I can’t have a conversation in English

adult learning background knowledge conversation culture elt esol teaching cultural information Oct 22, 2021

By Dorothy Cleary

I could not count the number of ESOL learners, many of whom were competent high-level English speakers, who have looked hopefully at me and said, “I want to improve my speaking. I don’t know how to have a conversation.”

My heart always sinks, because at their high level of existing English, grammar is clearly neither the problem nor the answer. Also, where do I start? They are at the point where they have mastered the basics, and now, and now… the whole of English in all its glorious, complex vastness, is what they want me to distil for them and ‘teach’ in a few classroom hours.

There is no way that any teacher can hope to cover conversation with high-level users; there is just too much of it. So, somehow, we have to navigate a useful path through the forest. My approach has a few basic components. I will discuss the first one here, and others in upcoming blogs.

Knowledge of New Zealand

Last year, I completed the NCALNE (National Certificate in Adult Numeracy and Literacy Education) course, and one of our assignments was to look at different definitions of literacy. I really liked the Māori definition, which included cultural knowledge as an integral part of this complex phenomenon. Yes, yes and yes! Cultural knowledge is power.

1. Using the News Media

Part of the difficulty with casual workplace/neighbour conversations is a lack of this background knowledge. This includes politics, social history, long-running threads that run through the news and which all locals know about (think leaky homes, or the State sell-off of assets), café culture, sports, farming, the local council…. I do not attempt to teach this in a systematic way. Instead, I use whatever is currently in the news. I pick an article that assumes some degree of background knowledge, and use this as an entry to some NZ information. Do you remember Tuku Morgan’s underpants? I have just Googled this, and have found that the underpants meme is alive and well. I vividly remember teaching a lesson about this scandal in 1997 when the story broke, and the next day, a middle-aged Korean learner told me, “I talked to my neighbour about Tuku Morgan!” This may well have been the first genuine conversation she had with a stranger in English.

Once learners have begun to understand the importance of being able to read, understand and talk about the news, there are many activities that you can use which:

• encourage at least cursory newspaper reading /listening (which is a totally appropriate approach)
• build confidence and fluency in storytelling
• build knowledge about NZ culture

I take a staged approach. First, I choose the articles or videos and I present them to the class. I focus on simple vocabulary, and the basic story. I model what I want learners to produce when they discuss a news item. I continue this teacher-led input throughout, because I have the knowledge to choose useful and relevant stories which may need some explanation.

In the next stage, I might choose 2 simple but useful articles, hand them out to half the class each, and ask them to skim read them and hold a brief conversation with each other. “Did you hear about…?” This is excellent practice for summarising, asking information questions, encouraging the speaker, and sustaining a conversation.

Thirdly, I ask my learners to come to class with some stories to present to each other. There will be a lot of crime and car accidents, because these are news media staples, but every day there is sure to be some gem that you can exploit to build knowledge in the class as a whole. Of course, there are the usual difficulties with persuading learners not to attempt to read half digested text, full of unknown and unpronounceable words, but patience and perseverance is usually at least moderately successful. Set up a fluency-building activity here, where every learner tells their story consecutively to 3 others in the class.

I have been an ESOL teacher for many years, and I still forget the value of repetition and recycling. Asking learners to present your story from yesterday to each other is a valid and useful exercise, building both fluency and confidence, and helping to reinforce new vocabulary.

2. I love Dr Google!

In the old days, before wonderful Dr Google existed, I would be asked questions about dairy farming, political economy, social issues, physics…on one famous occasion a learner asked me if we had mental hospitals in New Zealand, because why would we need those in Paradise?

Now, I am still asked these questions, but I no longer attempt to answer them. The learners soon learn to chorus with me, “I am just an English teacher!” I direct them to the doctor. This is an excellent incidental way to build Internet search skills in English, with all the attendant skimming, scanning and discrimination skills that go along with this. If you project your search onto the screen, go slowly, and explain out loud why you have selected one site above another one, you are teaching a very valuable life skill, which will be directly applicable to Workplace English. When learners ask a simple, fact-based question, ask them to find out for themselves and tell the class the next day.

3. Dr Google Quizzes

Another useful activity to build cultural awareness is to construct a locally based quiz. A sample of questions I have asked in the past include:
• Who is Sir Tristram? Why is he important to Hamilton?
• Who are the Gallaghers, and why do Hamiltonians love them?
• When is the next balloon festival?
and so on.

Learners can contribute questions, and can work in pairs to answer them. This activity may take several computer lab sessions. Alternatively, ask learners to choose one or two questions that interest them, and present the answers to the class. It is a good idea to scaffold this activity by providing links for some of the harder questions.

Dorothy Cleary has over 25 years TESOL experience, as a teacher, academic manager, curriculum designer and, over the past 10 years, as a resource and curriculum developer for Asia and New Zealand. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University in Wellington (2005) and is an IELTS examiner.

Image source: shutterstock.com/szefei