“It’s My Turn!” Developing Students’ Oral Turn-Taking Skills
Oct 2, 2011 Speaking/Listening 3950 Views
It seems to be a common problem that many students, having reached the so-called ‘intermediate plateau’ (Richards 2008), have genuine difficulty in taking longer turns in conversation. I have noticed this to be the case with many of my intermediate-level business English students in Germany and have heard similar reports from colleagues on the subject. I also teach advanced business degree students at university, these learners don’t have any trouble taking the floor for extended periods. So how do learners of a foreign language make this transition? I am sure that it is not my intermediate level students’ lack of vocabulary or knowledge of structure which is to blame for their difficulty in taking longer turns, but rather their lack of the associated skills required to talk at length. This article investigates the nature of these skills and considers the problems students may have in acquiring them. I will then go on to examine possible practical solutions in the classroom.
1. Turn Taking
1.1 What is turn taking?
During normal oral discourse the participants naturally take it in turns to contribute to the dialogue. Each turn latches naturally to the proceeding one with apparently effortless precision. In fact only about 5% of turns overlap and there is normally some kind of contextual justification for this, for example impatience on the part of the overlapper.
Basically, speakers are very much aware of when to enter and when to leave the dialogue. Speakers use signalling in order to indicate when they want to take a turn or when they are coming to the end of their turn. The turn taking mechanisms used can be linguistic, intonational or physical.
1.2 What is a longer turn?
For the purpose of definition and limitation, my study will be concerned with turns of between 1 and 5 minutes.
1.3 In which oral genres is longer turn taking needed?
Longer turns are necessary in the following speaking genres.
While this list is not exhaustive, it covers some of the most common uses of longer turns.
2. The processes involved in longer turns
2.1 Turn taking signalling
There are two types of signalling directly concerned with taking longer turns. Participants in a conversation use a technique called pre-sequencing in order to prepare the ground for the type of turn they want to take. Here are some examples of pre-sequencing for longer turns.
i. ‘Did you hear the one about the monkey and the pool ball?’
(Telling a joke.)
ii. ‘Have you used this kind of machine before?’
iii. You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.’
(Telling a story or anecdote)
By using these pre-sequences, the speaker clearly signals that he is ready to take a longer turn. These utterances serve a dual purpose; firstly to defend the speaker against refusal of the turn and secondly to avoid wasting time by determining whether to continue. To illustrate, if the reply to the second example above was ‘Yes, loads of times.’ Then the long turn is not needed.
The second important turn-taking mechanism is for a speaker who is taking a longer turn to signal when the turn is about to finish. This is necessary so that listeners know that they will be able to contribute without it being taken as an interruption. Signals of this kind could be a short pause, particular types of laughter or some filler words such as ‘anyway’ or ‘so’.
2.2 Information structuring in oral discourse
Generally speaking, the information in discourse can be divided into what the receiver already knows and what he or she doesn’t know, In other words new or given information. What is new information at one stage of the discourse becomes given information thereafter precisely because it has already been mentioned. Typically clauses or sentences can be divided into two parts, that is one containing new information and one containing given.
The speaker must accurately judge what is new and given for his audience. If new incorrectly judges given to be new then he will be boring and if he judges new to be given he will be incomprehensible.
2.3 Thought organisation
When taking a longer turn, it is necessary for the speaker to structure his thoughts in a clear and coherent manner. Although a speaker may be very competent at this when speaking in L1, when a speaker uses L2 other factors can come into play, which can interfere with thought structuring. For example, I know from my own experience of speaking German that I am so preoccupied with formulating the language that I often have difficulty in structuring my ideas in a logical manner. Points and arguments can seem disjointed as a result.
Taking longer turns requires coherence. This is the ability to link utterances to previous and subsequent ones.
Whereas grammatical rules describe the formal links within sentences, cohesive devices are formal links across sentences and they are used to provide unity across a stretch of discourse. There are a number of different ways of doing this, which I will outline briefly below.
2.41 Verb form
The use of a particular verb form in a sentence automatically limits the choice of verb form in the next.
e.g. First put the paper in the feeder and then press the print button.
Here the imperative form of the first verb ‘put’ means dictates the form of the next verb ‘press’.
Speakers need to ensure consistency in verb forms across sentences in order to communicate effectively.
Parallelism suggests connection across sentences by way of repetition of a sentence structure.
e.g. She was the loving wife of Bill. She was the adoring mother of Betty and Carol. She was the caring daughter of Dave and Tanya.
In this example, the structure: She was the X-ing Y of Z is repeated. This effect can be used to give a powerful emotional effect in speeches and to help the listener remember what was said.
