the words problematic for listeners are isolated, so that the learners can really hear what sounds are dropped. To play the audios, unpack the archive.



One of the questions that my learners (who are IT people) are very likely to be asked during interviews and promotion reviews is ‘Tell us about your favourite technology’. But, whatever their profession, Business English learners need to learn to speak fluently and persuasively when presenting the advantages of products, tools and options.

Here’s a ‘geeky’ lesson plan in which the learners

  • watch a video of a developer talking about the features of his favourite browser (activities: gist listening, listening decoding skills)
  • analyze linkers used for listing ideas
  • briefly revise modal verbs (could, (don’t) have to)
  • talk about their favourite tools, apps and technologies

It worked very well with my learners, who spent more than fifteen minutes discussing the relative merits of file managers and development environments. For learners who are less geeky, I included a range of other websites and apps to talk about, e.g. social networks, messengers and and to-do list apps.

Level: Intermediate (B1)

Time: 90 minutes

Materials: an editable Microsoft Word worksheet. If you don’t have Microsoft Word, you could download the .pdf file from Slideshare:

This post is different from what I normally do, because it’s a variation of a lesson that has already been posted to this blog.

A couple of months ago I posted a lesson on Keeping a conversation going. The lesson was part of a short course for IT professionals on entertaining a customer and it worked really well helping the learners to come up with ideas while making small talk and raised their awareness of strategies for active listening (body language, backchanneling, reformulation and so on). One problem was that the video used in the lesson was very technical, so it wasn’t really suitable for learners outside the world of IT. It was also very short and featured only a very limited range of examples. As a result, my students were still struggling with the pronunciation of backchannels by the end of the lesson, ‘overpronouncing’ them. This week I needed to teach that topic again, so I adapted the worksheet, using a video that can be interesting for non-IT people, and is packed to the brim with examples for the learners to analyze.

I’m very sorry for the overlap, but it seems like I still find spoken language, and ‘active listenership’ in particular, too much of a teaching challenge to let it go. This feature of language has always been challenging for my students, and at the moment I don’t have on my shelf any resource books on speaking based on authentic listening extracts, or at least recordings that don’t scream ‘recording studio’. For instance, there’s the fantastic Handbook of Spoken Grammar, but the audios there don’t sound that natural. (I’m sure there must be some great resource packs, and I know there have been some great coursebooks like Touchstone, but I’m limited to BE coursebooks, so I would be very grateful for pointers to resource books or materials that can be used stand-alone).

Just two years ago, when I was doing my Delta Module 2, I was craving to at least get some transcripts of authentic, unscripted interaction, and so I was buying up books that contained transcripts of authentic interviews (Exploring Spoken English, one amazing book where those transcripts are also painstakingly analyzed, can be bought second hand for a penny – and amazon also allows one to flip through its pages).  Now, just two years later, there’s no need to buy up books to get transcripts: hundreds of hours of transcribed interviews are available on Youtube, mostly on Google channels. So for now I’m creating my own materials, for what they’re worth.

Levels: B1/B2
Length: 90 minutes

  • an editable Worksheet
  • a projector or a laptop to show the video
  • a deck of cards (if you don’t have cards, print them out and cut them up from the last page of the worksheet)

If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download the .pdf from Slideshare:

The video:

The extracts for the speech analysis task (Task 6):

Extract 1 (11:23-11:46). Small ‘I’m listening’ words:

BRIAN GRADY: And you know, we don’t try to be pushy, but, you know, we want to expose and make things easier for people to do. [Sure, sure] Made With Android is about finding people outside of Google, doing things that nobody expected them to do with a phone. [Right] And.. so we found out that there’s a lot of people– there’s a community out there. People that, because of the extensibility of the Android operating system, [Sure. Sure.] are able to make incredible…

Extract 2 (11:46 – 11:50). Echoing.

applications that do crazy things, like

LAURENCE MORONEY: Like flying a weather balloon.

