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  • A couple sat on a sofa one with a laptop the other with a book; they are both laughing
    • Linguistics and culture

    How English conversation works

    By Pearson Languages

    English language teachers everywhere spend time and energy helping students practice their conversation skills. Some may ask whether conversation in English can actually be taught. And – if it can – what the rules might be.

    To explore these questions, we spoke to world-renowned linguist David Crystal. He is an Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Bangor and has written more than 120 books on the subject.

    What makes a good conversation?

    “It’s very important that we put this everyday use of language under the microscope,” he says. He highlights three critical facets of conservation that we should bring into focus:

    • Fluency
    • Intelligibility
    • Appropriateness

    But all in all, he says that people should walk away from a conversation feeling like they’ve had a good chat.

    “For the most part, people want that kind of mutual respect, mutual opportunity, and have some sort of shared topic about which they feel comfortable – and these are the basics I think.”

    The rules of conversation

    There are plenty of ways you can teach learners to engage in a successful conversation – including how to speak informally, use intonation, and provide feedback. So let’s take a look at some of the key areas to focus on:

    1) Appropriateness

    Fluency and intelligibility are commonly covered in English language classes. But appropriateness can be more complicated to teach. When preparing to teach conversational appropriateness, we can look at it through two different lenses: subject matter and style:

    2) Subject matter

    “What subject matter is appropriate to use to get a conversation off the ground? There are cultural differences here,” he says. The weather is often a good icebreaker, since everyone is affected by it. The key is to find a common topic that all participants can understand and engage with.

    3) Style

    Teachers can also teach students about conversational style, focusing on how to make conversations more relaxed in English.

    There are “several areas of vocabulary and grammar – and pronunciation too, intonation for example – as well as body language, in which the informality of a conversation is expressed through quite traditional means,” says David. One example he offers is teaching students how to use contracted verb forms.

    4) Simultaneous feedback

    This is what makes a conversation tick. When we talk with someone, we let them know we’re listening by giving them feedback. We say things like “really” or “huh” and use body language like facial expressions and gestures.

    Of course, these feedback noises and expressions can be taught. But they won’t necessarily be new to students. English learners do the same when speaking their own language, anyway.

    Keep in mind though, that when it comes to speaking online on video conferencing platforms, it’s not easy to give this type of simultaneous feedback. People’s microphones might be on mute or there might be a delay, which makes reacting in conversations awkward. So, says David, this means online conversations become much more like monologues.

    5) Uptalk and accents

    Uptalk is when a person declares something in a sentence, but raises their intonation at the end. For English learners, it might sound like someone is asking a question.

    Here’s an example:

    • “I live in Holyhead” said in a flat tone – this is a statement.
    • “I live in Holyhead” said using uptalk – you are stating you live here, but recognize that someone else might not know where it is.

    Now, should teachers teach uptalk? David says yes. For one, it’s fashionable to speak this way – and it can be confusing for English learners if they don’t understand why it’s being used in a conversation.

    “The other thing is that we are dealing here with a genuine change in the language. One of the biggest problems for all language teachers is to keep up to date with language changes. And language change can be very fast and is at the moment,” he says.

    When it comes to accents, David is a fan. “It’s like being in a garden of flowers. Enjoy all the linguistic flowers,” he says, “That’s the beauty of language, its diversity”.

  • An overhead shot of a three children with notepads, tablets and phones on the table being handled by them
    • Language teaching

    How to encourage your teenage students to become independent learners

    By Pearson Languages

    Learning is a lifelong activity regardless of age, position, or ambition. Many teachers embody this philosophy themselves – and would like nothing more than for their teenage students to develop strategies to become independent learners.

    But teachers often feel frustrated when their students rely on them too much or show a lack of motivation and focus in the classroom.

    Let’s look at how to start a project that holds your students’ attention. We’ll also go into how you can help your students practice and develop a range of English language skills at the same time.

    The benefits of starting a project that interests your students

    Group projects are motivating because they give students a common objective to work towards. The need to work as part of a team teaches teens collaboration skills, such as accountability. When learners decide on roles within their groups it soon becomes apparent just how important it is for them to be responsible and do their part.

    Project work also often encourages students to push themselves beyond their comfort zones as they try and test new skills. This is often true when learners are required to present on a topic or learn how to do something practical (like using PowerPoint or Google Slides for presentation design).
    In addition, projects can test a variety of English language and 21st century skills such as:

    • critical thinking skills (for planning and development of ideas)
    • topic/subject-specific vocabulary
    • reading and listening comprehension (for researching)
    • speaking skills (for group work)
    • creative skills (for project development and production)
    • presenting skills (for the final delivery of the project)

    Furthermore, when projects take place over several classes, students often eventually get into a routine and seek less direction from the teacher. They know what needs to be done and get on with it in their groups. Of course, you will still need to monitor and offer guidance throughout the project.

    The key elements of an independent learning project

    Find a meaningful subject matter

    First, you’ll need to start with a topic that engages your students. To discover this, put students in groups (online in breakout rooms or in the classroom) and have them work together and mind map some local, national or global problems they would like to solve. For example:

    • The local theater has closed down and they want to set up a new drama club.
    • There is a lot of pollution in the capital city and they want to help reduce it.
    • The rainforest is being deforested and they want to create awareness.

    After they have a good-sized list, instruct each group to pick something they would like to learn more about. Alternatively, if your students are unlikely to find interesting problems to solve themselves, provide them with several short-level-appropriate reading materials about topics you think will catch their attention. That way they can learn about local or international issues and choose a project focus.

    Balancing guidance and instruction

    A vital goal of this project-based approach is to encourage students to be independent. That does not mean they should have no boundaries or objectives, however.