2.43 Referring Expressions
These are words whose meaning can be inferred because of things already mentioned or the context of the discourse. Third person pronouns are normally used as well as ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘here’, and ‘there’. Anaphora is the term given to the practice of giving the definition of something at the start of an extended piece of discourse and thereafter referring to he/she or it as he/she or it. That is actually an example!
Referring expressions create chains of words running through the text.
e.g. Me and Mrs. Jones... we... we... we... we...
2.44 Elegant repetition
This is a form of repetition were synonymous words or more general terms are used.
e.g. motorbike....... motorcycle........ machine....... bike.........
Generally the pattern is to go from specific to general.
This is where ‘do’ and ‘so’ are used to replace words or phrases that have already been used in the discourse.
e.g. I had to find a way of getting back to Brighton, and I only had 2 hours to do so.
Here ‘do so’ is used instead of saying ‘get back to Brighton’.
This is where part of a sentence is omitted on the assumption that an earlier utterance or the context will make the meaning clear.
These very useful words draw attention explicitly to the kind of relationship that exists between two sentences or clauses. Below is a table outlining some of the most common functions of conjunctions with examples.
It is apparent that a repertoire of conjunctive devises would be of great assistance to taking longer turns.
2.5 Hesitation devices and fillers to ‘buy thinking time’
When taking a longer turn, students need time to plan and organise their message while they are speaking. Devices like fillers can be used to gain time to speak. Very fluent students may not use these devices often and may find them of limited usefulness. However, for less fluent speakers of English, time-creating devices provide a valuable speaking strategy.
Intermediate students sometimes give the impression that they can produce only minimal responses because they use long pauses to gain time to think when speaking spontaneously. These pauses, often misinterpreted as the end of a turn in speaking, prevent them from holding the floor and cause them to lose the chance to go on speaking. The resultant impression is that the students are incompetent speakers who fail to contribute as much as is desirable to class discussion or spontaneous conversation.
Time creating devices can help these students because If they know how to signal that they are planning their speech and have not finished their turn, this will enable them to speak more, and more effectively.
Examples of fillers for buying time include:
2.6 Preventing interruptions
There are a variety of strategies that can be used by the speaker to avoid being interrupted. Here are some examples.
‘There are three points I’d like to make…’
(The speaker cannot be interrupted until she has made all three points.)
(The speaker cannot be interrupted until he has spoken two clauses.)
‘And another thing…’
(The speaker cannot be interrupted until you have added a sentence.)
Pausing in the middle of a sentence, not between sentences.
(The speaker cannot be interrupted until she completed her sentence.)
3. Problems for Intermediate Students in acquiring these skills
3.1 Too many sub skills
As can be seen from the proceeding part of this assignment, there are many skills that need to be acquired by students in order to improve their longer turn-taking ability. The fact that there is such a wide range of skills here could be a problem in the classroom. If the teacher decided to focus on all these elements then there is a danger that students will become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information.
3.2 Speaker confidence
Another problem for learners could also be a lack of confidence in their own ability. This can often cause students to be reluctant to take the floor for longer periods. This is especially the case for students concerned with not making mistakes. I have very unpleasant memories of trying to conduct communicative activities with groups of Japanese businessman, with very disappointing results. The problem was that none of the learners wanted to lose face in front of colleagues by making mistakes. Under these circumstances it was very difficult to encourage the learners into taking extended turns.
The teacher’s approach to correction, particularly during freer activities can affect the student’s confidence and willingness to taker longer turns. If a teacher insists on accuracy during these parts of lessons then he is not only violating normal turn-taking etiquette but also undermining the students’ confidence.
4. Possible Solutions
4.1 Prioritise skill acquisition
The range of sub skills that can improve turn taking is indeed very diverse. The best way to approach the teaching of these skills is to assess each one in terms of:
i. How much a sub skill can improve the speakers ability
ii. How easy a sub skill is to learn
In terms of these 2 criteria, I think the best focus would be on turn-taking signalling, hesitation devices and preventing interruptions, the latter two being very particularly effective in improving performance.
4.2 Confidence Building techniques
In order to build student confidence in oral ability, the teacher can implement various confidence-building strategies into her teaching. Techniques such as including plenty of oral practice in class, praising student contribution and responding to content rather than form can all greatly contribute to an atmosphere in the classroom which is conducive to taking longer turns.
4.3 Appropriate correction
The teacher should correct when it is helpful and constructive to do so. i.e. when the emphasis in class is to focus on form. When the aim behind an activity is to encourage fluency then the successful communication is the key. In general, where the objective is to encourage longer turn taking then correction of form can only hinder.
Harmer, J. (2002). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman, London.
Harmer, J. (2008) How to Teach English. Longman, London.
Richards, J.C (2008). Moving beyond the Plateau. CUP, Cambridge.