BRIAN GRADY: Flying a weather balloon, or opening

Extract  3 (11:48 – 12:01). Small ‘I’m listening’ words, echoing, reformulating and building on what the speaker said

BRIAN GRADY: Flying a weather balloon, or opening your apartment door when you’re at the top of the stairs and your bags are full of groceries. [Yeah!] I don’t know how you do that. Your hands are full of– but anyway. There’s things like that.

LAURENCE MORONEY: The things that people will think of that we can’t think of, right?

Extract 4 (12:38 – 13:07) Small ‘I’m listening’ words, reformulating and building on what the speaker said

BRIAN GRADY: Yes. We want non-commercial applications that are about fun, [OK] or hobby lifestyle kind of stuff, [Right] new connecting new things that people hadn’t connected. We want it to be an open source project. [Right] And we want to be able to, not only entertain people and inspire people with the video, but also provide them with the code, [OK] the applications, and maybe they’ll go out and do something else with it.

LAURENCE MORONEY: So somebody can pick this and run with it for themselves. [Yeah] Like I could actually go and get a weather balloon myself, now, and start doing what these folks do.

Extract 5 (13:07 – 13:17). Small ‘I’m listening’ words, echoing key words, short emotional comment (It’s cool), laughter.

BRIAN GRADY: You go to casadeballoon dot club, [OK] which is this group’s website.

LAURENCE MORONEY: I love the ‘dot club.’

BRIAN GRADY: Dot club. [It’s cool] I like the ‘casadeballon’. [laughter] But anyway,

Extract 6 (13:46 – 13:50) Emphatic agreement.

LAURENCE MORONEY:  I guess, the more exotic the locale, the better?

BRIAN GRADY: Absolutely.

Extract 7 (13:56 – 13:59) Echoing, emphatic agreement.

LAURENCE MORONEY: OK. I’m more a Tahiti guy myself.
BRIAN GRADY: Well, I hear

Acknowledgement. The role play for Task 2 was suggested by my colleague Anastasiya Chernetskaya – thank you Anastasiya, it’s simply ideal here!

A couple of weeks ago I was doing a diagnostic test with one of my Business English groups to establish how well they answered interview questions. One of the questions was Have you ever worked with someone who it was difficult to work with? The students came up with lots of stories of difficult colleagues, but two things became evident from their replies. First, they didn’t really understand what to include in the answer, so they mostly focused on the description of the situation, and at least half of them didn’t even mention how the situation was resolved. And second, their replies were so long-winded that it was difficult to see structure in them even when they were

So here is a video-based lesson plan that we did with that group today. The main aim of this lesson was to help the students structure their speech when talking about past experiences and decisions using the STAR framework for impromptu speaking. They listen to an extract from a workshop in Stanford Graduate School of Business in which the framework is presented, focus on vocabulary (talking about deadlines) and grammar (cleft sentences) in the video and then practice using the framework in their own speech.

In the second lesson (or for homework), the students analyze an example of a business person using a variation of the technique in her presentation:

Language level: B2 (Upper-Intermediate)
Learner type: adults (Business English)
Activity: listening (gist and decoding work), vocabulary, speaking strategies (STAR framework), cleft sentences (optional)
Length: ideally, two lessons (either 60 or 90 minutes, as communicative activities are flexible in length)
To do the lesson in 90 minutes, skip the task focusing on cleft sentences (see the procedure in the Teacher’s notes at the end of the worksheet).
Materials: editable .docx worksheet (tasks, transcripts, teacher’s notes). If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download a .pdf file from Slideshare:


Some of my students are great conversationalists who thrive talking to new interesting people, but for others having to maintain a conversation with someone they don’t know that well is a truly daunting task. I personally am more of a quiet type, and I deeply sympathize with people who have this problem. I remember, when I first started out teaching, being positively terrified by meeting some of my students on the underground: inexplicably, having chatted with them effortlessly in class, I completely froze and didn’t know what to say the moment we stepped out of the classroom.

