There is great delight that the Trinity Lancaster Corpus is providing so much interesting data that can be used to enhance communicative competences in the classroom. From Corpus to Classroom 1 described some of these findings. But how exactly do we go about ‘translating’ this for classroom use so that it can be used by busy teachers with high pressured curricula to get through? How can we be sure we enhance rather than problematize the communicative feature we want to highlight?
Although the Corpus data comes from a spoken test, we want to use it to illustrate wider pragmatic features of communication. The data fascinates students who are entranced to see what their fellow learners do, but how does it help their learning? The first step is to send the research outputs to an experienced classroom materials author to see what they suggest.
Here’s how our materials writer, Jeanne Perrett, went about this challenging task:
As soon as I saw the research outputs from TLC, I knew that this was something really special; proper, data driven learning on how to be a more successful speaker. I could also see that the corpus scripts, as they were, might look very alien and quirky to most teachers and students. Speaking and listening texts in coursebooks don’t usually include sounds of hesitation, people repeating themselves, people self-correcting or even asking ‘rising intonation’ questions. But all of those things are a big part of how we actually communicate so I wanted to use the original scripts as much as possible. I also thought that learners would be encouraged by seeing that you don’t have to speak in perfectly grammatical sentences, that you can hesitate and you can make some mistakes but still be communicating well.
Trinity College London commissioned me to write a series of short worksheets, each one dealing with one of the main research findings from the Corpus, and intended for use in the classroom to help students prepare for GESE and ISE exams at a B1 or B2 level.
I started each time with extracts from the original scripts from the data. Where I thought that the candidates’ mistakes would hinder the learner’s comprehension (unfinished sentences for example), I edited them slightly (e.g. with punctuation). But these scripts were not there for comprehension exercises; they were there to show students something that they might never have been taught before.
For example, sounds of hesitation: we all know how annoying it is to listen to someone (native and non-native speakers) continually erm-ing and er-ing in their speech and the data showed that candidates were hesitating too much. But we rarely, if ever, teach our students that it is in fact okay and indeed natural to hesitate while we are thinking of what we want to say and how we want to say it. What they need to know is that, like the more successful candidates in the data, there are other words and phrases that we can use instead of erm and er. So one of the worksheets shows how we can use hedging phrases such as ‘well..’ or ‘like..’ or ‘okay…’ or ‘I mean..’ or ‘you know…’.
The importance of taking responsibility for a conversation was another feature to emerge from the data and again, I felt that these corpus findings were very freeing for students; that taking responsibility doesn’t, of course, mean that you have to speak all the time but that you also have to create opportunities for the other person to speak and that there are specific ways in which you can do that such as making active listening sounds (ah, right, yeah), asking questions, making short comments and suggestions.
Then there is the whole matter of how you ask questions. The corpus findings show that there is far less confusion in a conversation when properly formed questions are used. When someone says ‘You like going to the mountains?’ the question is not as clear as when they say ‘Do you like going to the mountains?’ This might seem obvious but pointing it out, showing that less checking of what has been asked is needed when questions are direct ones, is, I think very helpful to students. It might also be a consolation-all those years of grammar exercises really were worth it! ‘Do you know how to ask a direct question? ‘Yes, I do!’
These worksheets are intended for EFL exam candidates but the more I work on them, the more I think that the Corpus findings could have a far wider reach. How you make sure you have understood what someone is saying, how you can be a supportive listener, how you can make yourself clear, even if you want to be clear about being uncertain; these are all communication skills which everyone needs in any language.