Conversation Means Talking: A Case Study in Encouraging Participation in a Thai University English Conversation Class

| January 5, 2006
    IntroductionOn arrival in Thailand in November 2003 as a teacher at Dhurakijpundit University I was allocated, among other subjects, two classes of “Beginner English Conversation Skills”. At the outset I explained to my students that ‘conversation’ meant ‘talking’, and that meant them talking with each other and with me. However, it proved to be very difficult, and in some cases impossible, to get students to participate in any meaningful way. Almost no student would voluntarily answer a question generally addressed to the class. Few would attempt to answer a question directed to them. A common response would be for the student to turn to friends and talk in Thai before offering a monosyllabic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in reply to the question. Paired-students would come to speaking tests armed with a prepared written conversation, which they would then read. In short, spontaneous, ‘meaningful’ conversation was non-existent.

    I learned from Thai fellow teachers that many of the students were the product of traditional teacher-fronted schooling where the teachers did the talking and the students listened and they were simply ill-prepared for the active dialogue required of a university English class.

    The following semester I was allocated an intermediate conversation skills class, which included a large number of my previous students from the beginner class. Faced with the prospect of another four months frustration, I radically changed the syllabus evaluation system in order to experiment with an instant reward and recognition system to encourage classroom participation.

    Literature Review
    The literature abounds with reports of how widespread this problem is in Asian ESL situations.

    The underlying problem of getting Thai English learners to speak English was highlighted in a recent Suan Dusit Poll of 1,024 residents of Bangkok and adjacent areas (The Nation, 2004). Of those polled, 95 per cent said English was crucial to their careers and a further 5 per cent said English was rather important ‘for basic communication skills’, a total of 100 per cent. Despite this, 43 per cent said that in communicating with English speaking foreigners they were ‘afraid to communicate or make mistakes’ and a further 42.33 per cent admitted to a ‘lack of daily use’ as a major problem. Fear of speaking or making mistakes (31.58 per cent) and lack of personal expertise (18.52 per cent) were the major factors cited as contributing to the problem of learning English.

    Hadley (1997) and Jeffrey (2003) discuss the situation in Japan and report on a participation points system to encourage classroom communication that they trialed and implemented at several Japanese universities and colleges. They hand out tokens, poker chips or marbles to instantly recognize a student’s participation in class. These are ‘cashed I’ at the end of each class for a recorded credit towards their final assessment. The merits of this simple system are that the students get positive and instantaneous feedback, they overcome their passivity and participation becomes motivational (Jeffrey, p.1). He reports that it is one of the simplest, yet most effective, techniques that he has learned as an ESL teacher.

    The following case study was based on the models implemented by Hadley and Jeffrey. The objective was to determine if the results they reported could be replicated in the Thai cultural setting, and more particularly at a Thai private university.

    The experiment was run across two ‘Intermediate English Conversation Skills’ classes, Group 1 by a highly fluent English-speaking Thai teacher, Group 2 by me. Class numbers were 31 and 30 respectively.

    A distinctive yellow ‘Credit Certificate’ was given to each student at the start of the 30-class semester on which they could receive a ‘credit stamp’ worth half a mark for class participation. Up to three credit stamps a class were accredited to the students’ assessment, to a total of 40 per cent of the final mark. Other assessment factors were attendance (10 per cent), self-access learning in computer laboratories (10 per cent), and mid-term and final listening and speaking tests (10 per cent each). This represented a significant shift from the previous system where 80 per cent of assessment was through a series of listening and speaking tests which, based on my observations and experiences the previous semester, were highly artificial and did not represent ‘real-world’ listening or speaking skills.

    The experiment was conducted in close co-operation and consultation with the Thai teacher of the other class; monthly monitoring of the students’ accumulated scores; maintenance of diary notes; an end-of-semester student survey; and analysis of the final assessment scores.

    The new system of assessment was carefully explained to students at the first class and they were given their ‘Credit Certificates’, which they retained to give them ‘ownership’ of their own progress during the course.

    Initially I was liberal with credit stamps, both to demonstrate how the system would be put into practice and to encourage students to start speaking up. Some students were quick off the mark and started accumulating points; others were slower. In week three I explained that credit stamps were now going to be harder to earn and that students had to engage in more meaningful and complex interaction to earn points. The primary driver of conversation was the course book, Let’s Talk 3 (Jones, L. 2002). Each class we would work through a unit, playing the voice tapes and doing the individual and pair-work exercises. Simple answers comprised summarizing what they had heard on the voice tape. More complex responses were required when the students did pair-work exercises on such things as their own character trait or preferences. In such cases I would require each team member to describe the character of the partner. If students spoke in simple sentences I would elicit further responses by asking ‘why?’ or ‘because?’. In week five I introduced another mechanism to stimulate discussion and to add variety to the course book material. I asked students to come to classes with an English language newspaper article that they had read beforehand and gave them all, one by one, the opportunity to tell the class what the article was about, why it interested them, and their opinion of it. This proved to be another equalizer between the confident and the less confident students.

    By this time most of the students were actively competing to enter discussions and answer questions and it became clear that the more competent students were effectively silencing the less competent or more reticent. To counter this and to give the slower and less confident students the chance to speak up and earn credit points I introduced a system of a show of hands on who wanted to speak. In this way, I was able to wait a few seconds while slower students gathered their thoughts, and if they put up their hands I gave them their chance.

    At the end of each month I collected students’ credit certificates to check their progress and to record their accumulated scores in case they lost their certificates, which represented the proof of their progress. This also provided me with a useful tool to identify the high achievers, the middle stream, and the students who were trailing the class. In this way I was able to keep an eye on the under-performers and would give them preference to speak up if they indicated they wanted to. Credit certificates were returned to students so they could continue to monitor their progress.

    An initial problem was the architecture of the allocated classroom. It was fitted with immovable desks set in formal rows. Apart from the difficulty of stimulating authentic discussion in such an environment, it proved very difficult to move around the classroom to award credit stamps. I managed to find an alternative classroom where we re-arranged the chairs, fitted with desk flaps, into an open-ended circle. This meant that all students were facing each other and I was able to move around freely, asking questions, encouraging discussion, and awarding credit stamps.

    Another problem, which was insoluble under present circumstances, was the numbers of students in each class. While 31 and 30 students respectively in the two classes is certainly not high by many Asian standards, it is still too high in a situation where conversation and interactivity between teacher and students and students and students is the goal.

    The system of instant reward of credit stamps requires a higher level of teacher concentration, class management and physical movement around the classroom than teacher-fronted systems. The teacher has to be constantly stimulating responses,

    Category: Monthly Editions, Volume 9