When it comes to intercultural communication, the issues of shyness and not knowing how to break the ice or fill the awkward pauses may be additionally complicated by the fact that different cultures might expect different behaviour during the conversation. For example, in her IATEFL presentation on The Pragmatics of successful business communication, Chia Suan Chong gave a very interesting example of how politeness and the wish not to interrupt may be interpreted as lack of interest:

Allyson: You won’t believe what happened to me today!
Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.
Allyson: Right, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!
Jun Sook: Huh?

Russians make another good example: we use back-channeling (i.e. small noises and comments that show you’re listening and interested, like ‘Mmm?’ and ‘Interesting’) a lot less than English or American people, and a typical reaction when some of my students notices the question ‘Really?’ in a transcript is to giggle and ask, ‘How come she doesn’t believe him?’ We also have quite different body language, so a lot of my students avoid making eye contact, and hardly use any gestures when they speak.

A few weeks ago a team of engineers at my company needed to entertain a customer (something that they normally don’t do) and I needed to teach a short course designed to help them brush up their English and conversation skills. Here’s one of the lesson plans that was part of the course. It is designed to help learners maintain conversations more easily by

  1. asking a range of follow-up questions more skillfully and
  2. using some ‘active listening’ techniques, namely, showing interest verbally (through short interjections and comments) and non-verbally, through eye contact and body language.

Levels: B1/B2
Length: 90 minutes

  • an editable Worksheet
  • a projector or a laptop to show the video
  • a deck of cards (you’ll need around 8 cards for each student – printed out cards will do)

If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download the .pdf from Slideshare:

Teacher’s notes

Task 1. S/s discuss in pairs for 3-5 minutes. Brief feedback.
Task 2. The purpose of tasks 2 and 3 is for the students to notice the differences between the way they show interest / encourage the other speaker to continue and the way Americans do that.
For task 2, split s/s into groups of three or four. Two people in each group are talking (Task 2), the remaining students are analyzing their conversation (Secret task on last page). Allow 2 minutes for Student As to read the task, then let Students B and C talk for 3-4 minutes.
Task 3. Elicit from Student As what they were looking out for and board the questions. Conduct brief feedback, then focus the class on the first three questions: (1) How do they use their hands? (2) Do they make any eye contact? (3) How do they show that they’re listening? Explain that you’re going to watch a short video of two IT professionals discussing their work. Explain that the topic is quite technical and that the students’ task is to ignore what the speakers are saying and concentrate on questions (1), (2) and (3). Play the video.


Suggested answers:
(1) How do they use their hands?
They use hands a lot to illustrate what they’re saying

(2) Do they make any eye contact?
 They make eye contact occasionally, but they don’t look each other in the eye for more than a few seconds.

(3) How do they show that they’re listening?
Non-verbally (they’re sitting half-facing each other and they nod a lot)
Verbally (they use ‘small noises’ (Huh-huh), make short comments (Right), and at one point ‘echo’ by reformulating a key word (3:28: ‘They’re still on the same visit’/’The same session’).

Play the video again, this time stopping after each example of back-channeling and asking the students to repeat it.

Task 2′. Get the students to repeat the same task in new pairs – this time nobody is doing the secret task and the objective is to (1) use more interesting gestures while you’re speaking and (2) show interest by body language, small noises and short comments. 

Task 4. The aim of tasks 4 and 5 is to extend the students’ repertoire of short comments used to show interest and to give them controlled practice coming up with follow-up questions. Refer the class to Task 4 and ask them to sort the reactions. Conduct brief feedback.
Follow-up: Elicit answers to the following questions:
1. What word makes follow-up sound more friendly/conversational? (So).
2. What words make comments work more natural/conversational? (So, then).
3. What is the structure of the comments? (Short reaction, e.g. ‘Really?’/’Yeah’/’Exactly’ + a longer comment).


