Call for NYSTESOL 2002 proposals!

April Main Page
Report from West Tokyo JALT
Featured ESL Professional
Does SLA Theory Really Help?
Creating a Din with the Conversation Bus
Ten Sessions You Must See in Salt Lake
What We Can Learn from Basketball
An Index of ESL MiniConference Stories
Notes and contacts
Search the site

Submit your email,
join ESL MiniConference

ESL MiniConference Online!

Get Aboard the Conversation Bus
A Simple Idea for Creating a Discussion Din

Hear an audio clip of this article!

Many of us have tried the "cocktail hour" or some other approach to establish "natural" settings for student-student conversations in our classrooms. Small groups and working in pairs are integral parts of the communicative English learning strategies at the best ESL programs today. Half the battle is giving learners the vocabulary, structures and motivation to engage in realistic practice with their classmates.

The other half of the challenge is to manage the activity in a way that helps your students really learn, really get better at crunching their ideas together effectively (and quickly) enough to be successful in their English interactions outside and beyond the classroom.

Someone I met at a conference in Japan years ago ( I will update this page with the reference when/if I can recover it) described a conversation-practice activity which really seems to help ESL students get better and faster at organizing and expressing their ideas orally. It's a pretty simple idea: give them three consecutive chances to "tell the story" or say whatever it is they have to say about the topic. The first shot is for three minutes. The second, two minutes. The third, one.

By decreasing the amount of time alloted for expressing the same basic information, the teacher exerts pressure on the students to reorganize their speech more efficiently each time, making very realistic assessments of the relative importance of different words and phrases. One important thing to remember is that each student talks to three different classmates during this activity, so the information is still new and fresh each time. If you try these speed-trial conversations with your students, you'll likely notice that by the third round they are all speaking faster, while also raising the pitch and intensity of their voices. This creates a "din" in the classroom analagous to Stephen Krashen's "Din in the Head" (1983).

I'm not sure if Krashen or somebody else said that creating this din in the classroom for five or ten minutes each day has a positive effect on language learning. Some students feel freer to express themselves when things are a little noisy. Every student has to strain his or her vocal apparatus (and ears) to communicate in such an environment--possibly this extra effort is reflected in more deeply felt language lessons which continue to serve the learner when he or she walks out of the classroom. Certainly the intensity of any experience determines to a great extent how long it will wield any influence over performance--the huge challenge for ESL teachers and students.

My only original contribution to this activity is a suggestion for how to set up the chairs or desks in your classroom to help you and the students manage the experience. I make a rough drawing on the board to show students as I explain and help them get started moving their desks into two lines. The chairs in one line all face forward in the same direction; the chairs in the other line all face one direction, too, but it is the opposite direction from that faced by the chairs in the first line. The two lines of desks or chairs are next to each other so that each chair in one line has a partner in the opposite-facing line.

I ask the students to each sit down in a chair, wherever they like. If there is an odd number of students, that means I participate, too (unfortunately, this means I don't get to walk around eavesdropping and interjecting occasional comments that day). Each pair of students gets four minutes or so for each individual to say what he or she has to say the first time. Then, every student moves forward one chair and those at the front chair in each line "turn the corner" and sit in the farthest rear chair of the opposite line for their next conversation.

The second round of talks goes for about two minutes or so, followed by another move forward and a third round, for 60 or 90 seconds of fast-pitched speaking. Because one line of student is moving forward in one direction and the other line in the opposite direction, students can sometimes be surprised at who they end up sitting next to. Many times I've seen students in this activity speaking intensely to someone I've never seen them interact with in the class before--this activity seems to break up cliques and habitual pairing for at least a little while, and may improve the overall class dynamic.

I think you'll enjoy it, and so will they. I call it the "Conversation Bus."

By Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online