The use of dialogues in language teaching

The dialogue as an introductory teaching technique to present English grammar and facilitate conversation:

Grammar-demonstration dialogues - aims:

Why dialogue?

Conversation-facilitation - aims

Why dialogue?

Recreational dialogues or skits.

Dialogue Presentation

(a) Set the scene: arouse interest / anticipation - mime, pictures, slides, maps, preparation of semantic area through a competition or game.

(b) Focus on meaning of exchange (global) pre-questions

(c) Familiarization with actual utterances (intensive) e.g. through dialogue reconstruction or vanishing prompts.

(d) Formal manipulation - substituting items.

Exploit useful expressions in conversation or useful syntax / morphology in grammar presentation.

Directed dialogue / Guided conversation - Lift lines from the original dialogue and prompt them.

5. Creation of new utterances and new dialogue.



A Practical Guide to the Teaching of English as a Second or Foreign Language by Wilga Rivers and Mary S. Temperley

This book dates from the 1970s, but it has some useful content on the use of dialogues as well as offering guidelines on how to construct your own dialogues.


Situational Dialogues by Michael Ockenden.

The 44 dialogues each focus on a situation and act as vehicles to permit learners to practise the formulae which are most frequently used, for example, when you are asking the way, asking for change, at a railway station, answering the phone, complaining or apologizing.

The language being presented here is a survival kit for use in situations where the phrasebook requirements are more or less predictable. There is a neat system of giving variant formulae and allowing students to take one part of the dialogue while the speaker on the audio cassette takes the other after the complete versions of the dialogues have been presented.

Michael Ockenden's successful book has been criticized (unfairly in my opinion) for

  1. the premise that language is predictable, and
  2. presenting rather contrived dialogues lacking in the redundancy of real conversation.

In defence of Situational Dialogues, I would substitute the premise that in many situations what needs to be said and how it is usually said are in fact fairly predictable.

In attempting to speak other languages, I know the extent to which it is possible to depend on rehearsed formulae without automatically being derailed by unexpected events or interventions.

I have witnessed cabin crew on an airline display commendable fluency in languages which are not there own, though in the context of a limited number of situations, which they have rehearsed. These include giving safety instructions, offering duty free goods for sale, inviting passengers to buy drinks and collecting unwanted newspapers and magazines.

Rote learning has a role to play in developing communication skills

While acknowledging that these rehearsed party-pieces are not examples of conversation, I have always encouraged learners to develop a good stock of them. They are valid phrases to have as a survival kit. Rote learning has at times been given a bad press, though actually having some useful phrases for ready recall increases learners' confidence and provides them with some content to work on if they are to have any chance of learning good English pronunciation.

Developing good phonology, intonation and stress patterns requires both rehearsal and some language to work with. One aspect of language aptitude is oral memory, which can be improved with practice. The learners with the best oral memories that I have ever encountered were Algerian school children who had learnt the whole of the Koran by rote, but were barely able to read or write.

Another way of predicting a person's language aptitude is to test their vocabulary level in their native language. In order to develop fluency in a language, the unit of currency needs to be more than a large number of individual words. It needs to extend to a good stock of useful formulae, or else the attempt to communicate will always seem like 'fumbling around for small change'.

If the somewhat contrived use of dialogue can help learners to acquire useful formulae as part of their productive vocabulary, who cares whether or not these building blocks contain the complete range of features which occur in conversational English, such as false starts, hesitations, fillers, reformulations, requests for confirmation or clarification.

There is no reason why social formulae for rote learning should not contain many of the features of spoken English such as weak, assimilated or elided forms.

Situational Dialogues can be used both in class or for independent study. However, both the book and audio-cassette are needed for this, and are now only available as used items. When learners at the intermediate level have asked me what they can do to improve their speaking or oral fluency, I have had little hesitation in recommending Michael Ockenden's clever package, which certainly has withstood the test of time - about four decades.

EXAM TITLE: Learning a dialogue by heart is never more than the first stage of a language learning activity for it is only when active use of what has been learnt by heart takes place that it can be said that language has been acquired.

In what cases would you argue that the mere learning by heart of a dialogue is a justifiable end in itself and how do you arrange the active use of what has been learnt when using dialogues in other situations?

Rote learning has never been thought of as a justifiable end in itself. Every teacher who uses it has some other expedient. The student who is never required to memorize will be severely handicapped when it comes to combining new information with old.

ESSAY TITLE: Write two short dialogues - one for an elementary class and one for an advanced class. For each dialogue produce a lesson plan stating:
1. What you would teach before presenting the dialogue, if anything.
2. The detailed method of presenting and practising the dialogue with the class.
3. Methods of exploiting the dialogue.
4. Any potential follow-up.