Teaching speaking #7 – Teaching talk as transaction

Jack Richards

In the latest part of Interchange author Jack C. Richards’s series on teaching speaking, Jack explores how we should teach talk as transaction.

Talk as transaction is more easily planned since current communicative materials are a rich resource of group activities, information-gap activities, and role plays that can provide a source for practicing how to use talk for sharing and obtaining information, as well as for carrying out real-world transactions. These activities include ranking, values clarification, brainstorming, and simulations. Group discussion activities can be initiated by having students work in groups to prepare a short list of controversial statements for others to think about. Groups exchange statements and discuss them, for example:

  • “Schools should do away with exams.”
  • “Vegetarianism is the only healthy lifestyle.”
  • “The Olympic games are a waste of money.”


Role-play activities are another familiar technique for practicing real-world transactions and typically involve the following steps:

  • Preparing: Reviewing vocabulary, real-world knowledge related to the content, and context of the role play (e.g., returning a faulty item to a store).
  • Modeling and eliciting: Demonstrating the stages that are typically involved in the transaction, eliciting suggestions for how each stage can be carried out, and teaching the functional language needed for each stage.
  • Practicing and reviewing: Assigning students roles and practicing a role play using cue cards or realia to provide language and other support.


An issue that arises in practicing talk as transaction using different kinds of communicative tasks is the level of linguistic accuracy that students achieve when carrying out these tasks. One assumption is that form will largely look after itself with incidental support from the teacher. Grammar has a mediating role, rather than serving as an end in itself (Thornbury 1998:112). “The teacher and the learner have a remarkable degree of flexibility, for they are presented with a set of general learning objectives and problem-solving tasks” (Kumaravadivelu 1991:99). As students carry out communicative tasks, the assumption is that they engage in the process of negotiation of meaning, employing strategies such as comprehension checks, confirmation checks, and clarification requests. These are believed to lead to a gradual modification of learners’ language output, which over time takes on more and more target-like forms.

Despite these optimistic claims, others have reported that communication tasks often develop fluency at the expense of accuracy. For example, Higgs and Clifford (1982:78), reporting experience with foreign language teaching programs in the United States, observed the following:

In programs that have as curricular goals an early emphasis on unstructured communication activities – minimizing, or excluding entirely, considerations of grammatical accuracy – it is possible in a fairly short time … to provide students with a relatively large vocabulary and a high degree of fluency … These same data suggest that the premature immersion of a student into an unstructured or “free” conversational setting before certain linguistic structures are more or less in place is not done without cost. There appears to be a real danger of leading students too rapidly into the creative aspects of language use, in that if successful communication is encouraged and rewarded for its own sake, the effect seems to be one of rewarding at the same time the incorrect strategies seized upon in attempting to deal with the communication strategies presented.

Similar findings have been reported in more recent studies of task work (see Foster, 1998; Musumeci, 1996).

The following conversation is an example of the quality of language that is sometimes produced as students practice transactional functions of language. This example was observed during a role-play task in a Spanish secondary school English lesson. One student is playing the role of a doctor and the other a patient, and they are discussing a health problem.

S1: You how old?
S2: I’m thirty-four . . . thirty-five.
S1: Thirty . . . five?
S2: Five.
S1: Problem?
S2: I have . . . a pain in my throat.
S1: [In Spanish] What do you have?
S2: A pain.
S1: [In Spanish] What’s that?
S2: [In Spanish] A pain. A pain.
S1: Ah, pain.
S2: Yes, and it makes problem to me when I . . . swallow.
S1: When do you have … ?
S1: Since yesterday morning.
S1: [In Spanish] No, I mean, where do you have the pain? It has a pain in … ?
S2: In my throat.
S1: Ah. Let it … getting, er … worse. It can be, er … very serious problem and you are, you will go to New York to operate, so … operation … the 7th, the 27th, er May. And treatment, you can’t eat, er, big meal.
S2: Big meal. I er … I don’t know? Fish?
S1: Fish, you have to eat, er, fish, for example.

This example shows how low-level students, when carrying out communication tasks, often rely on a lexicalized system of communication that depends heavily on vocabulary and memorized chunks of language, as well as both verbal and nonverbal communication strategies, to get meaning across.

Several methods can be used to address the issue of language accuracy when students are practicing transactional use of language:

  • By pre-teaching certain linguistic forms that can be used while completing a task.
  • By reducing the complexity of the task (e.g., by familiarizing students with the demands of the activity by showing them a similar activity on video or as a dialog).
  • By giving adequate time to plan the task.
  • By repeated performance of the task.


Jack will be back later this week to consider how we can teach talk as performance. You can read other posts by Jack Richards here.

References and Further Reading


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