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Vol 32 No 2, April - June 1994
Page 22

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Teaching Spoken English for Informative Purposes
by Thomas Hawes and Sarah Thomas

Teachers involved in developing spoken-language skills in ESL learners often find themselves in a paradoxical situation. There seems to be a conflict between, on the one hand, the learners perception that fluency and naturalness in spoken English are a preeminent badge of success in learning the language and, on the other, their disinclination to participate in activities designed to develop competent speaking skills. It is ironic that in the one skill area where we might expect real enthusiasm and interest, i.e., speaking skills, we face problems. This suggests a need to reexamine our practice to see how we can exploit the motivation inherent in the learners positive perceptions of the ability to speak English fluently.

Research by Brown et al. (1984) questions the assumption that native-English-speaking children naturally acquire competence in all the uses of spoken English. Native-speaker children are often unable to express themselves articulately, and they need explicit instruction in some of the spoken-language skills.

This fact points to the urgency of the ESL learner s need in this area. It is too often assumed that spoken-language skills can be developed by assigning students general topics to discuss or by getting them to give a short talk on some subject. Not enough attention is given to the factors that inhibit or encourage the production of spoken language. In order to provide guidance in developing competent spoken English, it is necessary to examine the different uses of the spoken language, which learners will have to master as fluent speakers of English.

Uses of spoken English

Halliday (1985) has identified three major functions of language: the ideational, the textual, and the interpersonal. Two of these, the ideational and interpersonal, have particular relevance to a discussion of how the spoken language is used.

Halliday describes the ideational component of language as being concerned with the expression of content. The interpersonal is concerned with the social, expressive, and conative functions language.

The Interpersonal Function. The interpersonal function of language is reflected in the kind of social talk that we participate in throughout the day in conversational exchanges with family, friends, colleagues, etc. This kind of relaxed verbal interaction is the use of language to establish and maintain social relations. The ability to use language for social purposes begins early in the language experience of native speakers, and is not explicitly taught in formal classroom situations. As Brown et al. (1984) have pointed out, such chat talk is relatively undemanding, as it is often limited to short exchanges with people one feels comfortable with, and the topic is determined by the immediate interests of the participants. In a second- or foreign-language situation, such a component may or may not be considered necessary. For example, it may be thought that learners need spoken-English skills only in specific occupational or study situations, since they use the local languages, not English, to establish and maintain social relations.

On the other hand, the goal might be to equip learners with the full repertoire of language skills needed to function with confidence in any situation. This would necessitate a carefully planned course to teach conversational skills something that has become a key component of many ESL courses. The aim of such a course is to help the students learn in English the kind of sociolinguistic rules that they are so adept at in their native language. The activities lead to the development of social- relations skills and provide opportunities for practising common social exchanges such as greetings, leave taking, introductions, complaints, congratulations, etc. Students learn the common exponents for these functions and the rules for their use in both formal and informal situations; then they practise the expressions in conversational situations in which control is reduced by stages.

The Ideational Function. Halliday s second component of language, the ideational, corresponds to a function of language quite different from its use for social relations. This is the use of language to express content and to communicate information. It is an essential aspect of most real-life situations, whether in study or in business, professional, or most other work contexts. The management and organisation of activities depends on the efficient and accurate expression and transfer of the right information in the right ways.

Where the focus is on the transfer of information rather than the maintenance of social relations, language is used to get things done, to produce a result in real-life terms. The speaker may communicate information to a listener who needs it for a particular purpose, as when giving instructions on how to operate a piece of equipment. Or the speaker may need to give information to a listener in order that the listener can respond in appropriate ways.

Where content is the focus, the emphasis will be on transferring information clearly and effectively so that it can be comprehended quickly and easily. This obviously differs from interpersonal talk, where the concern is not with communicating a message but with keeping up a relaxed and cooperative chat relationship. The language appropriate to each of these two functions will be different; they are two distinct kinds of speaking skills.

In an ESL spoken-English course it is all too easy to make the mistaken assumption that students competence can be developed by just any kind of speaking activities. If the focus of the course is on conversational skills, this will not ensure that learners will develop the ability to use language for informative purposes, which is the aspect of spoken English that students most often have difficulty with. These skills must be introduced as a component in their own right and explicitly taught.

Part of the problem for students lies in the fact that the use of English to impart information requires them to produce long exchanges of speech, which are more difficult to plan and produce than the short turns typical in conversation. The longer the turn, the more planning the speaker is required to do. Long turns used to communicate ideational content place great demands on the speaker to control the flow of complex information skillfully and efficiently according to the needs of the listener. Students may be quite competent in producing conversation, including long exchanges where the transfer of content is secondary to the establishment of an amicable, cooperative atmosphere. However, when required to impart more complex information, as in justifying a position, refuting an argument, or explaining how something works, the need to quickly plan and organise what they must say often results in an immediate drop in fluency and confidence. The spoken-English skills that most urgently need to be taught seem to be those that relate to selecting appropriate information on a subject, and then ordering and expressing it in a clearly comprehensible way.

Motivation and the need to talk

How does this need to teach skills for transferring information relate to the problem of motivation? In our attempt to develop effective instruction in spoken language, we need to address an important issue. To develop fluency, we must generate a need to speak, to make learners want to speak. The learners themselves must be convinced of the need to relate to the subject and communicate about it to others. They need to feel that they are speaking not simply because the teacher expects them to, but because there is some strong reason to do so for example, to get or provide information that is required for a purpose.

