Introduction to conversation
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Delivery guides are designed to represent a body of knowledge about teaching a particular topic and contain:
- Content: a clear outline of the content covered by the delivery guide
- Thinking Conceptually: expert guidance on the key concepts involved, common difficulties students may have, approaches to teaching that can help students understand these concepts and how this topic links conceptually to other areas of the subject
- Thinking Contextually: a range of suggested teaching activities using a variety of themes so that different activities can be selected that best suit particular classes, learning styles or teaching approaches.
This Delivery Guide will help prepare learners for Section C of Exploring Language (Component 1) where they have to explore connections and comparisons between different modes of communication. The focus in this guide is on spontaneous speech and different forms of spoken English. In Section C of Unit 1 there will be two unseen texts for learners to discuss and to analyse. This section has a maximum mark of 36 and covers the key skills of learners’ ability to apply appropriate methods of language analysis, using associated terminology and coherent written expression (AO1), analysing and evaluating how contextual factors and language features are associated with the construction of meaning (AO3) and exploring connections across texts, informed by linguistic concepts and methods (AO4). AO2 is not covered in this component and this therefore gives candidates unrestricted opportunity to think and respond critically and with careful consideration of context, production and reception and the impact of texts on diverse audiences.
Learners should be prepared to study a variety of texts, exploring the effects of mode and of language variations. For example, learners should be prepared to compare spoken and written texts; spontaneous and crafted speech; and different forms of spoken English, including individual and social varieties of English, and British regional dialects. Learners should focus on analysing language features. However, they may choose to apply theoretical concepts and issues broadly, for example with reference to gender or power.
With this in mind, the key aims which underpin this Delivery Guide are:
- Teaching the use of appropriate terminology for the purpose of discourse analysis, especially in the areas of grammar, syntax, lexis and orthography.
- Developing an understanding of the key linguistic concepts (e.g. context, audience, register, purpose, cohesion) and frameworks (e.g. lexis, grammar, syntax, phonology, semantics, pragmatics) through which spoken language can be studied.
- Studying how spontaneous spoken language is represented in transcripts, with instruction in the use of phonemic symbols. The IPA will not be used in exam transcripts that form part of either AS or A level Component 1 – but it is thought to be useful for learners to start considering the impact and importance of sound in conversation.
- Developing an understanding of the crucial differences between written and spoken modes.
- Developing an understanding of the differences between standard and non-standard usage.
- Developing an understanding of how context shapes form and meaning, through an appreciation of different kinds of talk.
Teachers, and learners, should not regard this Delivery Guide as something just to be systematically followed to prepare for the exam. Some activities can work as discrete lessons while other activities could be better suited for revision purposes.
- Read the introductory chapter of The Language of Conversation by Francesca Pridham together in class.
- Look at the chart on the differences between speech and writing in David Crystal’s Language and the Internet on pages 27–28.
- Learners can revise and consolidate their basic knowledge and understanding by looking at the (still) excellent notes at Universal teacher.
Introduce learners to topic-specific terminology through looking at a range of spoken texts:
Concept of spontaneous speech: listen to various examples and identify typical features: fillers, pauses, repetition, false starts, hedges, colloquialisms, phatic expressions, deictic expressions, interrupted and disjointed constructions, non-standard and incomplete constructions (ellipsis), discourse markers, turn-taking, overlap and back-channeling (see Learner resources 1 and 2).
Development/homework activity: work through the grid matching up the term with examples. Then ask learners to record and transcribe thirty seconds of conversation at home (making sure they get permission from all those involved), using the guide on page 8 of Pridham’s book, and to identify at least ten features from the list above which identify this as spontaneous spoken discourse (see Learner resource 3). If you are using the IPA at this stage, this should be regarded as an extension activity.
- The excellent interactive map of speech sounds of the British Isles offers a wealth of information, sound files, transcripts and commentaries for learners, and covers every major accent of English.
- David Crystal’s Encyclopedia of the English Language has excellent sections on vowels, consonants, connected speech and prosody.
Introduce learners to specific concepts and terminology through listening to a range of speech sounds:
Phonemic and syllabic structure, exploring key phonetic variation in accents of English; prosody – exploration of regional variation and analysis of patterns of pitch/tone/stress, including the representation of rising and falling patterns; the connected speech process, including elision and assimilation.
Development activity: Learners should prepare a presentation on the key features of a regional accent of English (see Learner resource 4).
Development activity: Learners should then use this knowledge and understanding to write about/present on a speaker famous for his or her use of that accent. This can be easily achieved using short YouTube clips (see Learner resource 5).
