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The Dynamics of Using Argumentation in the EFL Classroom

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The EFL classroom is a place where students develop communicative competence. Often, this is seen, as Cole (1970) reminds us, as "helping the learner approximate the phonetic, morphological, and syntactic patterns of the language by means of pattern practice and similar drills." But there is more. Cole explains that the more is the act of communication. One method used to help students reach this goal is to implement activities that focus on critical thinking such as argumentation. Argumentation is a valuable subskill of critical thinking, but it is one that must be nurtured carefully because, if instituted haphazardly, it has a high potential for failure due to poor classroom management. Kippel (1994) illustrates Cole's discussion model through detailed descriptions of each student grouping. In this paper we will examine Kippel's illustrations and include examples my students have encountered while using them in our classroom.

The EFL classroom is a place where students develop communicative competence. "The main emphasis," as Cole reminds us, "in much foreign language teaching is on helping the learner approximate the phonetic, morphological, and syntactic patterns of the language by means of pattern practice and similar drills." Although this is necessary, it is not sufficient. The key "for the development of communication skills," he explains, "is communication itself." One feature skill we can focus on in pursuit of this goal is argumentation. The goal of argumentation, according to Pugh (1997) "is to be able to use information and arguments from various sources to arrive at one's own position on a topic or issue.

In theory, to the layman, utilizing argumentation seems easy: Produce the subject and monitor the outcome. The process, however, is the most important part and holds the highest propensity for failure. Students are not logical machines. The hope is the students will conduct an exercise in critical thinking, but this is often not the case. Things go awry, and it is the teacher's job to keep things in the right direction by creating an environment that fosters productive argumentation. The first step, according to Ur (1984), is to maintain good classroom management: "On the whole," she tells us, "it is safe to say that a class which is controlled in frontal work will be controlled in groups." But organizing the groups is still an important feature, so the second step is to plan the group work. Cole offers us a classroom dynamics model for this purpose. Kippel further assists us by giving detailed classroom illustrations of Cole's model: Buzz Groups, Hearing, Fishbowl, Network, Onion, Star, Market, Opinion Vote, and Forced Contribution. On the following pages are a list of Kippel's illustrations and examples of activities my students have successfully used with each.

Buzz Groups

A problem is discussed in small groups for a few minutes before views or solutions are reported to the whole class.

This activity has worked well with my students to brainstorm identical material prior to larger group work or open class discussions, such as a jigsaw activity. One topic that worked well was a real life controversial news issue that happened in their community: What consequences should apply to officials of local and state government who argued about whose department was to send rescue teams to a group of people that drowned while they were figuring it out?

Hearing

Hearing Experts discuss a topical question and may be interviewed by a panel of students who then have to make a decision about the question.

This activity has worked well with information gap and role play exercises. One topic that worked well was having the students explore different sides of controversial issues such as conservation issues and logging concerns.

Fishbowl

All members of the class sit in a big circle. In the middle of the circle, there are five chairs. Three are occupied by students whose views, preferably controversial, on the topic are known beforehand. The three start the discussion. They may be joined by one or two students presenting yet another view. Students from the outer circle may also replace speakers in the inner circle by tapping them on the shoulder if they feel they can present the case better.

This activity has worked very well, especially with subsequent task based group work. One topic that has worked well is family issues, such as division of chores and house schedules.

Network

The class is divided into groups with no more than 10 students each. Each group receives a ball of string. Whoever is speaking on the topic chosen holds the ball of string. When the speaker has finished he/she gives the ball of string to the next speaker, but holds on to the string. In this way a web of string develops showing who talked the most and who talked the least.

This activity has worked well with most activities. The main purpose is to have the students engage in self monitoring behaviors to encourage the reticent into speaking and the boisterous into turn taking.

Onion

The class is divided into two equal groups. As many chairs as there are students are arranged in a double circle, with the chairs in the outer circle facing inwards and those in the inner circle facing outwards. Thus, each member of the inner circle sits facing a student in the outer circle. After a few minutes of discussion, all the students in the outer circle move one chair and have a new partner to continue with.

This activity has worked well with information gathering activities, especially timed activities where music or a horn marks the time to move. One topic that has worked well is where a criminal offense that has been committed, theft for example. Each person in the inner circle has a different piece of information and is unaware of the information contained by the other people in the inner circle and the people in the outer circle are equally uninformed of their members' information. The people on the outside have information that tends to help the student receive lighter or no punishment and the people on the inner circle have the opposite. As the students continue to move, more and more information is shared and opinions consequently change.

Star

Four to six small groups try and find a common view or solution to a problem. Each group elects a speaker who remains in the group but enters into discussion with other groups and then returns with messages

This activity has worked well where several groups work together in a consensus activity. One topic that has worked very well is resource management concerns between several communities.

Market

All of the students walk around the room; each talks with several others.

This activity has worked well in polling activities where the students have to poll each other student individually about their opinion on a topic. Afterwards, after they group similar opinions from which an open discussion can be held. Diversity issues have been very successful.

Opinion Vote

Each student receives voting cards with values from 1 to 5 (1=agree completely, 5 = disagree completely). After the issue, which needs to be phrased as a statement, has been discussed for a while, each student votes, and the distribution of different opinions in the group can be seen at a glance.

This activity has worked well as a closure for polling opinions at the end of discussions. It is especially useful for very controversial issues that produce many opinions.

Forced Contribution

In order to make sure that all the members of the class or group give their views in the discussion, numbers are distributed which determine the order of speaking.

This grouping, much like the network activity, has worked well with most activities. The main purpose is to have the students engage in self-monitoring activities to encourage the reticent into speaking and the boisterous into turn taking.

Argumentation is an important critical thinking skill, but it needs to be nurtured carefully. Kippel's illustration of Cole's classroom dynamics model is an important tool which teachers and students can use to further that aim.

References

Cole, P (1970). An adaptation of Group Dynamics to Foreign Language Teaching. Tesol Quarterly. 4/4.

Kippel, F. Keep Talking: Communicative Fluency Activities for Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Pugh, S. and C. Antommarchi. (1997). Starting With What We Know. Unpublished Paper. Indiana University.

Ur, P. (1994). Discussions That Work: Task Centered Fluency Activities. New York: Cambridge University Press

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