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Options With EFL Textbook Dialogs

By Bill Pellowe

A lot of conversation textbooks have model dialogs, and many of them have something like a substitution drill exercise -- each time the students do the conversation, they substitute a few items into the conversation.

You've got to wonder, though, what exactly the students are doing. Are they really processing for meaning? Take a look at it this way: if right now you stopped reading and jumped ahead to the end of this article, and then started reading it backwards...like, backwards it reading started then and...you could probably do it and perhaps even fake some natural intonation. But would you understand it?

Maybe that's not the best example, but the point I am making is this: students can read things aloud to each other without having the faintest idea of what they're saying.

So you do what you can to see that they have time and opportunity to understand it prior to practicing. Even then, though, you've got to wonder what's really going on, cognitively speaking. Is there any real processing going on that will help them retain the structure? (I mean, a year from now, who cares if they remember that Joe had a nice day on page 87. We care if they can use the same expressions to talk about their own nice days.)

The technique below has been around for a very long time. I've modified it from the first time I saw it demonstrated (Spring '90), but I'm sure there are a lot of versions of this around. I call it kuroko, after the person dressed in black in a kabuki play.

I explain it to the students with that example. The kuroko is the person you're not supposed to see -- they're just a helper on stage. No one claps for the kuroko -- they're meant to blend into the background.

OK, so here are the steps for a kuroko activity.

  1. Students go through the dialog together in pairs, etc. As usual.
  2. Now you put them in groups of three. If you end up with one group of only two, you've got two choices:
    • you join the group
    • you make some groups have four students so everyone's either in a group of three or four.
  3. In each group, one person is the kuroko. The kuroko keeps her book open, and the other two in the group close their books.
  4. The two students without books try to replicate the dialog with the help of the kuruko.
    The kuroko's task is to:
    • help the other two students by giving them short prompts, and also to
    • correct their mistakes.
    The kuroko helps any way they want to:
    • whispering the first word or two,
    • saying the word / meaning in L1 (e.g., Japanese)
    • giving hints in L2 or L1
  5. When they finish, they switch roles clockwise.
  6. Continue until everyone's had a chance to be the kuroko.

Now, it's my opinion that the person learning the most here is the kuroko. They hear the mistakes of the others -- perhaps the very same mistakes they would have made -- and they also see the written text, and it's their job to offer corrections.

My students like this technique. Your mileage may vary.