TBLT Lesson – Small Talk

I didn’t freak out the same way as I did last year when I was going to teach the High-Int Office English class how to welcome visitors and do small talk. This lesson was going to be for the Low-Int Office English course, which my institution runs this semester, and I had been asked again to develop the materials and teach the group. So far, we’ve been having a lovely time. I guess I wasn’t as worried because I have taught people how to do small talk many times since, so it has become easier.

Nonetheless, I wanted to see what real people think about small talk, so I asked my crown on Twitter and an amazingly useful thread developed:

The main take-away for me were the following ideas:

Small Talk means that all the people involved make a deliberate effort to keep the conversation going, for the reason of politeness.

Hence, once they find common ground, they can start chatting about things that are interesting for all of them, which is no longer small talk.

Therefore, Small Talk doesn’t last long.

Why do I think my lesson follows the Task-Based Language-Learning principles?

It was developed with a particular group in mind, working for one institution (a Czech university), and therefore took the local context into account.

There was a clear goal: the students would be able to carry on small talk with a person for several minutes.

The language had not been prescribed and in the various stages feedback was given on errors, conversational strategies, etc.

Procedure:

First, I asked the students to give a short account of situations in which they’d met any foreigners or they themselves visited an institution or a place on business.

Next, I played this video to illustrate what I expected from them. You can’t go wrong with Vicki Hollet and in fact, her course book series Tech Talk was a pleasure to use when I was teaching at the candy factory.

https://www.simpleenglishvideos.com/meeting-and-greeting-a-visitor/

After we briefly discussed some good/bad small talk strategies, I referred the students to a list of questions I’d prepared. These were the most common questions you can ask – mostly from the Twitter thread, my experience and articles I’d read. They included questions such as: Is this your first time in Prague? How was your trip? What’s the weather like where you came from? etc.

To develop fluency, I had the students practise the questions first using the “read – cover – look up” method and I checked they could say some of them by heart.

Then they worked in pairs. I asked them to choose a role. I’d prepared two short role cards with a name (I used an online name-generator for this), country of origin and reason for visiting (two real events at our university).

In the next stage I allowed a lot of time for practising the actual conversations. This was the situation: You (i.e. a real person working for the university) are meeting a foreign visitor (see the role card) at Prague’s main Train Station. Welcome the visitor and carry on small talk for 2 minutes.

We repeated the scenario several times with me giving feedback after each round. This is how the rotation went: Pairs A-B (1st round); Same pairs B-A (swapped roles, 2nd round); Bs move one place clockwise (3rd round); Bs move one place clockwise and swap roles (4th round).

Believe it or not, after the fourth round everyone was happily chatting away sounding really confident and doing great.

This was the end of the first, longer part of the lesson.

The second part focused on welcoming the visitors at your workplace. I introduced it by this short video clip from Love, Actually, which was a great choice because most people had seen the film, understood better and were more eager to give their opinions.

Next, we put together a jumbled dialogue from my faithful copy of Macmillan’s English for Networking: “The receptionists welcomes Mr Ruby”. It’s a little cheesy dialogue but has all the language I needed and really, people do use formulaic language in such situations, so it seems reasonable to practise as such. Then we looked at some useful phrases for welcoming visitors – how to invite them in, deal with their luggage, offer refreshments, inviting them to sit down and telling them another person will join the meeting later.

The final task of the lesson was (now, watch, as I’m really proud of it):

Roleplay a dialogue with a visitor at your workplace. Use the identities from Task 3. Make sure to include the following and in that order:

  • Invite your visitor to enter your office.
  • Deal with their clothing/luggage.
  • Offer them a seat.
  • Offer them refreshments.
  • Tell them Mr Stanislav Novák will be joining us soon.
  • Begin small talk and carry on until your teacher stops you.

Notice the last bullet point? See how it links to the first part of the lesson? Aha!

I told the students to go through all the points in the conversation and then keep small talking until I stopped them and they all did and that is the end of the story!

Let me know what you think – as always, comments are appreciated.

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12 thoughts on “TBLT Lesson – Small Talk

  1. Thank you for this post. It has added to my understanding of what is one of the most important areas of communication. Relationships cannot be forged, deals cannot be made without it. As a student once told me, deals are struck in the corridors, or over coffee and not in the board room. Small talk almost certainly sets the foundations for future collaboration between people whether that is in a professional setting or when creating close personal friendships.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi,

      I thank you for your invaluable comment on the Twitter thread and for stopping by here. I think what you mention about relationships needs to be clearly pointed out in our lessons and our students need to be aware that although small talk is largely formulaic with only a limited choice of topics and questions, the reason people why people need to be polite, positive and upbeat is that of building relationships.
      What makes it hard, in my view, is the cultural aspect of small talk – we Czechs, for example, seem to think it superficial and prefer to get straight down to business or move on to topics of interest much faster.
      Cheers
      Kamila

