Mar 182010

Here’s an example of the kinds of functional phrase lists I used to teach with and write:

But for some years now, I’ve been tearing them up and hunting new alternatives. Why? Well, they just don’t seem logical to me.

It’s not so much what’s in the lists that bothers me. I think we can fix a lot of  that these days with good corpora. But even with high frequency phrases from well suited corpora, I still have a problem with the lists. I just don’t like the way the phrases are extracted from their context. 

Now if it’s grammar we’re teaching, I can sort of see how it’s a different matter. Isolating phrases might help if we want students to look at a structure and see how we can manipuate it. But when when we’re teaching speech acts like agreeing, disagreeing, greeting, requesting, inviting, etc, we need to be imparting usage information.

Think of all the times you’ve dished out lists like the ones above and told your students to use them in a role play. And then think of all the times you’ve winced when you’ve heard them use them inappropriately.

I can’t see a way to solve that problem if we extract phrases from context. Something pretty fundamental about conversation is it’s co-constructed. You can’t have one on your own, unless you’re like my ‘merican dentist. Maybe you remember him? Here’s a story about him that I blogged sometime back:


My dentist works in a tall building at 15th and Market in Philly. He got in the elevator one day and there was another passenger already inside. They didn’t know one another, but they made eye contact and acknowledged each other.

As he hit his floor button she said ‘I can’t believe it’s still raining’.

‘Yes, it’s terrible’, he said. ‘Really bad’.

‘When’s it going to stop?’ she said.

‘Well, the forecast’s not looking too good’

‘So, is it going to affect your plans?’

‘Yeah,  we were thinking of going to the shore this weekend, but I don’t expect we will now.’

After a few more turns he arrived at his floor and stepped out. As he left, he noticed his fellow passenger was wearing a cell phone earpiece. She had been talking to someone else but he had been answering all her questions.

We’ve got 3 sets of adjacency pairs here, where someone says something that demands a response from someone else. Adjacency pairs are the building blocks of conversation. If I say ‘How are you?’, then you have to say ‘I’m fine thanks’. And you can deviate a bit, and say ‘Not too bad’, ‘Could be better’ or even ‘None of your business’. But there are limits to how far you can deviate without me thinking you’re a bit weird. And if you don’t answer – well,  that will mean something too.

So I reckon there have to be better ways to illustrate how speech acts work. For me, it’s out with the lists and in with adjacency pairs and longer tracts that can demo how conversations develop over time. And I hope I’ll find more ways as I carry down this path, and maybe some of you are trying to do something similar?

So any thoughts anyone? Am I throwing a baby out with some bath water? And if not, any good ideas on how to bury those lists?

You might also want to check out my posts on:
How about some nice
Some list alternatives 1
Some list alternatives 2

And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.

Image by Ilco

IATEFL conference 2010

 Posted by at 5:12 am

  22 Responses to “Scrapping the lists”

  1. Hi Vicki

    Hmm … it’s a tough one. I have to say, all those phrases at the top of your post are imprinted on my mind from years of using your books. Yesterday the word ‘feasible’ came up in my business class and it triggered an instant flashback to your lesson on agreeing and disagreeing. I guess I’ll associate that word with your books for the rest of my life.

    So at least one person learnt something from your lists!

    You’re right, of course, that longer lists don’t make better lists. Perhaps the ideal would be to give students no more than around 4 great phrases for each function, and no more than one or two functions per lesson, of which they’ll learn and use perhaps two.

    Of course, there is the danger that they’ll sound weird or inappropriate, which is why your thoughts on adjacency pairs are spot on.

    But … perhaps a valid aim is simply to get these phrases embedded in their heads (I’m afraid that’s simply not feasible, I hear you say), so that they build up a repertoire of phrases to choose from when necessary.

    What they’ll actually use in real-life situations is a mixture of the phrases they’ve learnt in class and the ones they’ve heard in real life (and perhaps ones they’ve invented themselves by translating from their own language), and they’ll feel most comfortable with the phrases they’ve both heard in real life and seen written down and ‘approved’ in a course book, perhaps.

    So you could say we have two roles here: to build up a bank of phrases in their heads and then to help them refine their understanding of which one is ideal for each situation. Perhaps we don’t have to do both things at the same time (although of course there’s no point learning a phrase if you have no idea at all how to use it – hence my word ‘refine’).

    Anyway, food for thought, and something I keep meaning to blog about.


  2. “Think of all the times you’ve dished out lists like the ones above and told your students to use them in a role play. And then think of all the times you’ve winced when you’ve heard them use them inappropriately.”

    Wow. I know that feeling all too well. Your idea is spot on, definitely gonna see if I can incorporate adjacency pairs for teaching this kind of language. Thanks!