A useful way to begin would be to introduce learners to the ways in which spoken language is different from the written mode, and to consider the differences in terms of lexis, grammar, syntax and discourse. This will begin to address AO3 in understanding the importance and effect of context. An understanding of topic terminology is key and learners should be encouraged from the outset to use this terminology and to address the language levels in their analysis of texts (AO1). With this knowledge and understanding learners can then be introduced to some of the studies and research done regarding the dynamics and structure of spoken discourse, such as Jakobsen and function, Leech and the grammar of speech, Brown and Levinson’s work on face, Grice and the Cooperative Principle, Frame theory, Exchange Structure Theory, Pragmatics and the many different models of Genderlect.
Conceptual links to other areas of the specification – useful ways to approach this topic to set learners up for topics later in the course
The approaches listed above should encourage learners to develop their interest and enjoyment of English and understand spoken language as explorers for language via context and function. The necessity of a good understanding of the topic-specific terminology, concepts and language levels will enable them to make use of these skills across the entire A Level English language course.
Identifying significant features or patterns in spoken discourse and analysing contextual features will aid them in their study of child acquisition of language and language in the media (Component 2). Considering gender, power and different forms of English will support their work in both of these areas as well, as well as inform the independent study demanded for Component 3.
The intention of these activities is to make the learners aware of different approaches when discussing and analysing spoken discourse. The activities reference a range of resources that help develop and inform conceptual understanding of key approaches to such texts. It is for individual teachers to provide a range of transcripts and other material to cover the areas outlined below, although exemplar material taken from past examination material has been provided.
One of the key skills in analysing the language of conversation is to follow the way topics change through a discourse, and identifying the strategies used by different speakers. As learners develop their skills and competence so their analysis will become increasingly sophisticated, and allow for discussion and application of ideas in terms of the different theoretical models and studies they have been taught.
The easiest method of tracing topics in a transcript is to use highlighter pens to colour code them, underlining and identifying which utterances belong to different topics. This way it’s easy to see how long each topic dominates the floor, which topics are picked up and carried on by a second speaker (or more) and whether any topics are returned to in the course of the conversation. A clear colour-coded representation should make the key structures of the conversation evident as well as flag up issues of power and status.
Teaching this as a specific feature of conversation allows structural features like opening and closing comments, adjacency pairs, adjacency repair, topic shifters, discourse markers, feedback and back- channelling devices to be identified, analysed and contextualised.
Links can be made fairly early on to theories such as Exchange Structure Theory which offer formalised models of different conversational structures.
Learners should be encouraged to make basic judgements about power relationships from the background context of a transcript (e.g. a teacher/student interaction should reveal more power/status with the teacher), and should be encouraged to consider this with what actually happens in the transcript; for example, does the dynamic subvert or reverse their expectations: and if so, how and why?
A good starting point is to ask who has the floor, and who seems to be setting the agenda. The person with the longest or most frequent turns can often be initially deemed to be the most powerful, but this rather basic judgement must be considered in terms of context. For example, in a doctor/patient interaction, or in an interview for a job, the interviewee might well dominate the conversation in terms of floor time, without actually holding the power.
However, this doesn't mean that all interviews are some kind of special case when it comes to power, with the interviewer always being the more authoritative. A TV interview with a celebrity, for example David Beckham, will have two potentially conflicting power dynamics – on the one hand the interviewer wants to entertain and inform his audience through the revelation of new and interesting information about the celebrity, whilst the celebrity is (usually) there to advertise his or her latest venture and to gain as much positive public exposure as possible. The situation can be further complicated by the status of an interviewer as a celebrity in his or her own right (think Jonathan Ross) and can lead to some genuinely awkward encounters (YouTube has plenty of clips of Michael Parkinson’s infamous interview with Meg Ryan).
Political interviews are underpinned by a slightly different agenda but the conflicting aims and purposes of the speakers can also be evident, and again there is a wealth of material on YouTube to explore (beginning with Jeremy Paxman’s destruction of Michael Howard and Chloe Smith on the Newsnight programme). Looking at who maintains control of a topic is a clear indicator of who holds the power in a conversation, as is failure of a speaker to establish new or related topics. These can all be mapped fairly easily using the topic tracking exercise above.
Other key aspects to consider here might include: the purpose of individual speakers, and how far they have managed to achieve this in the conversation (and if not, why not); the use of non-fluency features and what this reveals about the speaker’s status (again, this isn’t straightforward – an interviewer for example might be deliberately hesitant around a controversial subject, either to make it easier for the interviewee or for the opposite reason!); divergence and convergence; modality (the use of deontic modals can give clear indications of role and status); and the use of specialised lexical fields (and jargon) to reinforce notions of power and competence.
There are clear links to be made to theories and models such as Frame theory and Jakobsen’s functions of conversational language, as well as to Goffman, and Brown and Levinson (see next section).