    You’ll need to set deadlines, tell them what you expect of them, and explain how they should present their projects at the end. And depending on their levels, your students will also need a certain amount of scaffolding. You can do this using a set of questions. For example:

    1. What is the main problem you want to solve?
    2. Who does it affect?
    3. Why is it important to change?
    4. What steps could you take to solve the issue?
    5. Who could help you do this?
    6. How could we do this as a group?
    7. How can we present the issue to make people care about it?

    These questions can form the basis of the project, which can last from one to several weeks, depending on their age, level and time restraints. Adapt the questions to suit your students and the specific needs of their projects.

    Facilitating teamwork

    Encourage students to work together to plan, research and present their ideas. Set days or classes by which certain project elements must be completed. This helps ensure that the students make progress and encourages them to ask you questions if they are stuck.

    Decide whether you want to give set times during your classes to work on the project, or whether you want to dedicate entire classes to their work. Also, think about how much work should be completed in your student's own time. Their workload, level of English, and access to technology will all impact your decision.

    For example:

    • Class one: Define the problem you want to solve. Consider what you need to find out, decide on individual roles and develop an action plan. Show the teacher your progress.
    • Class two: Research your project questions and share what you find with the group. Is there anything else you need to know? Show the teacher your progress.
    • Class three: Come up with a presentation outline and begin to work on it.
    • Homework: Each work on your individual presentation section.
    • Class four: Show the teacher your progress. Practice your presentations.
    • Class five: Practice and then deliver your presentations.

    You may wish to allow students the freedom to choose how they would like to present it. Give instructions on how long you expect the presentation to be. If working remotely, collaboration tools such as Google Docs, Padlet and Trello are excellent for facilitating teamwork.

    Here are some ways you might ask them to present:

    • a poster and presentation
    • an online presentation (e.g. using PowerPoint)
    • a website (on paper or online)
    • a video presentation
    • a theatrical production
    • a podcast episode.

    Keep in mind that the objective is to help them research, present and deliver a project in English. Check in regularly on progress and provide feedback and help whenever needed.

    While it’s important to monitor and guide them with the English language as they work, it’s also crucial to let students make decisions for themselves.

  • A group of young people sat at a table drinking and eating
    • Linguistics and culture

    How the English language has changed over the decades

    By Pearson Languages

    All languages change over time, and there can be many different reasons for this. The English language is no different – but why has it changed over the decades?

    Some of the main influences on the evolution of languages include:

    • the movement of people across countries and continents, for example, migration and, in previous centuries, colonization. For example, English speakers today would probably be comfortable using the Spanish word 'loco' to describe someone who is 'crazy'.
    • speakers of one language coming into contact with those who speak a different one. No two individuals speak identically: people from different geographical places clearly speak differently and even within the same community there are variations according to a speaker’s age, gender, ethnicity and social and educational background. For example, the word 'courting' has become 'dating'.
    • new vocabulary required for inventions such as transport, domestic appliances and industrial equipment, or for sporting, entertainment, cultural and leisure reasons. For example, the original late 19th century term 'wireless' has become today’s 'radio'.

    Due to these influences, a language always embraces new words, expressions and pronunciations as people come across new words and phrases in their day-to-day lives and integrate them into their own speech.

    What changes has the English language seen?

    As the English language has changed, it’s been easy to pick out words that pass into common usage. Here at Pearson English, we have explored some of these recent changes to the English language. The rise in popularity of internet slang has seen phrases such as 'LOL' (Laugh Out Loud), 'FOMO' (Fear Of Missing Out) and 'fam' (an abbreviated form of family) become firmly embedded in the English language over the past ten years.

    Every decade sees new slang terms like these appearing in the English language. And while some words or abbreviations do come from internet or text conversations, others may appear as entirely new words, a new meaning for an existing word, or a word that becomes more generalized than its former meaning, brought about by any one of the reasons above. Decades ago, 'blimey' was a new expression of surprise, but more recently 'woah' is the word in everyday usage.

    Sentence structure is of course, another change to the English language. Decades ago, it would have been normal to ask 'Have you a moment?' Now, you might say 'D’you have a sec?' Similarly, 'How do you do?' has become 'How’s it going?' Not only have the sentences been abbreviated, but new words have been introduced to everyday questions.

    Connected to this is the replacement of certain words with other, more modern versions. It’s pretty noticeable that words like 'shall' and 'ought' are on the way out, but 'will', 'should' and 'can' are doing just fine.

    Other changes can be more subtle. Many verbs can take a compliment with another verb in either the '-ing' form or the 'to' form, for example, 'they liked painting/to paint', 'we tried leaving/to leave', or 'he didn’t bother calling/to call'. Both of these constructions are still used and have been for a long time, but there has been a steady shift over time from the 'to' to the '-ing' compliment.

    What do the changes mean?

    There are many other changes to the English language – what have you noticed? Have these changes affected your teaching or learning methods? 

    Most contemporary linguistic commentators accept that change in language, like change in society, is inevitable. Some think that is regrettable, but others recognize it as a reinvigoration of a language, bringing alternatives that allow subtle differences of expression.

    Linguist, writer and lecturer David Crystal considers whether 'text speak' is undermining the English language. His response to the naysayers who claim it is damaging the English language is to point out that abbreviations have been around for a long time. While some, such as the ones we discussed above, are new, others, such as the use of 'u' for 'you' and the number 8 as a syllable in 'later', have been around for a century or more. Further to this, research shows that there is a correlation between the ability to use abbreviations and the ability to spell. After all, in order to abbreviate, you have to know which letters to abbreviate.

    As with everything, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing and, as the needs of English language users continue to change, so will the language.

    Fancy learning more about English? Check out our post 'How do English phrases travel across countries?'.

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