Improving intermediate (CEFR B1) learners’ ability to tell anecdotes using a planning and rehearsal approach

If you're doing Delta Module Two, have a look at the following  example of a background essay written for a Language Skills (Speaking) Assignment by one of our June 2015 candidates, Jane Sabey, and focusing on developing fluency. And see here for an example of an essay focusing on Language Systems

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Improving intermediate (CEFR B1) learners’ ability to tell anecdotes using a planning and rehearsal approach

A. Introduction  

My interest in anecdote telling using a planning and rehearsal approach was piqued by observations made by Brown and Yule (1983), and Thornbury (2005) and the scaffolding sequences that I have seen in lessons taught by DELTA tutors. Firstly, Brown and Yule (op.cit) advocate dedicating more class time to long turns over short turns based on their claims that, even for L1 speakers, an ability to hold short turns does not automatically translate into the ability to hold a long turn successfully. Secondly, Thornbury (2005) uses an anecdote told by an L1 speaker to draw attention to the level of automaticity involved and notes that this is partly due to the telling and re-telling of the same anecdote several times.

The legitimacy of these claims appears to find confirmation in a recent episode in my B1.1 classroom. A student wanted to tell the story behind an absence; however, significant lexical input and reformulations were needed to give shape and meaning to the story. Furthermore, this reminded me of the silent planning, rehearsal and re-telling sequence witnessed in lessons taught by DELTA tutors; this sequence provides a scaffold for students and allows them to polish their story through repeat tellings.

B. Analysis

Anecdotes and storytelling

Storytelling occupies a substantial and frequent place in every day interactions (Cortazzi 1994); in an informal survey, Jones (2001) identified more than 40 instances of personal stories in his interactions with family, friends and colleagues over a 7-day period. As storytelling is such a large part of our daily lives, it makes sense that it has found its way into the English language classroom and can be used “to encourage learners’ interest, to help them develop their own voices, and to raise levels of confidence and participation.” (Cortazzi 1994:157)

Anecdotes typically involve an account of an unusual situation or event that is amusing or surprising in some way. While anecdotes may appear to be examples of monologic discourse, the listener is far from a passive observer. Anecdotes serve particular purposes in human interaction, one of which is “to elicit an emotional response” (Thornbury and Slade 2006:169). Therefore, listeners play an active and essential role in moving the anecdote forward by showing their involvement. Back channelling (the listener’s feedback) may be non-verbal, e.g. laughter, and sighs whereas typical verbal realisations include ‘mm’, ‘yeah’, ‘oh’ and similar noises. Furthermore, feedback satisfies various other functions, for example, the listener would like to show understanding or give an assessment of their interpretation of events (Gardner 1994 cited in Thornbury and Slade 2006).

It is worth noting that anecdotes do not occur in a vacuum; the context in which they occur impacts not only the lexico-syntactic choices of the speaker, but also the choice of story. An anecdote told between friends in an informal setting will certainly differ from an anecdote told during a job interview or within a lecture, as would the level and type of participation from the listeners. This assignment will limit itself to the most salient linguistic and organisational features of anecdotes occurring in informal conversation as this is the most relevant for my learners.

Organisational features

Even simple anecdotes are formally constructed. One of the most widely acknowledged models for analysing the structure of spoken narratives is that of Labov et al (Labov and Waletsky 1967; Labov 1972, 1981; Labov and Fanshel 1977 cited in Cortazzi 1994). This model established a 6-element framework; each element provides different information:

Abstract. This optional element introduces the anecdote giving the listener(s) an idea of the content.
Orientation. This gives details regarding time, place and participants.
Complication. This part covers the main event(s) and the crisis or turning point of the situation.
Evaluation. This reveals to the listener(s) the point of the story, and emphasises the teller’s reactions and feelings.
Result. This is the solution to the crisis or turning point.
Coda. This optional stage signals the end of the story and returns the listener(s) to the present.

Cortazzi (1994) notes that these elements may occur in a different sequence and even in different combinations. It is worth noting that the evaluation may not be a defined stage, rather it may be a recurrent thread that runs through the narrative (McCarthy 1991). However, the evaluation is essential and it is “the crucial part of the narrative as it shows what kind of response the teller desires” (Cortazzi 1994:160). Furthermore, Thornbury and Slade (2006) note that anecdotes generally lack a sense of resolution as the shared cultural context often makes this clear. 

