• Making the Perfect Mixture of Structure and Autonomy in Conversation Activities (Customizing Exercises)

conversation autonomy

Conversational Autonomy

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
Here is the link to the exercise handout:  Expressing opinions

“Ms. Brown, do we really have to do anything we want to do again today?”*  Ms. Brown is probably an extreme case of instructors who try to give their students autonomy because they believe students know best what they are interested in.

The chances are that you are from a different culture, different generation and/or different socio-economic group from your students.  You probably have a different marital status, different interests and/or different goals.  So how can you tap into what will be most stimulating for your students to talk about when they are practicing conversational techniques?  In other words, how can you customize the exercise for your current group of students?

A key phrase in the question is “conversational techniques.”  Students should be learning techniques that they can apply in conversational situations.  Some technique examples are: beginning a conversation, giving understanding responses, clarifying something, politely interrupting someone, rephrasing something, soliciting details, giving opinions, summarizing what was said, ending a conversation.

Let’s say Ms. Brown wants her students to practice giving opinions.  To customize the activity, she tells the students to think of topics that are interesting to them, get into groups and tell their opinions.  But, without any kind of structure, the students will probably just take turns monologuing, not actually engaging in a conversation.

The “perfect mix” of structure and customizing involves three parts:

Part 1) Introductory exercise
Students are introduced to the technique and briefly work with some examples of how it is used in conversational situations.  In other words, they don’t just mindlessly read some sample dialogs.

Part 2)  Structured exercise
Using questions or prompts, students practice in pairs/small groups.

Part 3) Customizing exercise
Using Steps 1 and Steps 2 as models, students in pairs write prompts or questions.  Then in new groups, they use these student-made items to further practice the technique.

To demonstrate this perfect mix, we’ll look at how Ms. Brown could have made her “giving-opinions” activity more productive and engaging.

The conversational techniques they will practice in this example are;
1) using natural statements to express an opinion;
2) using natural statements to agree;
3) using natural statements to disagree.

Here are samples of Parts 1-4.

Part 1) Introductory exercise: Students are introduced to the technique and briefly work with some examples of how it is used in conversational situations.

               In my opinion ____                         Don’t you think ____
               It seems to me ____                        According to ____              I feel ____

              I agree.                                              That’s right/true.
              You’re right.                                    That’s a good point.
              I think so, too.

              I’m afraid I disagree.                    Maybe/Perhaps, but ___
              I’m not sure I agree.                      I don’t agree.

 This is a model of how they can use the expressions in a natural conversation.

              Introductory Exercise

Fill in the blanks with the words or phrases in bold type.

            Perhaps          true     afraid I disagree        my opinion

1A: In __________________ , camping is more fun than swimming.
2B: I’m _______________________ . I think camping is a little dangerous.
3A: _________________ , but if you’re careful, you’ll have no problems.
4.B: That’s _________________________ .

Part 2)  Structured exercise: Using the questions or prompts, students practice in pairs (Student A / Student B)stating opinions, agreeing and disagreeing using a variety of natural expressions..  They cannot see each other’s paper. (See attached exercise. Expressing opinions

You will notice that even in this structured exercise, students are given a chance to customize the statement by filling in the blanks.

Part 3) Customizing exercise.  In Step 3, in pairs, students are given the autonomy to write several “opinion” sentences.  This is their chance to write about specific opinions about their classmates, school, town and national/international news.
        Directions: With your partner, write several sentences in the space below, giving  your opinion. Use the opinion statements.

This is the step that assures that this activity is always up-to-date and appealing to the specific generation of students.  Often the students make statements that about topics that were completely unknowable to the instructor.  Some example of what students have written:

  • It seems to me that Anna (classmate) and Tanya (classmate) should find a new apartment.
  • Don’t you think that Wang (classmate) and Ngan (classmate) would make a good couple?

Or they write statements about a current event which might not be relevant in the future.  For example:

  •  If feel that the U.S. should accept more refugees?

Part 4) Form new groups.
Directions: Find new partners and read your opinions to them. They will agree or   disagree with you. Give the reasons for your opinion.

When doing Step 4, the students tend to become a lot more animated and the constructive noise level greatly increases, often with a lot of laughing as students are determined to understand each other and to find out their opinions.  Because they have learned the structure of a conversation, they don’t just monologue.  Instead they truly interact with each other.

If you would like to try out this activity with your students, I’ve attached a handout here. Expressing opinions This activity and similar ones come from Conversation Strategies by Kehe & Kehe

Also, for similar activities that involve structure and autonomy, see my previous postings for Rejoinders and Follow-up Questions.  Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1)  and  Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)

In this YouTube segment, an instructor, Robin Dubacker, describes using these materials.  YouTube Conversation Strategies

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you about helping students and hear your perspectives and experiences.  Feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting and we can continue this.

David Kehe

*Drawn from Earl Stevick’s A Way and Ways.

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