  3. My business students love your “Making Appointments” board game from Business Opportunities, seeing the different routes a call could take. Would that would work with a longer conversation?

    I like using dialogues from movies. I’m just looking at two scenes from Lost in Translation that I’ve done with a class at college.
    The main event in my case was her monologue (“I’m lost”), which I gave them as a translation exercise. But as a way in we watched the elevator dialogue and discussed Charlotte and Bob’s relationship based on that exchange.

    The script excerpt I made is here:

  4. I definitely agree Vicki. I often tell students to think of a story and then one of them tells it to me and the class has to note down what phrases I use, when, and why. This can also be done from a recorded conversation.

    I think giving the students these lists can be a useful reminder of what to use, but they do need to be presented in context first, not explained as isolated language bits with the teacher extolling upon their usage. Like any language, it has to be heard in context and practised in context.

  5. Yes!

    I’ve had this problem recently – I teach in blended-learning/dogme based lessons and it came up within one group that they didn’t really feel like they were learning solid-specific work-based-phrases because they didn’t have a list of these. Rather than challenge them on their wiki entries of emergent language… (not that well updated though)… I dug through old files for some Reward (I think it was Reward?) whatever, found a hand-out of meetings phrases.

    We reviewed them and then moved on to dialogue – not one of the phrases was used as presented on the page. Failure. Got them to re-read them – tried again in a role-play. Failure – they talked really well, the class was active and dynamic but they simply didn’t use the lexis on the sheet. Reviewed the sheet again, did a live-chat session with them and although they communicated really well I just didn’t see those phrases transfer from paper to brain – it’s not to say that I don’t think that chunking isn’t good – I think it makes sense but I’m really not convinced about handing out lists… hmmm….

    But reading the above, not to sound silly, and while I want to cry “yes, throw the baby out” because Nick I tried to do it all in context.. :-(… anyway, I’m not really sure how to teach these adjacency pairs so more blog posts on this issue please!

  6. Wow Jeremy, thank you for all these thoughtful comments!

    I think when I was writing the old-style lists, the goal was often to target meanings on a word level – so I’d want to make sure they’d know words like ‘feasible’ say, and I’d target other phrases they might misunderstand too like ‘I couldn’t agree more’ or ‘You’re dead right there’. So the focus was on individual words or phrases rather than the larger structure of the discourse.

    If a business contact you know a little but not a lot comes up with a suggestion, it’s probably not going to be appropriate to react right away with ‘That’s not feasible’. A more likely response would be to hesitate, to question, or maybe express partial agreement (yes but) until the disagreement has become clear. Once that’s happened, ‘That’s not feasible’ could become perfectly appropriate, but I think we need to be telling them about the build up.

    I think the trouble with not giving students more information on the context and timing along with the words is the potential for relationship damage –people might think they’re being difficult, or odd, or socially insensitive or something, and that’s tough on the students because they generally want to come across as good, nice, decent human beings.

  7. Nicky, great to see you again and thank you for commenting. I think adjacency pairs can be a very subtle but useful upgrade, and provide a neat way of showing common conversational strategies – hope to post more on this later.

  8. Anne, it was a comment you made to me at BESIG last November that prompted this post. I hadn’t thought about that making appointments diagram game in the context of this, but actually, diagrams like that provide an opportunity to demo larger chunks of discourse and I must write more of them. Thank you for that idea!

    Chunks from movies are a classic way into teaching this stuff because the relationships and contexts are quickly conveyed, and we can see body language. A look or gesture can often convey more meaning than words, of course. That’s a great link and thank you for sharing.

    Another thing about this – I think screen writers often have an instinctive understanding of how conversation works. As English teachers we’ve got so much else flying though our minds about grammar and semantics that we can write some pretty unnatural stuff.

    Notice how short most of the lines are in that movie script dialogue compared with the scripts of dialogues in the back of EFL many course books. The shape’s a little different, huh?

  9. Nick, yeah, I think context is key too. I keep coming back to thinking ‘context’ and ‘intentions’ lie at the heart of it.
    Your story telling activity reminded me of community language learning. Does it involve converting ‘How you’d say it’ to ‘How I’d say it’? That can often be very revealing, I think.

  10. Important point, Karenne.

    I think speech act phrase lists can be a bit like a security blanket for students – an assurance in black and white of structured progress, rather like a lengthening word list. It can be worrying for editors when you suggest scrapping them too – they’ve been printed in books since the 1960s and 70s. But in my view the lists are failing if the students don’t use them or use them inapproriately.

    If you’re working dogmeist-style (which can be very motivating particularly, in adult classes) content will often be student generated and text input may be low. I’m running into similar issues in a course I’m working on at the moment: when texts are short and snappy there are fewer opportunities to demo discourse features. I think an approach of ‘I-don’t-think-I’d-have-said-it-like-that, here’s-what-I’d-have-said’ can help.

