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Using Learners' Writing for Oral Information-Gap Activities
by Helen Basturkmen


One of the principal tenets of the communicative approach to language teaching is that the learners are involved in actual interaction in the classroom. This interaction must be meaningful and involve an authentic use of language. To these ends, a range of activity types have come to be employed, such as problem-solving, roleplaying, and information-gap activities.




Rationale of information-gap activities


Many of the oral-exchange activities preceding the communicative era were mechanical in nature. This fault stemmed from the fact that both students in the pair or all students in the group had access to the same information. When the teacher asked the students to transfer this information, they went through the motions of oral interaction but could not, in fact, be said to be really interacting since they lacked anything to exchange and therefore had no reason to interact.


To remedy this fault, teachers have come to use information-gap activities more and more for oral-exchange work, seeing them as both a valuable aid in setting up a need for learners to communicate and also as a way of ensuring that the transfer is meaningful. In practice, this is, generally speaking, what the teacher does:


  • Supplies information to one student or group but withholds it from the other, thus creating a gap in the information.
  • Gives the pair or group a task that can be completed only through the students pooling or sharing their separate information, and so creating an impetus to close the gap.


The types of oral information-gap activities include partial texts; incomplete plans and diagrams; jigsaw stories with each student in the pair/group seeing, reading, or hearing a different part; and gapped information grids such as the ones shown in Figure 1 . Having given out the incomplete material, the teacher requires the students to complete it by asking each other questions and/or relating their own information.




Limitations


Not truly representative of communication. The standard types of ready-made and teacher-prepared information-gap activities are useful in enabling the learners to practise meaningful oral exchanges. However, these exchanges are not really communication. Communication implies not only the transfer of information but also a purpose for the interaction. "Communicative purposes may be of many different kinds. What is essential in all of them is that at least two parties are involved in an interaction or transaction of some kind where one party has an intention and the other party expands or reacts to the intention" (Syllabuses for Primary Schools 1981:5).


In the usual activity types it is the teacher who has the intention; the learners have the intention superimposed on them. In trying to get the students to interact, teachers have forgotten or ignored the fact that in the real world speakers shape their own conversations: it is the participants who are in control and who try to fulfill their own aims. In authentic communication it is the speakers who decide where and when to give or withhold information. Just as it is undesirable for us as teachers to attempt to put the exact words into learners mouths (except in the initial, presentation-of-new-language stages of a lesson), so too, it is unsuitable to try and take the words out by pre-gapping texts and information grids.


Lack of involvement. A problem that often arises during the course of standard information-gap activities is that the students carry out the tasks in an egocentric way, giving and extracting information but not expanding on the information or reacting to it. Hutchinson and Klepac commented on this problem (1982:135):


As givers of information they take little or no account of the needs or background knowledge of the audience; as receivers they hear but do not listen. Consequently, the amount of communication is minimal.


This lack of real involvement in the activity stems from the fact that the students have not participated in its creation and have no reason to be talking about this subject with their partner or group other than that the teacher told them to.


How authentic? Another drawback of these activities is that they tend to be unrealistic and require the students to take on unnatural roles and/or the teacher to contrive materials that hardly exist in the real world. For example, why would there be two incomplete town maps of the same place? How often does one person hear the words of a video clip but not see the picture while the other person sees the picture but doesn't hear the words? Why would Student A know some basic facts about Boston, San Francisco, and Houston (contents of Information Grid A) but not all of the facts about just one of them? Many of these activities, moreover, require the students to take on social roles they are unlikely ever to have in the real world.




Using learners writing


If we want a more natural type of interaction in the classroom, we must move towards activities that are learner-based and that relate to aspects of the learners own lives, expectations, perceptions, and social roles, and which are also learner-directed in that the learners themselves largely control the ways in which the interaction progresses. The teacher can step aside and allow the students a greater role in controlling the content and flow of the exchange.


Using the students own writings for information-gap activities is one way that we can achieve a more learner-centered activity that is less artificial than ready-made and teacher-prepared ones and, in addition, gives the students an extra incentive for their writing. I suggest that whenever we ask the students to write on a subject related to themselves, even if it is only one or two paragraphs, this written work then be used as a basis for an oral information-gap activity.


Here is an example of how students writing can be used for oral information-gap activities. It is suitable for a class at the low- intermediate level.