One- or two-word comments / echoing key words. Follow-up questions Comments that work as follow-up questions Comments about yourself
5 years?Interesting.
Right.Was it?
Really? What was that like?Why did you decide to leave your start-up?
So, were you working on the same project back then?So when exactly did you start with this?
So you know the company pretty well then.

So you have been working here for quite a long time now.

Really? That’s interesting because…

Yeah, I had a similar experience. I ….

Exactly. I think…

Refer the class to Task 5 and ask to come up with more short comments / follow-up questions and comments (do the first line together, then allow the students to work in pairs).

Task 6. Distribute cards to students and put them in new pairs. Explain that in this task they’ll chat about the questions and they’ll need to use the cards to know how to react: by showing interest using body language, by asking follow-up questions, by making comments that serve as questions or by making comments to share something about themselves.

Task 7. Either as a follow-up or for homework, get the students categorize the questions in Task 6 and come up with more questions. Use those questions for another revision/communication activity next time.

For homework, share the links to the following two resources:
Quora thread Meeting New People: What is the best way to start an engaging conversation with a stranger?
Lifehacker thread What’s Your Best Ice Breaker When Meeting Someone New?

Ask the students to read them, choose their favourite tips and share them, either in the next lesson or on your facebook group/blog, if the group has one.

Update. I was delighted to hear that this post got shortlisted for Teaching English – British Council blog award. If you decide to vote for it (in which case, THANK YOU! :)), let them know by ‘liking’ the post on their facebook page: .

In this post I want to share a tip that might be an effective and enjoyable way to work on your IELTS speaking, and on your speaking skills in general.

When I first started teaching for IELTS, I came across a great book by Matt Clark on how to crack the Speaking part of the exam, and that book helped my students a lot. The idea that I learnt from Matt Clark was that a lot of IELTS Speaking topic fall into categories, and it’s important to know the common question types and to have a framework for each type. Here are some examples of question types (taken from

  • Frequency. How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours? How often do you go to a restaurant (to eat)? How often do you use a computer for work / study?
  • Problems. What problems do many young people have? What problems can people have when they change jobs frequently? What problems can result if a teenager has too much money?
  • Solution. How can one (or, how do people) make new friendships? How can people maintain long-term friendships? How can the government encourage more people to use public (mass) transportation?
  • should. Do you think people should have to pay to visit museumsDo you think employers should provide recreational facilities for their employees? Do you think we should obey all laws, all the time? Do you think people should help their neighbours? (Why? How?) Do you think children should be encouraged (or taught) to help others? (How?)

The structure for replying to frequency questions could be ‘It depends’ + ‘case one’ + ‘case two’. E.g. here’s a possible reply to ‘How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours?’

Well, that really depends on what time of year it is. If I’m on holiday spending time in my summer house, then probably that would happen every single day, because we see each other all the time and we’ve really grown quite close over the years. But on the other hand if I’m here in town, then that hardly ever happens, simply because we don’t run into each other that much.

You can see that this answer could be easily adapted to any other ‘How often..?’ question, and that the linkers in bold hold this reply together, helping to build an extended monologue out of short simple sentences.


IELTS Speaking score consists of scores for the following aspects:

  • Fluency & coherence (speaking without pauses and structuring your speech)
  • Lexical resource
  • Grammatical range and accuracy
  • Pronunciation

As you can see, having ready-made frameworks for some of the question types will help you a lot with coherence – that is, with structuring your speech. That will also make your speech more fluent (by buying you thinking time) – provided you say the linkers fluently (fast) and with correct pronunciation and intonation. This will also allow you to use more complex sentences, improving your grammar score.

The importance of structures is true not only of IELTS and other exams, but of speaking in general. Here’s an extract from Matt Abrahams, an expert in communication, giving a workshop on spontaneous speaking in Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this extract he argues that the key to successful spontaneous speaking is having a structure, because it’s a lot easier for the listener to process structured information than information without structure. He gives two examples of great structures ‘to have in your back pocket’:

problem ⊲ solution ⊲ benefit

What? ⊲ So what? ⊲ Now what?

