Activating Conversational Competence

2014_joan_allenJoan Saslow and Allen Ascher

The most important building blocks of conversational competence are carefully constructed conversation models combined with a step-by-step pedagogy for intensive practice.

 The Value of Conversation Models

Although more and more English language course books today no longer even contain them, texts written in the form of “dialogues” or “conversations” have appeared in course book lessons for decades. The earliest dialogues were written to show students examples of “grammar in context,” but because such conversations simply “hammered” the grammar, they had an inauthentic feel that didn’t represent anything real people would ever say. Following is an extreme case, though not an unusual one:

Roy:     What are we going to do for our class field trip?
Jim:      When is it going to be?
Roy:     It’s going to be on Saturday.
Jim:      Where are we going to go?
Roy:     The students want to go to the nature park.
Jim:      OK. And we’re going to have a picnic. What are we going to need?
Roy:     My students are going to bring the sandwiches and drinks. And what about your students?
Jim:     They’re going to bring salads and snacks.

Such conversation or dialogue texts didn’t model actual spoken language since their purpose was to display grammar. But teachers and learners know that in order to effectively learn a language, it’s essential to observe how it is really spoken. Because of that, many course books, especially those with a “communicative approach,” contain conversation texts that are somewhat more natural. However, very few function as true “Conversation Models” because they lack one or more of these key characteristics:

  • Practicality: They should be a template for an interaction that can be used to accomplish a practical or social purpose.
  • Authenticity: They should reflect natural social interactions that students can observe.
  • Memorability: They should contain chunks of unforgettable social language students can pick up, internalize, and “carry in their pockets.”
  • Adaptability: They should be easy to change and personalize, to express the speaker’s own needs, thoughts, or feelings in similar situations.

Let’s examine a conversation model that exhibits all four key features:

A:         Please help yourself.
B:         Everything looks great! But I’ll pass on the chicken.
A:         Don’t you eat chicken?
B:         Actually, no. I’m a vegetarian.
A:         I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.
B:         It’s not a problem. I’ll have something else.

  • Is it practical? (Yes. It’s a template for an essential skill: politely declining food you don’t want or can’t eat, providing a reason, and reassuring the host.)
  • Is it authentic? (Yes. It models the polite natural social interaction that really occurs at a dinner table.)
  • Is it memorable? (Yes. It’s short and contains chunks of social language students can carry in their pockets: “I’ll pass on…,” “Actually, no. …,” “It’s not a problem.”)
  • Is it adaptable? (Yes. It’s easy to personalize, by changing the food and the reason for declining.)

 Using a Conversation Model to Activate Conversational Competence

Conversation Models are an essential point of departure for activating conversation skills in class. However, since a classroom Conversation Model will never be found verbatim in the world outside of a classroom, students need the ability to change it and personalize it so it can be transferred to conversations about similar situations they are likely to encounter. It is the purpose of this article to provide a step-by-step pedagogical sequence of observation, practice, and personalization to achieve that aim.

 1. Laying the Foundation: Observation and Practice
This Conversation Model models how to discuss an accident, its causes, and its consequences:

  • “I had an accident.”
  • “How did it happen?”
  • “Well, the other driver was tailgating, and he hit my car.”
  • “Was there much damage?”
  • “No. I’ll only have to replace a taillight.”

It also models the social language for responding with concern to bad news and with relief to good news. With audio, it models appropriate stress, rhythm, and intonation for expressing concern or relief.

  • “I’m SO SORry. Are you OK?”
  • “OH, NO!”
  • “THANK GOODness.”

Additionally, it models (but doesn’t hammer) grammar: describing a past action with the past continuous and the simple past tense:

  • … was tailgating / … hit my car

Practice. After students read and listen to the Conversation Model so they become familiar with it, it is worthwhile for them to listen again and repeat it after the audio. Such repetition, though somewhat out of fashion, has enormous benefits in heightening awareness and encouraging practice of socially appropriate rhythm and intonation. Further practice of the conversation with a partner can help to ensure the internalization of the key language in the Model Conversation. For additional practice and memorability, students can change roles so each student has an opportunity to “practice both roles.”

2. Changing and Extending the Conversation

The following section demonstrates how a Conversation Activator activity can help students achieve tremendous growth in their conversational competence.

