• ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique.

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YouTube This posting is discussed on my YouTube video YouTube ESL Students Won’t Progress In Conversation Skills Without This Technique

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

In her book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers,  Amy Sutherland describes how “progressive” animal trainers help animals who may feel nervous about anything new or that they are not accustomed to. One way is called desensitizing. She explains, “When you counter-condition, you take a negative experience and make it a positive one by pairing it with something good.”

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She gives the example of a cavy, which is a South American rodent, who was terrified of the humans at the animal training school. Anytime that it needed vet care, it had to be caught, which meant chasing it around its cage, and this made it even more terrified of humans. The animal trainer set up a counter-conditioning. Each day she would enter the cavy’s cage and move just an inch closer. If the cagy didn’t hide behind a bush, the trainer would reward it with an alfalfa pellet. Overtime, the cavy allowed the trainer to come closer and closer, until one day the animal ate some pellets right out of the trainer’s hand.

I realized that desensitizing our ESL students to a “negative experience” could help them become more open to using an important technique, just as it helped the cavy.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that.”

For many language learners, it seems so hard to say this or a similar phrase. For some, it can be embarrassing to appear less proficient than others (e.g. classmates) seem to be. Some don’t have confidence that they’ll understand even if their interlocutor repeats slower or rephrases what was said. Others don’t want to take up the other person’s time having to explain or simplify what they had just said.

I, myself even as an adult, was like this when I was trying to navigate my way around France or Japan. If the situation wasn’t dire, I usually just nodded like I understood and thanked them. But at times, when I really needed the information, I put aside my ego when I couldn’t understand and said in French or Japanese, “Excuse me. Could you repeat that?”  To my amazement, nine out of ten times, the people adjusted their speech by speaking more slowly, and/or used easier vocabulary, pantomimed, and sometimes even used some English. Over time, I became desensitized to those negative emotions I had felt about saying, “I didn’t understand.”

Classroom activities to make it easier and natural to ask for clarification. (Handout included.)

Just as the animal trainer desensitized the cavy by gradually helping it become calmer in previously terrifying conditions, we can gradually help our students become more ready to ask for clarification in previously embarrassing or uncomfortable situations. Without this, they will be missing opportunities to have meaningful engagements with others by letting others know when they need to adjust what they are saying.

The set of exercises in the downloadable attachment are designed to give students meaningful and real-life, step-by-step practice in using clarification expressions like these:

  • Excuse me. What did you say?
  • Could you repeat that?
  • I’m sorry. I didn’t understand.

In these exercises, they will participate in both sides of a conversation:
1) asking for clarification.
2) clarifying when someone asks it from them.

By experiencing the second of these, they will realize that there is no reason to feel embarrassed about asking for a clarification or imagine that others will be unwilling to help because it’s wasting their time. Perhaps one of the most important insights that they will gain from these exercises is that by using these expressions, we show others that we are interested in what they are saying.

Summary of the exercises

After engaging some brief introductory exercises which demonstrating when/how to ask for clarifications, students practice the technique in three different information-gap pair activities in a Student A / Student B format. The exercises are designed to give students a real reason to ask for clarifications.

After completing the set of exercises, students seem to become more spontaneous in asking for clarifications anytime they are in conversations with classmates, the teacher and beyond the classroom.  This is not only because they’ve internalized the expressions, but also because they’ve experienced the pleasure of helping others who have asked for clarifications.

Here is the unit which you can download and use with your students:
Asking Clarification Questions to Show You Want to Understand

In my next posting titled “A More Sophisticated Technique For Asking For Clarifications,” I’ll share a handout which will help students more specifically clarify what information they didn’t understand.

For asking clarification questions at more advanced levels, see • Discussion Technique to Get Quiet Students Involved (Part 1)

David Kehe

About the free download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.

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