In defence of “How was your weekend?”

Recently, a (Japanese) staff member came up to me and said that a student had asked her, “Why do teachers always ask ‘How was your weekend?'”. We ended up having an interesting chat about the role of ‘casual conversation’ in English and some of the differences between this and Japanese. It also got me thinking about just why do teachers ask it and is it in fact pedagogically worthwhile. I believe it is.

  1. Authentic interaction – In many EFL contexts, the textbook holds sway. This is unavoidable due to many and varied reasons. However well written the text-book and however skillfully it is used it is still a fact that, by its very nature, it does not promote genuine interaction – the topics are out of the participants control and the language is dictated by the pedagogical aims rather than the other way around. The ‘weekend’ conversation is thus one of the few classroom contexts in which an authentic exchange of information can take place.
  2. Cultural value – The importance of ‘casual conversation’, especially story telling (see Eggins & Slade, 1997), as a genre within many English-speaking cultures is often under-valued or overlooked. ‘Casual conversation’ is, in fact, a very important genre to signal in-group identification and membership and those unfamiliar with or not competent in this genre may be missing out on an important gateway into the culture.
  3. Workplace value – Similar to the point above is that the importance of ‘casual conversation’ in the work place is often overlooked. ‘Casual conversation’ in workplace settings serves to “establish shared ways of seeing the world” (Eggins & Slade, 1997: 297) and also function to establish interpersonal relations. For example “during a business meeting, participants may align themselves as superior and subordinate” (Walsh, 2007). Many business English students in Japan, however, will enter the classroom and open the textbook with barely a ‘hello’.
  4. Diagnostics – As Mike Guest, a professor at Miyazaki university, points out, conversation in the classroom can serve as a useful diagnostic tool. I start all my lessons with a guided task to establish (both for myself and for the students) what the students are able to or not able to do. ‘How was your weekend’, however, functions as a valuable long-term diagnostic tool. The teacher is able to see over an extended period of time what progress has been made and what mistakes recur within a repeated task. Which brings me to the next point.
  5. Task-repetition – While the conversation may function as a useful diagnostic tool for the teacher it may also prove valuable to the student to guage their own progress in a regularly occuring familiar context. The value also of task repetition has recently gained prominence (Lynch & Maclean, 2000).

 

Eggins, S., Slade, D., 1997, Analysing Casual Conversation, Equinox

Walsh, I.P., 2007, “Small Talk Is ‘Big Talk’ in Clinical Discourse: Appreciating the Value of Conversation in SLP Clinical Interactions”, Topics in Language Disorders, vol 27-1, p24

Lynch, T., & Maclean, J., 2000, “Exploring the benefits of task repetition and recycling for classroom language learning”, Language Teaching Research July 2000, Vol. 4-3, p221

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Book: Language Learning and Teacher Education

I’ve been reading recently Hawkins, M.R. (Ed) Language Learning and Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Approach. It has a number of articles influenced by SFL and also similar approaches focusing learner identity within the classroom and, in particular, a Vygotskian perspective to classroom practice. The book moves through five parts, giving a very good account of a shift from a traditional approach to ESL focusing on individual learners in isolation to one in which learning is “embedded in and shaped by situated social interactions” (p. 3).

Parts 1 & 2 present a theoretical overview of this concept of learners engaging in the construction of what Gee describes as “socially-situated identities” (p. 17), not through ‘learning English’ but through participation in “Discourse” (p. 24) which is ways of enacting and recognizing social identity and activity through language. Parts 3 & 4 give a description of the pedagogical applications of this approach for the classroom in various contexts, mainly in Australian and US ESL programmes, while Part 5 discusses the implications of a sociocultural approach for language teacher education.

Overall, the book gives a very informative and stimulating introduction to sociocultural approaches to language teaching. I especially liked the point-by-point comparison of this to traditional Second Language Acquisition. I think the best thing about the book, however, is the inclusion of several learner stories throughout that really bring the real-world implications of teaching and learning a second language to life.