TEFL Q and A, Chapter 5: Teaching Speech Functions

Q: I think I understand some of the basic principles of teaching vocabulary and grammar. What's next?

A: I'm going to use a complex sounding phrase now, and I hope you won't be intimidated by it: speech functions.

Q: What does that mean?

A: When we communicate with other people, we are always trying to do something with our language--we may want to invite someone, offend someone, or compliment someone. Whenever we speak, our language has these so-called speech functions.

Q: What do speech functions look like?

A: They don't have a universal form at all. That’s not the point. The point is to find out exactly what we're doing with language when we speak. That's what a speech function is.

Q: And why is that important?

A: Well, just imagine that a student doesn't know how to complain properly. You can teach him or her the language to do that. Then, at the end of the lesson, you can measure your ability to help that student achieve something with language.

Q: I think I'm beginning to understand. Does the issue of context still apply?

A: Very much so. You still have to make a song and dance about this, as you said before. This always makes the language you're teaching much more memorable.

Q: Before, when we focused on use, we talked about doing some simple repetition work on pronunciation. Does that apply to the language of speech functions, too?

A: It does. However, work on speech functions usually involves question-and-answer work, so you have to take great care in setting this up.

Q: How so?

A: Imagine you want to teach this mini dialogue:

Can you pass me the salt, please? (speech function: request)

Sure. (speech function: granting a request)

The first thing you'll notice is that the first sentence is much more difficult than the second sentence. The students with less skill will need more time listening to that more difficult sentence before they can say it. In other words, you can use a tried and tested interaction process, which will help all your students learn this language. This might sound complex, but it's really worth doing, and, believe me, you will get the hang of it.

Q: And what does that mean in practice?

A: This is what the interaction would look like in class:

Teacher: Can you pass me the salt, please?

Student: Sure.

Repeat twice, using different students.

Student: Can you pass me the salt, please?

Teacher: Sure.

Repeat twice, using different students.

Student: Can you pass me the salt, please?

Student: Sure.

Repeat twice, using different students.

Finally, students work in pairs at the same time, which gives students with less skill the opportunity to work on language without having to worry about making mistakes in front of the class.

Q: Isn't it all a bit repetitive?

A: Yes, but that's what students need. Think how many times you practised saying simple words as a toddler--hundreds and hundreds of times.

Q: OK, I get the point. But presumably a speech function lesson gets a bit more creative at some point?

A: Yes, it does. After you've done a series of interactions you've probably built up a mini conversation (e.g., at the dinner table at home). You can then get students to write similar dialogues in pairs. When they've finished, they can read their dialogues aloud in front of the class. Perhaps they can also act out the scene physically. What's more, the more confident students might want to do this without looking at their dialogue. Do you see how the lesson's level of difficulty is very gradually built up?

Q: Sure, but couldn't some of the students be saying incorrect English, which could be a bad model for the others?

A: That's a good point. That's why, when the students are writing dialogues in pairs, you should walk around, check the language, and ask them to practise rehearsing the language before they speak in front of the class.

Q: And what about the written reinforcement of this oral work? Is that pretty much the same as with vocabulary and grammar?

A: It would be basically the same as with grammar, yes. But, instead of a mini explanation and the name of the structure, here you'd write the name of the speech function (e.g., requesting).

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