Often directly linked to power and status are the concepts of face and politeness.
Beginning with Goffman’s ideas about positive and negative face, and face saving and face threatening acts, it should be easy to then introduce Brown and Levinson’s concepts of positive and negative face needs, and the different strategies which can be employed to either address or ignore these.
By exploring a range of different discourses learners should soon be able to identify and discuss a wide range of such strategies.
Positive Politeness Strategies include:
- Compliments, flattery, praise, accommodation through the use of slang or other group sociolect, inclusivity (such as the use of the exhortative in “let’s”).
Negative Politeness Strategies include:
- Hedges, formal terms of address, apologies, acknowledgement, minimizing imposition through the use of modal verbs (for example framing an imperative as an interrogative).
Key links here will of course be to Goffman, and to Brown and Levinson.
These are further key concepts to help develop learners’ understanding of the pragmatics of speech. For any conversation to work, there has to be a degree of cooperation between the participants, although there are plenty of examples where such cooperation is very limited, or where the purposes of different speakers are in direct conflict. In conversation, Grice’s Cooperative Principle is often taught via his four maxims (relation, quantity, quality and manner), but this can lead to very simplistic statements such as “All of the maxims are fulfilled here.” However, when employed more carefully, and with a consideration of the reasons why a maxim might be deliberately flouted (for example the maxim of quality for comic purposes, or of quantity by an instructor assessing a candidate in a test) they can be useful, as can wider concepts to do with context, shared knowledge and conversational implicature (another part of Grice’s ideas). See Resources for a link to a useful website summary (with video clips) of Grice’s work.
Feedback is a key part of speech and conversation, very often fulfilling a phatic function in keeping a conversation alive and dynamic. It can be either explicit, as in verbalised praise for example, or the kind of affirmation which lets the speaker know they are still being listened to, encouraging them to continue.
Back-channelling feedback of the latter kind includes: non-verbal signals such as nodding (gesture and body language) and leaning forwards (proxemics); minimal responses (mm-hmm, yeah, I see) and questions and interjections (really? wow!).
Monitoring is another key element of the conversational dynamic. Learners should begin by identifying monitoring devices such as tag questions, fillers and discourse markers. They can then progress to more sophisticated devices such as repairs and reformulations (which are evidence of recipient design). Monitoring devices can also be indicators of the relative status and power of speakers in a conversation (for example, a higher status speaker such as an employer discussing corporate strategy with an employee might employ fewer monitoring devices as he or she assumes the complete attention of the listener; in a different context, however, he or she might actively monitor the understanding and response of the listener through an increased use of such features, for example a teacher in a lesson).
The contextual activities below are not exhaustive; however, they seek to familiarise learners with some of the key areas which could help develop and reinforce understanding of conversational analysis through application and evaluation. The areas covered are:
- Conversation and power
- Conversation and gender
- Conversational genres
- The grammar of speech
- Representations of conversation in written texts.
Start by discussing with learners how power can be shown in a conversation. They might cover, amongst over things:
- Content – who chooses what is spoken about
- Interruption and selection – who speaks when
- Structure – who is organising the conversation
- Formulation – is someone moving towards a desired outcome by dominating and re-wording questions for instance.
You could split the learners into groups and ask them to select one of two tasks for analysis and discussion:
- Record part of a lesson (with everyone’s permission of course). Probably an A Level lesson would work better as the question of power can be less obvious. It would be interesting to compare – though a good idea to make the transcripts anonymous.
- Ask learners to select a programme where there is political discussion and record part of an interview and try and see who has the power in this example of conversation.
From these activities you could draw up a checklist of lexical, grammatical, syntactical and discourse features which could be indicators of power and status in conversation. Then try and apply this knowledge and understanding to the text in Learner resource 10.
Learners might like to think about the following in terms of the interview between Jonathan Ross and David Beckham:
- Roles and status in the discourse
- Topic control and topic shifting
- The relative fluency of the speakers
- The balance of interrogative and declarative utterances (are they any obvious structures to the conversation?)
- The use of discourse markers
- The use of tag questions
- The use (or absence) of politeness strategies
- Overlap and interruption
- Evidence of feedback and monitoring
- The use of prosodic features of language for emphasis and comic effect
- The extent to which elements of the discourse have been pre-planned
- Any evidence of convergence between the two speakers
- What both speakers seek to achieve in the encounter.
Extension Activity: Watch the short clip from The Apprentice. For each of the speakers, discuss their status and power in the conversation, supporting your ideas with an analysis of the lexical, grammatical and discourse features each employs to try to achieve their goals.