    This touches on something else that I think is going to be challenging: in the research literature on teaching pragmatics, there seems to be a pretty general consensus that discourse features need to be overtly pointed out and raised for discussion. So we can’t expect students to just pick them up by seeing examples in same way they might acquire new vocabulary or grammar stuctures or whatever.

    I’ve been experimenting with list alternatives for a few years now, and still feel I’m at the start of the journey. And yes, I’ll blog some thoughts on how we might be able to upgrade or replace them.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Again thinking of older adult learners in a business context here: If the board game approach doesn’t work, e.g. if the phrases are longer than your telephone board game or the “Lost in Translation” turns, you could go with card puzzles. That’s what I’ve kept from my time teaching Suggestopedia: Taking scripts apart and putting them back together again, and acting them out in various ways, including group choral reading. I’m with Jeremy, I think you need to build a bank in their heads, and chants or acting out supported with hand movements etc. does help. As I say, especially with older adult learners.

  12. The phrase: “I disagree” is one that shouldn’t even be taught given that studies have shown native speakers of English almost never say this. English speakers tend to avoid explicit or direct disagreement because it is considered to hurt interpersonal rapport. Even the softened version: “I’m afraid I have to disagree” that can be found in some EFL textbooks is seldom used. Actually, when a native speaker uses this sort of phrase, it usually signalises that a discussion has gone on too long, and that the speakers should start looking for some sort of agreement.

  13. I think there is a danger of trying to do too much in the classroom. I see my job as pointing out some phrases that they might have responded to without really understanding or misunderstood (and that does mean a long list, as I can’t predict which those would be for any group of students), then tell them to listen out for them and experiment with using the ones they hear or read. Getting them to use the phrases is simply to keep them in their memory long enough for them to be able to remember them when they do come across them again.

  14. Hi Anne, and thanks for coming back. You’re about three steps ahead of me here, honing in on activities and I do want to get to them… thought I’d start off with some simpler stuff first. Please keep coming back!

  15. Sabrina, I really appreciate your take on this. Yeah, “I disagree” is very infrequent in NS speech, and I take your point that that there’s a case for not teaching it at all. But given that it’s likely to tumble out of our students mouths, I think we probably need to address it in class.
    We could give them a blanket ‘don’t use it with NSs’ – but to explain why not I think it’s probably better to show its limitations of use, and also (the bit I think you’ll prefer) how disagreement is more likely to be expressed.

  16. Hi Alex, and welcome. I’m a great admirer of your work.

    I’ve written short and long lists in the past, and the length isn’t what’s concerning me – it’s the lack of context. I don’t think it would matter so much if I were teaching grammar or the meanings of some words and phrases. The problems relate specifically to when I’m trying to teach appropriacy.

    Your approach sounds like a sort of pre-listening task. So you’re preparing them to go out and hear the phrases in context. With your help, they will be able to recognize phrases they probably wouldn’t have noticed or understood before. That makes sense, but a question that comes up here is will they also pick up the usage rules when they hear the phrases in context?

    It’s a dilemma that kinda flies in the face of a lot of what we might view as ‘good teaching practice’. There are a number of pragmatics research studies that suggest that we can’t rely on students picking up usage rules without overt teaching and discussion. If the studies are correct (and I have no reason to think they’re not) it requires a rethink of a ‘learning by doing’ methodology when it comes to teaching speech acts.

  17. […] wrote a post on scrapping functional phrase lists that you can find here. Commenters have provided some great ideas like working with movie scripts and larger chunks of […]

  18. Hi Vicky

    I’m flattered. If you saw my review of Tech Talk, you know the feeling is more than mutual!

    This is a really difficult point, and the fact that my eyes glaze over every time I see the word “pragmatics” probably hasn’t helped me come up with a well thought out approach to it, hence my complete ignorance on the research that says such things need to be pointed out (only to adult learners, I wonder, as kids don’t need things pointing out in L1), and my scattergun approach with big lists. Problems include the cultural specificity of almost anything you can say (I disagree will almost certainly become a perfectly acceptable ELF term, along quite possibly with I am agree), trying to create a context that makes all parts of the meaning and use clear, and the thing I quoted from a comment on An A to Z of ELT recently about functional language not really allowing students to express themselves. Look forward to reading your further posts on the topic, but my breakfast is calling…

  19. […] to part two of my scrapping the lists journey (intro here, part one here.) My question here is what about ditching lists of phrases if we’re teaching […]

  20. […] some practical ideas on how to do this, see my posts on: Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives 1 Some list alternatives […]

  21. […] might also want to check out my posts on see my posts on: Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives […]

  22. […] might also want to check out my posts on: Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives […]

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