A popular approach used by teachers to encourage students to speak is to assign a topic and require them to discuss it or to come up with a short talk. Such discussions, which do not lead to any outcome apart from the talk itself, intimidate most students. This approach assumes that the students are highly articulate and able to argue and express abstract notions in rapid and comprehensible speech. Often such discussion sessions become boring and talk quickly peters out. Student participation fizzles out because they have nothing more to say and look to the teacher to supply most of the language and ideas. The underlying problem is that students have no reason to say anything more. We have to recognize that we cannot expect students to produce long turns of speech by simply giving them topics and requiring them to get on with the discussion. We must arouse in the learners a willingness and need to talk by providing them with something they feel they have a need or reason to talk about. Telling students to talk about popularly offered topics like pollution or abortion is not very helpful. This seems to require the students to create talk simply for the sake of talking for a required amount of time. Students recognize the artificiality of the activity. The resultant lack of interest and motivation can be attributed to the purposelessness of the language they are being asked to produce.

Two specific difficulties

Brown et al. (1984) point out that many of the general essay-type topics that pupils are asked to talk about are particularly difficult for inexperienced speakers to control. They see one aspect of the problem in the difficulty speakers have in assessing the background knowledge of their listeners. When speakers are required to talk about something they know about and their listeners do not, they make judgments about the uneven distribution of background knowledge their listeners have and tailor the talk so that it presents an appropriate amount of new information.

Brown et al. (1984) suggest that a second difficulty lies in the problem of constructing a reportable event out of what is felt to be a relatively unstructured experience. In apparently straightforward tasks that require speakers to talk about experiences they have undergone, e.g., talking about films they have seen or describing how to play a game, they have to abstract from that total experience some portion which can be detached and presented meaningfully on its own (Brown et al. 1984:41). This makes demands on speakers to organise the experience and abstract it into chunks that can be identified as self-contained and "tellable."

Task-based activities

Thus, learners often have tasks imposed on them that may seem on the surface to be simple and direct, but are, in reality, formidable in terms of what it takes to select appropriate information and structure it according to listeners needs and states of knowledge.

It is perhaps inadvisable to require students who are not competent in spoken English to perform such complex tasks. However, without having to abandon the traditionally popular class discussions, a possible way of stimulating more informative talk might be to provide a lot more support for the learners by introducing activities that are more structured, organised around a definite purpose or objective. There might be some advantage in placing greater focus on purposeful, task-based activities for developing competence in the use of spoken English for transactional purposes. The task-based approach has been gaining prominence in recent years, and it appears to be particularly relevant for eliciting spoken language for the transfer of information. Brown et al. (1984) describe a variety of task-based spoken-language activities. These have been categorised into:

1. Tasks that involve the speaker in describing static relationships among objects.

2. Tasks that involve dynamic relationships among people or objects, with events that change over time and space.

3. Tasks that require the speaker to communicate abstract ideas for instance, in argument or justification.

Such task-based activities are one way of encouraging the production of spoken English that learners recognize as a means to achieving an objective. It is possible to transform general discussions into different tasks with definite objectives/purposes in the form of expected outcomes resulting from the long turns of student interaction and talk/discussion. A practical example of this: Instead of a free talk or general discussion on a topic like "cigarette smoking should be banned," it might be possible to have a structured activity in which a group of students are required to organise a propaganda campaign to convince the authorities or the public that smoking ought to be banned. This is likely to be more meaningful and motivating than the traditional approach because the speaker s attention is focused on performing a real-life activity. He/she is speaking not because the teacher expects him/her to say something for a certain length of time, but for the real purpose of convincing people of the need to ban smoking.

The teacher who organises such speaking activities will be required to do careful planning and to give consideration to providing appropriate stimuli of all sorts, pictorial or textual, with suggestions and guidelines for their exploitation. This will encourage interaction in the course of interpreting and discussing the stimulus material.


In this article we have suggested that there is a serious gap in our learners ability to use spoken English effectively for communicating ideational content. This is a vital aspect of developing speaking skills, and, to a large extent, academic and job-related success will be affected by the students ability to communicate orally and transfer information accurately and effectively.

It has been shown that a number of the traditional approaches, such as free talk and general discussion, do not offer the kind of support that many nonfluent learners need to produce long turns of informative speech on a range of cognitively demanding topics. We believe that a more structured approach organised around realistic tasks that lead to specific outcomes has many advantages in eliciting extended talk. These activities require the learners to participate actively because their attention is on performing a lifelike task. The task orientation gives the student a purpose for talking and, in this way, provides the speaker with interest in and motivation for speaking.


  • Brown, G., A. Anderson, R. Shillcock and G. Yule. 1984. Teaching talk: Strategies for production and assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Byrne, D. 1976. Teaching oral English. London: Longman.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. 1985. An introduction to functional grammar. London: Arnold.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. and R. Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
  • Ur, P. 1981. Discussions that work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas Hawes is a lecturer at M.A.R.A. Penang, Malaysia. He has taught at all levels in U.K., Germany, France, Morocco, and Malaysia. His interests are discourse analysis and language and ideology.
Sarah Thomas is a lecturer at the Language Centre, Science University of Malaysia, and chairperson of language and literature courses for students and teachers. Her interests include discourse analysis and ESP.


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