(NB This video has accurate subtitles – watch it on youtube with closed captions if you need them. The extract starts at 38:37 and finishes at 42:50)

So, how can you use this information to improve your IELTS speaking score and speaking in general? By actively looking for structures and linkers in examples of spoken communication and adapting them to other topics. Nowadays there are lots of talk shows and podcasts that come with transcripts, and it’s quite easy to find them and analyze them. For example, I spent some time today reading the transcript of a programme on Soft Skills and Marketing Yourself as a Software Developer with John Sonmez (an episode of JS Jabber, a great podcast for software engineers), and I could see some kind of structure in virtually every speaker’s turn, simply because when speakers speak at length, they have to organize their thoughts somehow. Here are a couple of examples. First look through each one looking for the linkers, and then scroll down to compare with my version.


I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. I know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. And I think that there’s a reason for that. I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. And so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. So yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. So, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people.

Here are the linkers that I saw:

I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. [reasonAnd so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. [wrap-up] So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. [exploring consequences of a hypothetical caseSo, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

Now, this structure could be adapted to ‘Do you think … should…?’ questions. E.g. here’s what I came up with for Do you think people should have to pay to visit museums?

I’m not a big person who believes so much in allowing people to visit museums for free. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most well-known museums, like Louvre or The Hermitage, aren’t free. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that running a museum is very expensive [reasonAnd so, you can’t do that if you don’t have a stable income – the quality of your service will suffer and your museum will lose popularity. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think museums have to be paid for. [wrap-up] And also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] they’re quite affordable anyway. You don’t need to go to the Hermitage every single week – most people go once a year, or only when they travel, and anyone can afford to go once a year. And so, I think while yes, we can look at prices and say, “Yeah, they are too high and they reduce the popularity of museums,”  I think that in fact most people can easily buy those tickets. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

2. Here’s another example:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need. That’s the goal of marketing. Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. It’s a beneficial thing.

Here are the linkers I saw:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that marketing is bad] Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need.[stating a fundamental positive fact about marketing]  That’s the goal of marketing. [reformulating the previous statement] Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying marketing is good one more time]

And here is an adaptation of this framework to the following question: Do you think television has a positive effect on a child’s attitudes towards learning?

Yeah, I guess so. Some people say that TV makes kids stupid because they watch silly series for teens all the time. But that’s not necessarily what television has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that TV is bad] Television at its core is really just providing information to someone who needs that information.[stating a fundamental positive fact about TV]  That’s the goal of television. [reformulating the previous statement] If you didn’t have television, kids whose families can’t afford good schools wouldn’t have access to information. They wouldn’t have the chance to learn from programmes like Discovery channel, or other excellent educational programs, which I’m sure get lots of kids hooked and really interested in subjects like biology.  [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] So, at its core good TV is good for children’s education. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying TV is good one more time]

These are just two examples, but as I said, basically every single extended speaker’s turn was structured and packed with linkers. (Here you can find a couple of more turns that I analyzed – I’m putting them to a separate file in order not to clutter up the post).

Acknowledgement. A big word of thank you goes to Kirill Sukhomlin, who came up with the idea to look through the transcripts of JS Jabber as we were watching the youtube workshop above.

How to practice using structures?

I recommend the following steps:

  • Go through examples of past IELTS questions for parts 1 and 3 and start grouping them into categories, to get an idea what question types are frequent. Here is a great site with past questions: NB As far as I understand, this website is perfectly legal, because there’s no policy on IELTS that stops test takers from sharing the questions they got asked.
  • Find a podcast or a talk show which comes with a transcript. Here are some links to youtube channels that feature interviews with transcripts. (If you’re in IT, the turns analyzed above come from JS Jabber, a podcast for JS developers. Another source that I’d really recommend for this kind of work is Android Design in Action on Android Developers youtube channel. Click on ‘More’ under the youtube video to load the interactive transcript.)
    I’ve never compiled a list of podcasts with transcripts, but apart from JS Jabber, a quick search on google returned e.g. Freakonomics, Science Session PodcastsThe Guardian Global Development podcastUniversity of Birmingham podcasts, The Creative Penn, and I’m sure there are a lot more.
  • Find an extended reply in the transcript and analyze its structure. Find linkers and try to formulate what kind of information each linker introduces (e.g. general opinion, an example, a reformulation, a summary of the previous point, etc).
  • Copy out the linkers; practice saying them after the video/audio – it’s extremely important that you get their pronunciation right, because research shows that you sound fluent if and only if you pronounce such frequent chunks fluently.
  • Try to reproduce the passage from memory looking only at the linkers – first in writing, then out loud.
  • To help yourself remember the structure, represent it visually, e.g. as a diagram with pictures.
  • Try to adapt the structure to another topic. First do that in writing, to help yourself memorize the linkers, then do lots of spoken practice.
  • Go through past questions looking which ones could be answered using the structure you’re working with.
  • To find examples of a particular type of question, use google search on Examples of search terms: 1) “What problems” site: 2) ‘Do you think * should” site: See this article called How to Google like a boss for tips on efficient googling.
  • Meanwhile, work on memorising those linkers – use mnemonics like Keyword method, flash cards, apps like Anki – whatever it takes to really nail them.

I hope that helps. Happy studying!

Chia Suan Chong (York Associates)

Abstract. Many Business English teachers often worry about their knowledge (or lack thereof) of the business world. But aren’t we already well-equipped as language practitioners to understand the delicate and ever-so-interesting nature of discourse in business and how it differs amongst different speech communities? This workshop explains how we can use these instincts to help our clients become more successful communicators.

The title says ‘pragmatics’. What is it? The way meaning of an utterance is negotiated by people in the context.

Terms: utterance (the words that were spoken); locutionary force (surface meaning of the utterance); illocutionary force / function (the intended/negotiated meaning of the utterance).


The function here is probably ‘advice’.

What are the functions here?
Emma: Can you find out if the train is running? (locutionary force: ability; illocutionary force: a request)
Tom: The internet is down. (illocutionary force: No)

How do you know that these two utterances are even connectedThe listeners make Tom’s answer relevant through making all kinds of references. But imagine the listener is from a country with no internet or no trains?

Another example:
Dawn: The phone is ringing. (= an order)
Jay: I’m in the bath. (= I can’t)

In coursebooks often we see

  • decontextualized utterances (which in fact could mean anything, given the right context);
  • exponents that aren’t synonymous but which are labeled under the same category. Some functions, at least on the surface, lend themselves to such categorization (e.g. with requests / commands). However, language is difficult to categorize – e.g. the examples below were presented in one coursebook together labeled as ‘praise’, But the intentions of people who use those exponents are probably very different.
    My manager speaks very highly of you //could be used to try to established good relationship
    I don’t mean to brag but..

    You have outdone yourself this time. //could be sarcastic
    …if I do say so myself

Another example: exponents for adding a point and contrast:
Adding a point
On top of that
Having said that,

On the other hand

(Adapted from Prof. Henry Widdowson).

However, what could they mean in context?
Jen: He was on social welfare but was not lazy. (‘but’ says a lot about what Jen thinks about people on social wellfare)
Casey: She wore flat shoes to the job interview. On top of that, she wore trousers.
Beth: We are totally underpaid, the offices are overcrowded, and the directors are completely out of touch with the staff. Having said that, I do love working here.
(implies ‘I’m just venting‘. Compare what happens if you substitute for ‘But then again?’ implies more equal weight).

Implications: the simple categories are not enough. There’s really meaning in everything.

Illocutionary forces. What do the following utterances really mean?

