How Does Just Chatting Become a Purposeful Conversation? (Candy van Olst)

David Dodgson's picture

“That’s just chatting!” is a common and dismissive response to the idea of teaching unplugged, and one that prompted Candy van Olst to investigate the value of conversations as a way to learn.

Candy began the session by telling us about where her own language has come from. She talked of ‘better others’, such as parents, teachers and colleagues who have shaped the words she uses. This is very much rooted in the ideas of Vygotsky and Krashen and their ideas of negotiated meaning and co-constructed understanding. They emphasise the need to talk, reflect, theorise and reformulate in order to gain competence. However, these are things that take time, something we often don’t get. Instead, we get what Candy amusingly termed ‘microwave thinking’ – a process that tries to be over as quickly as possible.

This is in part down to the hectic pace of modern life and in part down to the nature of modern technology. We are, in Candy’s opinion, becoming accustomed to quick chats, often asynchronous and lacking any measure of depth or meaningful interaction.

But there is one place where deeper conversation can still take place (or at least should still take place) – the classroom. While in class, we can drop the pace and step away from the world of instant notifications, shared links, and inane YouTube comments. However, this often does not happen. Why? Because the language learning classroom all too often becomes a place dominated by controlled practice, gap-fill activities, and pair work ‘speaking’ activities that rarely go beyond a simply functional performance of language.

Candy gave the example of ‘The Environment’ as a class topic. There was a slight groan from the audience as there often is from our students. But why so? The environment is after all a hugely important topic and something that everyone has a stake in.  Perhaps something is wrong in our approach. What is objected to is the idea of a unit presenting vocabulary about different climates and natural disasters, followed by a reading about plastic gathering in the world’s oceans and a ‘discussion’ about recycling, rather than the topic itself.

So, what do learners want in class? This is the idea Candy explored next. Basically, they want to speak… but what does that actually mean? What do they really want? They want to make themselves understood; they want to engage in discussion, they want to reach a level of high linguistic competence. This is not something we can reach by ‘brick building.’ There are no ‘pieces’ that can be put together to become competent. Instead, we must discuss, debate, think, and converse.

Candy then talked about the core skills learners need to achieve a high level of linguistic competence. They need to be able to elaborate on points and clarify their opinions. They also need to give relevant and meaningful examples to support what they say. They need to listen to their interlocutor and build on or challenge their ideas. They must be able to paraphrase, a key skill to speaking with your own voice. Finally, they need to summarise in order to show their understanding. All of this helps people take ownership of what they say –to be themselves– and adds a personal aspect to the language.

It must be remembered, however, that often even native-speakers don’t or can’t do this. They need training in such skills as do second language learners and this is what will help push them beyond a B2 intermediate level of English and become more advanced. But how?

‘Grammar!’ says Candy.

Wait? Grammar? What about conversation? Well, as Candy explained, it is all about the type of grammar. This does not mean grammar in the sense of teaching some advanced literary structure –such as inversions– just because it hasn’t been taught yet but rather encouraging our students to put their grammar knowledge to use to go beyond declarative sentences. We need to give them the confidence to use grammar that may be common but is sophisticated and complex in its use.

Relative clauses, for example, need to be mastered to help learners add more detail to what they say and avoid disjointed, choppy sentences. Subordinate clauses are needed to express change, contrast, and reason. The ability to transform statements and analyse how different grammar affects the meaning of what is being said is also vital.

But over and above all that, managing interaction is important. Students must be prepared and willing to respond to each other. How can we enable this? By teaching them to teach! We should pass on the skills we use in the classroom to get them to talk. Tell them to ask each other deep questions, request more details, and give pauses for their partners to think and articulate.

In short, conversation is much more than ‘just chatting.’ It is a complex skill that with time and training can be the gateway for our learners to learn more, think more, and do more with the language.


Thank you, David for summarising so articulately what I tried to say. I'm deeply grateful to you. 


PS - It was terrific meeting you at last!