Getting students to use more complex functional language

An expanded version of an article of mine just published in English Teaching Professional magazine as Keep Moving On Part One – available here on TEFLtastic for free!

One of the best language learning tips that I have used and passed on is to stop using something as soon as you know how to do so well, and move onto something else. For example, as soon as you can use the equivalent of “In my opinion” or “Can I have…?” in the language that you are studying, you should push yourself to try out “In my honest opinion” or “Is there a… that I can have?”, until you are also comfortable with that new form and so ready to move on again. This should work as well for functional language like those two examples as it does for grammar and vocabulary, but for some reason many students seem to really get stuck on forms like “I think…” and “I don’t like…” however well other parts of their language progress. The same issue also exists in lessons on functional language, with students slipping back into the basic “I think you should…” and “Why don’t you…?” phrases that they already knew before the class the minute that their attention drifts from the language to completing the final task – something that gets even worse when they are trying to win a communication game.

You could think of this issue as a rational subconscious response by students to language that seems to do something that they already can do and so has little communicative use for them. This can perhaps be seen as similar to the way grammar points with little communicative function like third person S tend to be late acquired. One response to the issue of students getting stuck on the same old basic functional language forms is therefore to give them more complex language that does actually serve a different function. For example, you could teach the difference between asking for permission and requests rather than just giving more and more requests forms, or in a lesson on saying sorry include phrases which are not actually apologising like “I’m sorry to hear about your trouble”. This is also a justification for teaching different levels of formality, especially if you emphasize the chance of actual misunderstanding if you say “Sit down, will you?” to your boss or “I was wondering if you could speak a little more quietly” to your best friend. You will then need to set up communicative situations such as roleplays in which those nuances in meaning or formality are important.

That emphasize on more complex language that also serves different functions is probably the best response of all to the problem of students not progressing beyond basic functional language. Other possible responses include:

– Emphasise that English speakers don’t like repeating, meaning that you can’t say “Nice to meet you” to everyone you meet or sign off absolutely all your emails with “Best regards”, instead often needing some variety of forms even for exactly the same function and level of formality

– Point out that a basic phrase that they keep using is fine, but a bit Elementary for a class of this level

– Ask them to choose a certain number, e.g. five, phrases that are new to them and they are going to try to use (inside and/ or outside class)

– Ban basic phrases like “In my opinion,…” from the classroom or from a particular activity

– Show them easy ways to extend the language that they use, e.g. adding “really” to make “I really think…” and “I don’t really agree”

– Do lots of controlled practice of the new phrases before any freer practice, including trying again after they have had time to absorb the language, e.g. next week after some homework on the phrases

– Demand complex phrases in classroom communication from the very first lesson, e.g. only allowing “Could you…?” in classroom requests like “…write it on the board, please?”

– Tests in which students get bonus points for higher-level language

The simplest way of getting students to think about more complex functional language from the presentation stage is to get them to make phrases longer, e.g. adding words to make “I think” and “In my opinion” longer, starting with their own ideas. They can then be given the suggested words “honest”, “humble”, “really” and “’m not sure but” to add to the right phrases. You can also do this the other way round, giving them the key words first and getting them to add them to any phrases that they already know.

A version of this which is more difficult to set up but works well is the teacher finding at least ten phrases which can have bits added to the middle such as “Could (possibly) lend me your dictionary?” Put these phrases into a three-column table in a wordprocessing program such as Word with the removable bits in the middle column, then photocopy and cut them up into cards. Students are given just the left and right column cards to match up the basic phrases (e.g. “I’d be” with “grateful if you could help me with this.”), then are given the middle words (e.g. “very/ extremely”) to try to add. An example of this game for requests phrases like these is newly available here and there are more examples and further explanation of this game here

These slips of paper can also be used in the practice stage, with the cards dealt out and students trying to use phrases with those words in them during a speaking activity in order to be able to discard the cards. The person who has the fewest cards at the end of the game is the winner.

Exactly the same game can also be played with just the key words which you want them to practise on the slips of paper, e.g. cards with “accept”, “afraid”, “apologies”, “apologise”, “excuse”, “fault”, “forgive”, “regret” and “sorry” on for giving bad news. There is a new version of this game here and a further explanation with more photocopiable versions here

The third option is to just give them cards with the names of the different but related functions that you have presented written on them, e.g. “interrupting”, “politely rejecting interruption”, “allowing the other person to continue”, etc for turn taking, as in this set of worksheets

For this last activity to produce more complex language, you’ll need to have at least four or five of each card and be strict about not letting them use the “banned” simple phrases nor repeat any phrases which have already been used.

If you want students to concentrate even more on the language that they are using and its appropriateness during the games above, you could suggest that they listen carefully to each other and reject any phrases that:

  • are not appropriate
  • don’t match the card that their partner has discarded
  • have already been used in that speaking activity
  • or were banned by the teacher for being too basic.

Making sure phrases are rejected is easier to do with a third person who monitors and makes sure that the phrases are new, correct, and used appropriately. You can also change the games mentioned in this article a little to reflect the monitor’s role, for example with that person taking the cards from in front of the two people speaking as they use them correctly, or that person having all the cards and giving them to people as they use them correctly (meaning the person with most cards at the end wins). A monitor can also be used without the cards, for example noting down and/ or giving points for every new phrase that is used.

Another idea for using of a monitor is during the first stage of a TTT (Test Teach Test) or TBL (Task-based Learning) approach. One person in each group monitors the people in their group for a range of different functions (e.g. both strong and weak agreement), not repeating, and being suitably polite. The whole group can then brainstorm language to do those things better. This activity is also possible in pairs, with students giving themselves points for how well they did those things (e.g. “spoke 50% each”) and then brainstorming language to do so better next time.

A really nice game for the politeness point is a Politeness Competition. Students compete to say more and more polite versions of basic or rude sentences like “Do you have time to talk?” and “Oy!” The same thing can also be done with students being asked to produce longer and longer sentences, with that variation causing even more amusement as the sentences get more and more extreme.

More games for getting more ambitious language from your students coming soonish in Part Two in ETP magazine, and then of course here gratis. If you can’t wait that long, more articles on this topic and literally hundreds more on all things TEFL including some other free ones of mine from ETP here.

This entry was posted in Apologies, English Teaching Professional, Functional language, interrupting, Requests, TEFL games. Bookmark the permalink.

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