Saying hello to the theory of conversation

14th March 2014 at 00:00

Announcing to a group of 16-year-olds that we are beginning the spoken-English part of the course always goes down well, because talking is, of course, what they like doing best. Once they realise that theory and terminology are involved, however, their initial enthusiasm can wane, so classes need to be lively.

My favourite lesson comes early on in the course: the basics of speech structure. I introduce the concept of turn-taking and, specifically, adjacency pairs - a pattern of speech that is necessary for successful communication, in which one utterance is followed by an appropriate linked response.

I show a clip from television programme Whose Line Is It Anyway? where two contestants conduct a conversation in which every question is answered by another question. This is very funny to watch, and when it is over I get students to try it for themselves. Generally, they find it harder than they expected.

Then, using cartoons, I introduce the common types of adjacency pairs: a request followed by a reply, for example, or a farewell followed by an appropriate response. After discussion, I give each student a card showing one half of an adjacency pair. They must find the student who has the other half.

This done, we quickly run through the pairs, with each duo reading theirs aloud. Then I explain that, when ordered correctly, all these adjacency pairs form a complete conversation.

The students' next task is to organise themselves in a line around the classroom so that, when we read from one end to the other, we hear the coherent, structured dialogue. This prompts useful discussion among students about how they can do this and whether there is only one possible order. Once they are in position, we run through the dialogue to check that it works.

A summary at the end of the lesson whets students' appetite for the next, in which we will consider how we can deliberately flout the rules of adjacency pairing for particular purposes.

They laugh when I suggest that they reinforce their learning by identifying adjacency pairs in conversations with their friends - but I know that some of them will.

Ruth Ferguson is a teacher and lecturer working in the South of England

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