  • It’s stuffy in here, isn’t it? (probably: could you open the window?)
  • Will you be passing the supermarket on your way home? (probably: a request)
  • That curry smells really good. (probably:=I want some! How could this dialogue develop> Oh really? I’m cooking it for a fundraising even> Oh really? How good of you! = let’s pretend I never asked – because I never actually said that.) – so it’s a great face-saving device

In business every sentence also has meaning

  • Are your busy? (could you help me? can I talk to you?)
  • We need to get this proposal in by Friday. (you need to get it in)
  • I hear what you say (what’s going to follow is …but + disagreement or critism)
  • That is a very brave proposal (you’re mad).

Intercultural communication

The fact that there’s meaning in everything may create great difficulties in intercultural communication, when different people read different meaning into the same words / behaviour patterns / body language etc.

Example 1

What is the context? Who are Sarah and Aki? What does Aki really mean?
Sarah: We could inject another $50k for 15% of your business.
Aki: That’s interesting.

‘That’s interesting’ might mean ‘I need to think about that’ or ‘I need to discuss that with my boss‘. However, in Japanese ‘That’s interesting’ means no’ (and Chia Suan Chong has never heard the actual word ‘no’ in Japanese).

Example 2. Adjacency pairs

How would you reply to those greetings?

Hello! How are you? > Fine! Yourself?
Lovely weather today. > Gorgeous, isn’t it?
That is a gorgeous dress you have on! > Oh, this old thing? I’ve had it for ages!

How about these greetings?

  • How’s your wife and children?
  • Have you had lunch?
  • How’s business?

In some cultures they are standard greetings (and require standard responses). In China, you have to say: fine/yes to all of them (when used as greetings). E.g. if you reply ‘no’ to ‘Have you had lunch?’ I’m obliged to bring you up for lunch.

Implications: the need to attune to the culture of the other person.

Example 3. Formulaic responses that draw on cultural inferences. 

Deb: Is the meeting going to overrun again?
Rachel: Is the pope Catholic?

Sandy: What did you think of their new offices?
Josh: Well, the carpet was a nice colour.

Lucia: Did you understand his explanation?
Steve: It wasn’t exactly rocket science, was it?

Example 4. Interaction patterns. 

Allyson: You won’t believe what happened to me today!
Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.
Allyson: Right, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!
Jun Sook: Huh?

But Jun Sook

  • was just waiting – she didn’t recognize that she was supposed to show encouragement;
  • in her culture, it was impolite to interrupt.

Example 5. 


Students who received this notice were very offended because in their culture, this handout would be an accusation – it read like ‘you ARE going to smoke and take illegal drugs; you ARe going to tamper with electrical equipment, behave aggressively and fight’ etc.

Things to do in class

We’ve established the need to attune to the culture of the other person. But: you can’t accommodate what you don’t see.

Activity 1. 

Students work in pairs. Student B has a task and a secret emotion. They should talk with that emotion; Student A guesses the emotion.

Examples of tasks:
You’re an employee. Show a new employee around the office. (Emotion: e.g. jealousy)
You’re a sales representative. Promote a new course on intercultural communication. (Emotion: love/adoration)
Your partner is going to tell you that they’ve been promoted. (Emotion: disappointment)

This activity attunes learners to a range of cues:

  • Body language
  • Tone of voice
  • Words they used / eye contact
  • Repetition – agenda comes out again and again

Activity 2. Hot Seat + idiosyncratic behaviour.

Students work in groups. The student in hot seat has an idiosyncrasy (e.g. starts each question with So, ..?) Other need to

  • spot the idiosyncrasy
  • then imitate it

Trains s/s to become sensitive to idiosyncrasies and accommodate them.

Such activities help to ground real-life situations where things are not what they appear to be.

An incredibly useful session – I especially loved that it was so practical. Lots of examples that can be brought to class, and great activities. I teach in monolingual context so the first activity probably needs to be adapted – I think I’ll start collecting film scenes where characters project strong emotions, e.g. boredom with the conversation, envy, etc. I think activity 2 is also ideal for practicing interaction patterns that are different between L1 and L2 – e.g. for Ru/Eng that would be backchanneling, using expressions like ‘Well’ and ‘Right’ and so on. 


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

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.