Linguistic features

Anecdotes involve the recounting of a past event, therefore various past verb forms are used to shape the events of a story. Thornbury and Slade (op.cit) note that while the historic present (present tenses with reference to past time) does occur in order to inject a sense of immediacy, past verb forms occur more frequently, particularly, the past simple. The progressive aspect sets the temporal scene around the main events for which the past simple is used. While the perfect aspect in its past form in anecdotes is rare (Thornbury and Slade op.cit), it does occur in order to give temporal depth to the main events in the past simple. The anecdote from Thornbury and Salde (op.cit 92) demonstrates the interplay of past and present verb forms:

I came out I was filing the sheets and I’d done up to the 50s and I was coming out for a cigarette and I sit down, and the minute I sat down, lit up a cigarette, she looked out of the window and she can see me so I just sort of slid behind the boxes where all our papers are.
As previously stated, the purpose of anecdotes is to elicit an emotional response, and one way of achieving this is by using intensification adverbs and adjectives. This type of evaluative language allows the speaker to inject her attitude into the events or situations that she is describing, as in the example taken from Thornbury (2005:22) below:

It’s one of those ridiculously old-fashioned dishes that they make you cook in domestic science.  

However, general features of spoken English will also be present in anecdotes, for example, the use of fillers (e.g. er, ah, um etc). Such devices serve to fill pauses while the speaker, under the demands of real-time processing, formulates what she wants to say. However, the speaker may also use them to alert the listener that she has not finished speaking.

C. Issues for learners

Brown and Yule (1983) note that L1 English speakers can have difficulty in holding a long turn successfully and therefore assume that L2 speakers will also have difficulties, and would benefit from focussed practice on this skill.

Issue 1
For the most part, spoken English takes place in real time with little or no prior planning. The simultaneous strategic decisions that speakers must make regarding lexis, syntax and the overall macro-structure of the anecdote may result in a cognitive overload for CEFR B1 learners. This overload may lead to a bare skeleton of a story with little in the way of evaluation from the speaker or the listener (McCarthy 1991). My group of Italian learners, while adept communicators, often sacrifice form for meaning in communicative tasks.

Issue 2
Many anecdotes are, in fact, the fruit of several previous tellings. Multiple tellings afford the speaker the opportunity to make changes to the anecdote; over time, some details, even language choices, may be modified for dramatic effect, and yet our learners are often not given this opportunity and are expected to ‘perform’ perfectly the first time. Such expectations cause difficulties for learners from countries where English language teaching places great emphasis on grammatical accuracy and gives little opportunity for speaking practice, e.g. Korea (Swan and Smith 2001).

Issue 3
Narrative structure is not universal and therefore may be unfamiliar to students from a different narrative tradition. Zhang and Sang (1986 cited in Cortazzi 1994) identified two Chinese narrative patterns, both of which differ significantly from Western models; such differences may create difficulties for Chinese learners. 

Issue 4
CEFR B1 speakers of languages with no progressive aspect, e.g. Swedish and German (Swan and Smith 2001), may still have difficulty using the past progressive successfully. This could also include Italian speakers because while Italian does have equivalents to the progressive aspect, it has a limited usage (Swan and Smith ibid).

Issue 5
The evaluation element of the anecdote is essential and it can be expressed with intensifying adjectives and adjectives. This can cause problems for Polish learners who often use adverbs where adjectives are necessary (Swan and Smith 2001). Additionally, Polish has no linking /j/ which means that adverbs ending in –y followed by an adjective starting with a vowel would be pronounced separately, leading to an unnatural pronunciation (Swan and Smith 2001).

D. Suggestions for teaching

Unfortunately, anecdote telling activities feature sporadically in many ELT materials. For example, in the intermediate texts available to me there are only two story-telling opportunities in Cunningham and Moor (2005), and just one in Oxenden and Latham-Koenig (1999). Furthermore, they often appear at the end of a language-focused cycle as an afterthought with the purpose of providing free practice with no real scaffolding.

However, my students’ current coursebook Speakout Intermediate (Clare and Wilson 2011) provides a number of anecdote telling activities with the following format: i) a listening text with detailed comprehension questions; ii) an exercise on key phrases from the text; iii) students make notes on their anecdote using some of the key phrases before telling their partners (Appendix 1). As the materials show, the main aim is for students to use the target structures of ex C while telling their story.