      Liked by 3 people

      1. It’s the same for Swiss Germans. They often see it as superficial and intrusive, preferring to get down to business and not waste time. How do we deal with this conundrum? Make students aware of its usefulness and usage then leave it up to them as to whether or not they use it or not? Is there such a thing as a small talk map of the world?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Hannah,

        Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I would probably advise my students consult some cultural/etiquette info online, but this can be deceptive – see this Canadian page on Czech etiquette one of my students has found: https://www.international.gc.ca/cil-cai/country_insights-apercus_pays/ci-ic_cz.aspx?lang=eng. Some of it may be true but certainly not all of it – we don’t negotiate prices, for example and I have no idea where this came from.
        A Small Talk map is an awesome idea! Perhaps we could do it as a collaborative project – some people of our Twitter ELT circles might be interested? I am actually very excited about it and need to think about it more.
        Thanks for giving me all these ideas! Cheers from Prague.

        Kamila

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice work, Kamila. I really do think small talk lessons can be some of the most rewarding because it’s easy to transfer between situations. It’s also something that people get anxious about in L1 (or just me?), so strategising is pretty nice and takes the anxiety out of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Marc. It means a lot to me. Indeed. I still remember being in France on a school exchange, we were driving from a cinema and nobody spoke for an hour because I couldn’t do small talk – not to mention in French! But the French hosts didn’t say anything either. That’s why the weight of the lesson is actually practising with different people. In some of the lessons in books I saw the core of the lesson was on choosing suitable topics for small talk. I don’t think it’s as beneficial. That’s why I chose to give my learners the questions, had them learn them as fast as possible and then we could spend prolonged time practising it. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Kamila,

    I hope you’ll allow me to make a few comments, offered humbly in the spirit of cooperation. They’re not well organised or even well considered, just some quick thoughts in reaction to your very interesting blog post, which might possibly lead to more discussion and development among those of us interested in exploring TBLT.

    Small talk is seen in discourse analysis as phatic communion (Malinowski, 1920?? ), and as such it refers to non-task related interactions. Very interesting, of course, but hard to use as a framework for tasks in the sense Long (2015) uses the word “task”, and, I think, a bit vague if used to design activities.

    Interest in small talk exchanges revived at the start of this century, when scholars looked at small talk interaction that went on among people at work – exchanges among co-workers and between workers and customers in different situations (doctor-patient, cashier-customer, journalist-interviewer, lawyer-client etc.). Holmes, particularly (2005) “Small Talk Is “Big Talk” in Clinical Discourse …” , and Coupland’s (2000) book “Small Talk” are considered key works in the “Second wave” of interest in small talk.

    I think what you actually did was a great idea – you took a “Target Task” that probably all your students needed to know how to do, namely, in a work context, meeting a visitor to your company / workplace at the airport. And you broke it down into a series of what Long calls “pedagogic tasks”, which is what I (following Long) think is exactly the right thing to do. Other real tasks were also introduced – a receptionist welcoming a visitor, and a first meeting at the office. The sequencing of the pedagogic tasks was, in many ways, exemplary.

    Your way of dealing with these things was to focus on “small talk” and rather general “situations”, and I’m sure it went very well. My advice – I repeat, humble advice and off the top of my head and something I’d be delighted to discuss with you and others properly – is that you should focus more on the tasks themselves where the small talk is embedded. And for this, one needs to be more specific about who is meeting who at the airport, who is welcoming who at the workplace, and who is at the first working meeting.

    You mention 3 scenarios: the airport greeting, the receptionist welcome, and the office meeting. In the first case, just for example, the luggage issue is huge, and is not realistically dealt with. In the second case, this is a really key part of a receptionist’s job, and completely different to what a manager might have to do. My point is, each scenario needs examining in order to identify the target tasks – the real things that those involved actually have to do in the L2.

    Next, while Viki Hollet makes some very engaging materials, her version of the airport greeting is a rather 2 dimensional mock up. If you actually watch (and better record) such meetings and then you analyse the discourse, you’ll find that real encounters have little in common with the stuff you find in coursebooks or teacher-produced materials like Viki’s. I hope that doesn’t sound too critical, but all the studies done – see, for example Coupland, 2000; or Long’s (2015) account of buying a train ticket, or Gilabert’s recordings of journalists’ phone calls, – show that our perfectly reasonable “invented” dialogues are actually way off the mark.

    Then there’s the kind of attention to language one might give. I think trying to identify the most common questions that get asked in situations is an excellent idea, but should be part of getting a handle on the whole discourse event. Twitter, one’s own experience and articles one’s read are valuable sources, and questions such as: Is this your first time in Prague? How was your trip? What’s the weather like where you came from? etc. can prove useful, but we also need to think about what else is involved in the exchanges and, more generally, about the best ways of providing the input and scaffolding needed to understand, practice and finally perform the task.

