What makes a conversation pedagogical

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In this blog post I have tried to map out the aspects of my classroom conversations that led to actual Chinese learning. This process has helped me understand better both how and why class conversations allow language learning opportunities to emerge and how they can be exploited. This exercise has also given me space to reflect on how I can converse better in lessons – not just as a learner, but also as a teacher.

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What makes a conversation pedagogical

  1. 1. What makes a conversation pedagogical? Reflecting upon my recent one-to-one Chinese lessons in southern China, I felt that a dialogic approach (essentially Dogme) worked so well because the conversations with the teacher were much more than a dialogue that just happened to result in language learning. Rather, the class conversations had certain attributes that made them good vehicles for language learning. Talking about Chinese soymilk During my lessons I brought objects, photos, texts, audio and video into class to share with my teacher and discuss: • Objects: drinks I had bought at the shop • Texts: photos of menus or signs I had seen the previous day • Pictures and video: photos and videos of things I had seen, done or eaten • Audio: recordings of conversations I had had – perhaps when buying something In one lesson I brought in a soy-drink and we talked about what it was, how much it cost, where I got it, whether I liked it (and whether my teacher liked it), what the ingredients were, how it was made, etc. It turned out that my teacher often made soymilk at home for breakfast in a soymilk maker (I had no idea they even existed), which lead me to visit a domestic appliances store after class and inquire about the machines. In fact I recorded the conversation with my MP3 player and played it back in a subsequent lesson, which meant that the soymilk conversation was revisited in a natural way the next day. These conversations paused from time to time to allow me to write down new words and phrases, discuss grammatical issues or drill my pronunciation. The discussions were slow – in part, because I cannot speak Chinese quickly, but also because there were natural pauses that allowed us to think of new questions to take the conversation forward. The presence of objects such as a soymilk drink seemed to help us refocus on the conversation’s theme after breaks from the topic to consider any new language. When the conversation dried up, I would find a photo I had taken (of a menu, a sign or something I had found interesting when walking around Kunming) and start a new topic.
  2. 2. These conversations were interesting because, for example, both my teacher and I like soymilk. And the lessons improved my Chinese because they helped me in an immediate and practical way to do things (such as buy soymilk) more easily. But they also improved my general conversational skills with respect to food/drink and other everyday subjects. And, of course, it also gave opportunities to learn and practice more general phrases such as “I like ___”; “Do you like ___?”; “I think that… “; “I don’t know, but… “ These lessons weren’t just practical conversations for everyday life in China, – they also included discussions about Chinese grammar – usually when I couldn’t use a structure from English because it has no direct equivalent in Chinese. And they also included talk about why I wanted to learn in through conversation and what I thought was working well or not so well about the lessons. Layers of learning There seems to have been two clear levels of learning in the lessons – language learning and meta-cognitive skills. • Language learning is essentially the words and grammar that we absorb and produce • Meta-cognitive skills is where learners gain awareness of their language learning, their learning goals and the strategies they employ The importance of conversation Yet the class’s conversation had not only these two layers, but a third layer: the topic of the conversation. And the topic itself was important; I found it interesting, for example, to talk about soymilk, as it was highly relevant to my life at that moment. It also helped me to learn some Chinese that helped me out of class – when buying soymilk or asking at a soymilk stand how they made the drink. This conversation led to new phrases and structures, so there was a natural introduction of grammar, as and when I needed it. The dialogic approach had another advantage: it led to greater connection with my conversation partner (teacher) – as perhaps all good conversation should; we were able to get to know each other in an easy and comfortable way through topics such as what we like to eat. It strikes me that this conversation-based learning gave the usual benefits of dialogue with others (interesting and engaging social time that leads to better understanding between me and my teacher); and it also was a vehicle that naturally helped the lessons focus on the Chinese I needed at the time – both lexis and form. Pedagogical Conversation Skills So what exactly is it about the conversations about soymilk and other subjects from my life in Kunming that made them not just enjoyable, but also pedagogically beneficial? And more generally, what makes a conversation pedagogical? • Shared awareness of the conversation’s layers: teachers and students need to be on the same page as to what the conversation should achieve and how it will do so. There needs to be a common sense that the different layers (topic, language learning, meta- cognitive skills) exist and that each has its role to play. I did this in China by initially explaining to my teacher what I wanted to do, agreeing on it and then doing it; we then talked about it several times throughout the lessons to make sure the conversations were going well for both of us. • Real conversations: the conversations need to be genuine, free dialogue that each participant can engage in and help to shape. Role-play and reading aloud have their uses, but they should not be confused with dialogue that has its own life. Within a good conversation there is genuine interest in what others say and the employment of conversation skills (listening, asking, and sharing), which leads to greater understanding and connection. I introduced everyday subjects through objects, pictures etc and then
  3. 3. asked questions so that there was a genuine dialogue rather than simple monologues from me. • Conversation provides continuity: although dialogue provides great conversation practice, a pedagogical conversation also leads to the emergence of language learning opportunities. Yet interruptions to explore the language being used create a break in the continuity of the conversation (and therefore the lesson). To keep the conversation alive there needs to be a way to easily return to the conversation topic after a foray into a point of lexis or form. The objects and photos served as an anchor to remind of the topic again. • Space and time for emergence: emergence is not necessarily a fast process and if the conversation rushes ahead, language learning could become sidelined. A slower, more reflective class will allow emergence to happen. I speak Chinese slowly (and my teacher was just incredibly patient!), so this happened naturally. But even so, there were pauses that allowed us to choose what to do next (continue the conversation, turn to a point of language or change the topic). The below chart takes these same issues and offers some suggestions of how pedagogical dialogue can be achieved in class… Conversation’s pedagogical attributes Tools to achieve attributes Shared awareness of the conversation’s layers Class discussion about the different layers and how much time participants want to spend on each. Class dialogue on using a Dogme approach to language learning. Real conversations Inclusive method to decide lesson topics. Shared sense of what a good conversation is (eg achieving connection through sharing) and what good conversation skills are (eg value of listening and asking questions). Conversation provides continuity Objects, photos, texts can provide a reference point that helps participants return to the conversation topic. Questions can be asked (about the object, photo etc) to take the discussion in a new direction. Space and time for emergence Slow the conversation down and allow pauses so that participants can reflect upon the subject matter, the language used or even the broader questions of whether the conversation is working for them. From learner to teacher In this blog post I have tried to map out the aspects of my classroom conversations that led to actual Chinese learning. This process has helped me understand better both how and why class conversations allow language learning opportunities to emerge and how they can be exploited. This exercise has also given me space to reflect on how I can converse better in lessons – not just as a learner, but also as a teacher. http://www.avatarlanguages.com/blog/pedagogical-conversation/

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