Application


STAGE ONE: Setting the written work. The class lesson is based on a unit from the course book and deals with the description of geographical locations, place types such as city, town, resort, etc., and attributes of places and facilities. Following the lesson, the teacher asks the students to each write a three-paragraph essay about their home town. The teacher or students suggest three topics, one for each paragraph:


  • geographical location mountains, rivers, and nearby towns
  • type of place, population, and facilities
  • how they feel about it and why


The teacher tells the students that their work will be read by other students and will be the basis for oral work.


STAGE TWO: Writing. The students write, going through the usual procedures of planning, rough drafting, etc. When finished, they hand their work in to the teacher, who corrects it. The written work is then handed back to the students, who rewrite it in light of the teacher's corrections or comments.


STAGE THREE: Deleting. The teacher asks the students to write out another copy, leaving blanks in the information and/or omitting some information altogether. It is important to tell the students that these deletions will be used by their partners as prompts for asking questions, and also that the writers must check carefully that they themselves can form the questions and that enough of the text is left to be a logical basis for the following pair/group work.


EXAMPLE OF BLANK


written : The population of my home town is . . . .


anticipated question : What is the population?


EXAMPLE OF OMITTED INFORMATION


written : I like my home town in summer. There are discos, and tourists come for holidays. I don't like it in winter. All my family live there.


anticipated question : Why don't you like it in winter?


STAGE FOUR: Reading by partner or group members. The writer's partner or group members read the blanked copy and plan the questions to be asked to complete the text. The students can also be encouraged to ask any other questions related to the subject but perhaps not covered in the writing, such as "Do you want to live there in the future?" or to make comments, e.g., "It sounds boring."


STAGE FIVE: Oral activity. The writer answers the questions and responds to any comments. The writer does not need to refer to his written text during the activity, as he already knows the information. When the oral activity is over, the writer shows the complete text to his partner(s) and they check to see whether they have recorded the same information.




Advantages of using the students' writing


It is authentic. The students will almost inevitably need to talk in the future about themselves, whereas many ready-made or teacher- prepared materials are largely irrelevant to the students on a personal level. Since the information relates to the students personally, the oral exchange is fuller, and the students expand on the subject or even digress from it, which rarely happens when the information is given to them from outside.


It is motivating. The students have a stronger desire to interact, as they are generally interested in their fellow students. They are more likely to listen and respond to information about each other and written by each other than they are when just hearing and recording extraneous information.


It is creative. Through devising their own texts with gaps and missing information, the students have a more productive role in the activity. It is they who make the decisions and anticipate outcomes. There is plenty of scope for the students initiative.


It develops writing skills. In doing this kind of writing, the students have an audience that gives them additional impetus for writing well. The need for an audience has been pointed out by Widdowson (1983:44):


The student should know who he is addressing. . . . Production of text for its own sake is not writing as a communicative activity but simply an exercise in linguistic composition.


Furthermore, it requires the students to consider how what they write is likely to be understood, to shift roles when writing and anticipate the reactions of the reader. It is, thus, instrumental in developing writing skills.




Conclusion


Information-gap activities have an important place in the language classroom. They stimulate learners to manipulate their foreign-language skills and linguistic knowledge to the full in order to close the gap. However, these activities have often produced stilted interactions lacking in spontaneity and interest. Yet, by adapting these activities the benefits can be extended. By writing the material themselves, the learners have a greater and more involving part to play, and they become task participants rather than task performers. Not only does this result in a more satisfying role for the learners; it also furthers the aim of promoting authentic language use in the classroom.




REFERENCES


  • Harmer, J. H. 1983. The practice of English language teaching. London: Longman.
  • Hutchinson, T. and M. Klepac . 1982. The communicative approach: A question of materials or attitudes? System, 10, 2, pp. 135 43.
  • Littlewood, W. 1981. Communicative language teaching: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richards, J. C. and S. Rogers. 1986. Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Syllabuses for primary schools. 1981. Hong Kong: Curriculum Development Committee.
  • Widdowson, H. G. 1983. New starts and different kinds of failure. In Learning to write: First language/second language, ed. A. Freedman, I. Pringle and J. Yalden. London: Longman.




Helen Basturkmen is a lecturer at the Faculty of Letters of Bilkent University.
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