    Well. Sorry if this is a bit long. It’s actually too short because I’m just thinking aloud, but I hope it might be of some use. Really, I just want to support you, both in what you’re doing with your students and what you’re doing to try to get teachers to talk about what they’re doing and how they might incorporate tasks into their classroom practice.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hello Geoff,
      Sorry for taking a while to reply. Thank you very much for taking the time to think about my lesson and give me feedback. In my world, I don’t receive feedback on my lessons, so I really appreciate it.
      First of all, let’s leave aside Vicky’s video – in fact, when I made the decision to use it, I thought of you (no joking!) and thought you wouldn’t approve. It served as a way to introduce the lesson without me talking at length, the class heard a different accent to mine and was somewhat amused. I don’t think it did much harm.
      Now to the interesting points: “Small Talk is not a task” – that is very interesting with a clear consequence: what is the aim of the lesson/ or in Long’s terms – what is the task? And I think it reflects in all small talk lessons – what do you want your learners to do and how do you assess it? It isn’t easy to define with small talk.
      As for the need to be as specific as possible, ie. your “…one needs to be more specific about who is meeting who at the airport, who is welcoming who at the workplace, and who is at the first working meeting.” This is a crucial issue because how does one specifically target a class of 12 people? They may well be working for one university, but each for a different faculty, institute, body, all at different positions. Which leads me to thinking about their needs. Whose needs am I considering? Theirs? Or those of my department which opened the Office English course? My way of working is that of making an abstraction by creating “a persona” – just like you do in marketing. So I try to imagine a person working for a hypothetical office at our very specific university, based on the knowledge of the university I have. But you are right in that the first part of the lesson (small talk) was better because it was developed by me with that idea in mind. In the second part, I used a dialogue from a book which is not as relevant to this particular group, and therefore may not have been as useful for the class.
      Which leads us to materials again. Other than writing my own, adapting authentic ones, a TBLT teacher doesn’t have much choice than to exploit what is already there in the ELT sphere. Do you think it’s that harmful, if you just take out bits and pieces from what is there? I think if you have a clear syllabus in mind, it should be fine because you are using material that serves your purpose, am I right?
      Thank you once again for your valuable contribution to the TBLT field!
      Kamila

      Liked by 4 people

  4. geoffjordan

    Hi Kamila,

    I read your comment, saw the questions, and then forgot to reply to them. Please forgive me.

    The question of materials is obviously key to a TBLT course that doesn’t use a coursebook. I agree 100% that the syllabus should guide the materials you select, and I see nothing wrong with taking bits from wherever you can find them – respecting authors’ rights, of course.

    Assume you start by identifying some target tasks for your course – greeting a visitor to your company at an airport, conducting a meeting with that visitor in the company, and taking the visitor to a restaurant, for example. The next step is to break those target tasks down into a series of pedagogic tasks which lead the the final pedgogic task, some kind of simulation of the target task. The pedagogic tasks gradually increase in terms of complexity and linguistic difficulty. The airport meeting task might consist of identifying the visitor, the initial greeting, introducing yourself, the luggage issue, and small ttalk on the way to the car, for example. Each of these moves needs materials. You need some kind of representation of each move – video, audio, written dialogues, texts and diagrams describing them, etc. – and you need some analysis of the kind of language (grammar, vocab., lexical chunks, pragmatic elements) that you’ll work with.

    Long (2015) refers to “input simplification and elaboration” – his answer to the problems that “authentic” materials are often too difficult and the kind of stuff you find in coursebooks is often impoverished. I can’t go into the details here, but the aim is find materials that offer the students relevant, rich comprehensible input. If you don’t have the resources to make your own materials, then you must find them where you can and use them as best you can – sometimes even just a small tweak makes a big difference. Neil McMillan from SLB has a lot more recent experience than me at searching for this material, and at then adapting it. I’ve seen some great materials he’s made using videos from tv series, for example. Others at SLB – including Marc – are also good at this. SLB is currently working on a special materials bank for TBLT. Neil is leading the team, and I think he’ll be making an announcement about it soon.

    In the end, a willingness to give it a go is the main thing, and it’s something – like L2 learning itself – that you get better at by doing it. It sounds to me that you’re enjoying finding out more about this: trying things out, reporting on twhat happens, getting feedback, and so on.

    Neil will be giving a talk later this month at the ELTRIA conference in Barcelona about the work the SLB is doing to try to “bridge the gap” between Long’s demanding TBLT and the reality of teachers’ contexts,
    http://www.eim.ub.edu/eltria/programa_en.php and I’ll be giving a talk on a similar theme at the Innovative ELT conference in May https://twitter.com/InnovateELT We’ll share the content of our talks and keep you informed with what we’re doing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hello Geoff,

      This is great. Thank you for suggesting how to break down the target task. It really makes a lot of sense. I think I was making the mistake of too large a generalisation – dividing the task into much smaller parts is very helpful.
      I am familiar of Long’s use of elaborated material and am very fond of it. I will check out the Neil’s work and of course, I am always in touch with you all on Twitter so hopefully won’t miss anything important.
      Lastly, thank you for sending me the links to your talks – very interesting! I really hope one day I will make to the Innovate ELT conference – so many interesting people!

      My best wishes from Prague
      Kamila

      Like

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