Change the Conversation Model. Once the foundation has been laid, we can provide the same Conversation Model with gaps (see just above) into which students can insert other appropriate words and phrases.

Each gap in the Conversation Activator offers students an opportunity to make a choice of what to say, using language they have previously learned. And it requires active listening, so students respond meaningfully and appropriately to what their partner says.

Let’s analyze the Conversation Activator activity line by line:

Speaker A says he or she has had an accident.

In Speaker B’s first utterance, the expression of concern should be changed from “I’m so sorry” (which was in the original Conversation Model). Some choices might be:

  • “Oh, no!
  • “How awful!”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that.”
  • “That’s terrible.”

Next, when Speaker A is asked: “Are you OK?” he or she can respond positively or negatively (for example: “Yes, I’m fine.” OR “No, actually I’m not. I broke my arm.”)

Speaker B then has to make an appropriate response, either with relief or with concern. If Speaker A responded positively, the response should be one of relief:

  • “Thank goodness.”
  • “What a relief!”
  • “That’s good.”

Conversely, if Speaker A responded negatively, the response should be one of concern.

Next, Speaker B asks: “How did it happen?”

  • Speaker A has to provide the details. Some ideas are provided by the illustrations, which all elicit sentences using the past continuous and the simple past tense.
  • Speaker B then will again respond with one of the expressions of concern.

Finally, Speaker B expresses appropriate interest in the consequences: “Was there much damage?”

Speaker A will then have to decide how to describe the damage. He or she will have to recall and recycle car part vocabulary that was previously learned, ensuring it won’t be forgotten.

Extend the Conversation. As mentioned above, this exact conversation will never occur in the student’s real life. The Conversation Model and its manipulation described above ensure that the language in it can be transferred to a discussion outside of a classroom. In a broader sense too the social language of expressing concern and relief is transferable to many conversations that have nothing to do with car accidents. And in real life this conversation wouldn’t begin and end exactly as it does here. It’s important for students to extend it to what might actually happen in an actual conversation.

In addition to helping students change the Conversation Model, the Conversation Activator provides an opportunity for students to extend the conversation they are having. They can ask more questions: about the location, about the damage, and about the driver of the other car. In extending conversation in this way, students have to recall and activate previously learned vocabulary about locations, descriptions of people, and they have to practice asking and answering questions.

Support for maximum productivity can come from a teacher’s demonstration with a stronger student or from video, which is a powerful tool for providing a dramatic example of what students can do. For a demonstration of a simple personalization and an extended personalization of this Conversation Activator, click on the link to see such a video.

Change roles. When students have completed their Conversation Activator activity once, they should change roles and change the conversation in other ways, increasing its memorability and ensuring that both students have a chance to make their own “choices.”

Change partners. Finally, in order to maximize opportunities for classroom practice, students should change partners. In doing that, they will create more new conversations in which they can change and add other details, recalling and using language they know.

The Conversation Activator multiplies the exposure and practice of the Conversation Model, creating four new student-created conversations out of the original one.


We believe that Conversation Models that exhibit the four key characteristics outlined above are essential for laying the foundation of authentic practical and authentic language and for furnishing students with a rigorous practice vehicle to activate conversational competence. We hope the teaching sequence suggested in this short article is a pathway to success.

About the Top Notch Authors

Joan Saslow, co-author with Allen Ascher of Top Notch and Summit, is also author or co-author of a number of other widely used multi-level courses for teens, young adults, and adults, some of which are Ready to Go, Workplace Plus, Literacy Plus, and English in Context: Reading Comprehension for Science and Technology. She has taught in the United States and South America and participates in the English Language Specialist Program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Allen Ascher has been a teacher and teacher trainer in China and the U.S., as well as academic director of the intensive English language program at Hunter College. As a publisher, he was responsible for the publication of numerous well-known courses for English-learners of all ages. He is author of the “Teaching Speaking” module of Teacher Development Interactive, an online multimedia teacher-training program and Think About Editing, a writing course book. Mr. Ascher is co-author of Top Notch and Summit.

The two text excerpts in this article are from Top Notch 2, third edition © 2015

Don’t miss their presentation at International TESOL in Toronto.
Activating Conversational Competence with Top Notch, Third Edition
Presenters: Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher
Date: Friday, March 27, 2015
Time: 10:30am – 11:15am
Room: 801B, Convention Center


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