The coursebook materials could quite easily resolve some of the learner issues detailed above, for example, ex A provides a narrative model (issue 3), while ex C provides a narrative framework with input on verb form usage (issue 4) for learners.  Sticking with the coursebook format, as an alternative to the recorded anecdote, the teacher could tell an anecdote as the basis for a dictogloss. The students compare their version of the reconstructed anecdote with the original; this could be used to raise students’ awareness of different points, including the use of intensifying adjectives and adverbs (issue 5); the use of the past progressive as a context-setting device (issue 4); and the structure of anecdotes (issue 3).

Yet it is my view that this format does not reflect what we actually do when we tell anecdotes and stories in our L1 and that this can only be achieved by using the coursebook materials with a planning and rehearsal approach.

While Clare and Wilson’s (2011) format incorporates planning time which is an integral part of the approach, it is in the form of written notes. In my experience, given adequate time and the possibility of making notes, many learners fall into the trap of writing full sentences as opposed to notes and key words and which could negatively impact the success of the activity. Firstly, learners are unlikely to plan completely their anecdote which may mean that they miss essential key vocabulary and which, in turn, leads to a short and skeletal story. Secondly, learners will be tempted to read from their notes leading to loss of eye contact with the listener and unnatural intonation. And finally, spoken language often differs significantly from the written version for a variety of reasons.

Therefore, I would adapt the materials present in Appendix 1 following Swift’s (2006) sequence that emphasises planning and rehearsal:

a) Silent planning. The teacher reads out the questions in ex C until all students show signs (smiles and nods) that they have thought of a story. They then have planning time to ‘tell’ the story silently in their heads. After a few minutes of planning, the students have the opportunity to ask for lexical and structural help for ideas they were unable to express (issue 1). If a student does not ask for during this input stage, but then becomes stuck while telling the anecdote, he or she needs to wait for the next cycle of feedback and input.

Rationale. The prompt questions help to activate students’ schemata and think of their own story. In addition, giving students planning time before a task to prepare what to say and how to say it may guard against careless fluency (Skehan 1996). Planning time can lead to higher fluency with fewer pauses, a higher number and wider range of complex structures and a greater lexical variety (Foster 1996). The majority of language learners at all levels often know more lexical items and syntactical structures than they are capable of using fluently and planning time may give them the opportunity to access that knowledge (Ellis 1987 cited in Foster 1996). Moreover, as students ask for lexical and structural help in plenary, this may stimulate others to ask and be more adventurous in their output. The set-up of the silent planning is also a way of training learners how to think in English and to identify gaps in their own language.

b) First telling and feedback. As the learners tell their anecdotes in pairs, the teacher makes notes on successful and unsuccessful language use for a delayed feedback session. During this plenary session, learners may also ask for additional language to help them with language gaps that they identified during the first telling (issues 1-5).

Rationale. Once again, this trains learners to become aware of and identify gaps in their own language. Students also receive significant and focussed error correction depending on the emergent language issues that occur.

c) Repeating the anecdote and feedback. Students repeat their anecdote to a different partner integrating the error correction and language input (issues 1-5).

Rationale. A repeat telling allows students to ‘polish’ their story. In a small study, Bygate (1996) found that task repetition, like pre-planning, has a beneficial effect on performance including the level of accuracy; the variety of structures and lexical items; and greater fluency.

d) Final telling. Students change partners and either i) tell their anecdote again, or ii) tell one of the stories that a previous student told them. Once again, they integrate language input from the previous feedback stage.

Rationale. Weaker students will have the benefit of a repeat telling which will increase their confidence, whereas stronger students can challenge themselves by telling the story of a previous partner. All students have expanded their vocabulary via input and repetition. All students have been exposed receptively to new vocabulary through their partners’ stories. Stronger students who tell a partner’s story have had the opportunity to use the new lexical items productively.

Finally, it is likely that the planning and rehearsal approach is not something that the students will ‘do’ successfully the first time; in fact, they may not appreciate the value of the silent planning stage. As a follow-up, I would ask students if they have any questions about the rationale and the benefits behind this approach.  


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NB : The appendices mentioned in the text have not been included for reasons of copyright