Two further transcripts from the legacy OCR English Language specification which are focused on the issue of power can be found on the OCR website, in Section B of the Jun 2009 paper for unit F651.
You could begin with the short clip from the sitcom Friends. After watching discuss the differences between the ways the two gender groups discuss the same event.
Learner resource 11 and the excellent chapter on Language and Gender in English Language for Beginners by Michelle Lowe and Ben Graham (now out of print, but available secondhand on Amazon). You could also try the following websites:
- Language log
The two links videos of Deborah Tannen explaining key aspects of her work might also be helpful.
Once learners have gained a knowledge and understanding of the key models, theories and studies associated with language and gender, then they can begin to apply this to a range of discourses (see Learner resource 12).
The Language of Conversation by Pridham has an excellent section introducing this concept (unit 5).
A more sophisticated text is Per Linell’s Approaching Dialogue: Talk, interaction and contexts in dialogical perspectives available via Google Books.
Some basic principles are outlined in Learner resource 13.
Give each of the six texts in Learner resource 14 to a pair/group of learners to analyse and answer the following questions.
Take each of the texts separately first and think about the context:
- What is the subject matter?
- What is the purpose of this conversation?
- What genre is it?
- What lexical, grammatical and discourse features lead you to make this judgement about genre?
Some things to look out for include:
- Formality and Informality in lexis (Register)
- The use of set phrases and syntactical structures associated with this kind of conversation
- Opening and closing remarks
- Patterns of turn-taking and overlap
- Topic management and agenda setting
- Roles and status
- Feedback and monitoring
After you have done this, see if you can draw up lists of essential and optional elements which seem to define different kinds of conversation.
This particular activity could well function as an extension or revision activity. While the content of the activity is relevant and interesting, it could also be considered demanding. Building on learners’ developing understanding of the differences between speech and writing, it could be useful to introduce the idea of speech as mode of communication with its own lexical, grammatical and syntactical rules, using the work of one of the leading linguists in the field.
Resources: Read, highlight and annotate the article by Geoffrey Leech of Lancaster University. You can save your own copy of the article.
The focus of initial reading and note-taking should be to look up and understand key concepts and terminology.
Once the key ideas have been understood, then try Learner resource 15, which gives an overview of Leech’s ideas and encourages learners to apply them to short pieces of spoken discourse.
The representation of conversation in written texts can be found in everything from poetry and novels to plays and advertisements. The key areas to focus on are in the ways lexical, grammatical and syntactical choices, as well as the organisation of the discourse (for example how new speakers in dialogue in novels are given a new line on the page to represent turn-taking and adjacency pairs) are used to mimic or represent key features of spoken language. There can also be the representation of accent, prosody and even the connected speech process itself.
A good starting point is the poem in Learner resource 16. Give it to a class without any help and see if they can work out what it is about. You can then ask them to consider how the writer has tried to represent a conversation. Some features to identify and discuss include:
- The way in which words are run together to represent aspects of the connected speech process such as elision and assimilation
- The ways in which spelling is used to reflect accent
- The use of dialect and sociolect in lexis
- The use of discourse markers and politeness markers
- The use of elliptical constructions
- The representation of adjacency pairs through lineation
- The pattern of declarative/interrogative which dominates most of the text, and which signifies issues of genre.
In Learner resource 17 you will find three further texts which can then be used to develop knowledge, understanding and the key skills of analysis and critical evaluation.
Finally, once learners are comfortable with the key concepts, it might be useful to think about how written texts are different from spoken discourse, and to then apply this to other written texts which seek to represent conversation (see Learner resource 18). A further useful resource for this can be found on the OCR website in Section A Question 2 F651 January 2010.
- Language and the Internet by David Crystal (over ten years old now, but still an excellent starting point).
- Language and Technology by Angela Goddard and Beverly Geesin is also excellent.
One new area of language which has developed over the last twenty years or so, thanks to computer mediated communication, is that of interactive written discourse, for example in chat rooms, on blogs, social media sites and via SMS and email.
What is perhaps most interesting in terms of the language of conversation is the ways in which technology has allowed humans to conduct new kinds of non-face-to-face conversations (the telephone has been around for over a hundred years!), each with its own rapidly developing sets of conventions and its own lexis, grammar, syntax and discourse structure.
This is almost a separate subject in itself, and the resources and activities here are only an introduction to how interactive discourse offers new contexts in which to study conversation.
For teachers, there is a Resources link to an interesting research paper on the subject – bits of which you may like to use to challenge and stretch more able learners.
Learner resources 19 and 20 have some basic study notes about different kinds of CMS and IWD. Learner resource 21 has some example texts for discussion and analysis. If Twitter was something that you wanted to examine, then the last Resources link might be useful.
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