Tense conversations

“I tried talking about our future but she just kept bringing up my past. It was a tense conversation.” 

Most of the Hands up Project’s work is with younger learners in Gaza but I also have a group of teenage boys who live in a village near Ramallah with whom I do a weekly session. In the beginning I found it difficult to organise online classes that really addressed this group’s needs, but, in consultation with their teacher Atiyyeh, a way of working has emerged which seems to be much more useful. Basically what happens is that Atiyyeh gives them a topic that they are all going to talk about individually with me. So far we’ve done clothes, hobbies and homes. They then spend some time preparing  what they are going to say and when we meet in our online session each person has a few minutes to chat with me about the topic. Here’s a recent example.

You’ll notice that in the space of less than four minutes there is quite a range of tenses and structures that are used (present perfect, present continuous, present simple, and the future with ‘will’ and ‘going to’) These grammatical forms are of high importance – certainly in terms of what learners like Ahmed will be tested on in his English exams. They may have been studied in the coursebook in a contrived way and probably in isolation, but here they are naturally linked to each other within a context that is personalised and generated by the learner. This factor may help to make them more meaningful and ultimately more memorable.

Of course we couldn’t say that Ahmed has gained complete control of all of these forms, but it’s probably completely unrealistic to expect that from any single grammar focussed activity anyway. At least having a conversation with a more advanced speaker seems to be providing a scaffold in which he is pushed to process them a little more. I like what is happening in this short excerpt for instance, where Ahmed is pushed to go from ‘My dad he’s build the a home up our home‘ to ‘He is building for me a home for me’.  

Ahmed…In the village we have another home in the village is away from the home we are living in. He’s to my brother and my dad he’s build the a home up our home (His teacher provides him with ‘second floor’ ) a second floor
Nick: aha
Ahmed: For me
Nick: Your dad, did you say he has built it or he’s building it? He has built it?
Ahmed: He’s a builder.
Nick: No but did you say he has built it or he is building it?
Ahmed: He is building for me a home for me
Nick: He’s building it now? When will it be finished?
Ahmed: Next year on the summer

Interestingly, it was my genuine failure to understand what he meant which lead me to use the closed question, ‘Did you say he has built it or he’s building it?’  and this seemed to be a useful push for him to activate a more accurate form.

Another thing I like about this way of working are the opportunities for repetition and self regulation that it provides. Learners first think about and plan what they are going to say on their own, they then go on to talk about it with a partner, and finally they are pushed to do the same thing with a teacher in front of the class. It is at the final stage that the level of challenge is at its highest, and this may be useful in order for learning to happen. Of course it is also here where the level of tension is at its highest. Some learners, like Ahmed, rise to this very well but others may find it too much. However, in situations like this one, where the other students are clearly listening carefully to what is going on, perhaps they too are being challenged to process the tenses that are included in a deeper way than they would be if they were simply having a conversation with a partner.

I started this post with an old and rather corny joke, but I’m serious about the idea that tense conversations; that is conversations where a range of different grammatical structures emerge naturally through interaction, may be a useful way to combine the sometimes conflicting aims of communicative and grammatical syllabi. What I’m less sure about is whether we can depend on these types of conversation to come up naturally, even if we’re careful about picking the right topics, or whether with Ahmed I just struck lucky. What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Tense conversations

  1. of course you are right Mr. Nick .
    Actually our learners face a big problem when having an oral conversation . I think it’s much easier for them to do a written conversation activity , students can concentrate more on the tense while they are writing but it will be confusing for them while they are speaking , thats why they prefer written excercises . we can focus on the tenses more through the controlled practice activities more free practiced activities.
    our students lose self confident in speaking , they feel shy and afraid of comitting mistakes thats why they are hesitaing alot before participating .


    1. Thanks very much for your comment. Yes, I think that the problem you’ve identified of learners being able to use grammar accurately when doing controlled written exercises but not in free conversation is a very real problem for lots of learners around the world. A possible solution to this is to give the learners as many opportunities as possible to experience this problem, by engaging them in conversations like the one in the video. I think Ahmed does a great job of reflecting on his own use of English and restructuring it during our conversation. Because we’re talking about things that are related to him then the grammar which is embedded is more meaningful and memorable for him than if it’s in a controlled written exercise, and this may help him to feel more of a sense of ownership of the language. Of course written exercises can also be very useful for encouraging reflection. In fact a very useful thing to do as a follow up could be to give learners the transcript of such conversations and to ask them how they might improve it.


  2. Ahmad is one of my students at school located in Palestine. As a teacher of English, I see the exercises of grammer for future focus on the use of ‘will’ or going to’ or ‘present continuous to show future plans’. The same with past, students try to look at indications of the past like ‘yesterday, last week last month two hours ago. the same with present, they have to know that they are talking about habits or facts using indications such as everyday every week , daily weekly, always, usually, sometimes. In the case of Ahmad, I think he seems to understand perfectly the difference between these tenses:past, present and future. He even use them without depending on the indications or key words that most teachers in Palestine focus on while teaching tenses and at the end students end up facing a lot of challenges and obstacles of answering questions on tenses such as circle the correct answer or correct the verbs in brackets. What i liked from Ahmad is that he was able to use tenses nicely, but with some mistakes concerning forms of verbs such as build ..built. To help himself, he said Yes my father build many houses (he means his dad built many houses before), then he said and now (to say that he is talking about the present or present continuous), he used the word now ..my dad works in Israel. He also talks about the future without even using the forms of will or going to. For example, he says ‘I want to be a builder.’ here he means he is going to be a builder when he grows up in the future. He also answered a question asked by Nick : ‘When will it be finished?’ Ahmad said ‘next yea in the summer. So, Ahmad seems to acquire the basic forms of understanding and applying tenses in his conversation. This may not go well with him if he answers exercises on papers through writing. Finally, i would like to Thank Nick, who is always ready to help and give Skype/Zoom meetings with my students living in Palestine. And this is a continuation of his work which focuses on students who are refugees. Nick did more than 13 meetings with my students and there was great improvement in their speaking of English. each meeting used to last between 30 minutes to 55 minutes or even more. Thanks a lot Nick for the efforts you always do with Palestinian, Syrian and other students from all over the world.


    1. Thanks for your comment Atiyyeh and for your detailed analysis of Ahmad’s evolving grammatical awareness as you see it. One thing I notice that seems different from our earlier sessions is that now if I’m interacting with one student at the front it seems to be much quieter in the room than before. It’s impossible for me when I’m not in the room to gauge why this. I hope it’s because the other students are listening carefully to what is being said. Is that the case? Of course it could be because everyone else has fallen asleep 🙂


      1. Thanks for your reply. Students became more calm because they knew that the conversation may not go well if they make any noise. So, they listen and pay attention. In the case of Ahmad, he was the last speaker, so I let all the students to go out for the break and it’s only Ahmad, me and other two students who remained in the room. This is why felt that there were no students or they might have fallen asleep. I started noticing their reading and speaking during the class; they became more capable in comparison to other students. They understand the activities and their pronunciation has got better.


  3. A very interesting video for discussion, Nick, Thanks!
    I think it’s true that students lose confidence when it’s speaking time because they are usually afraid of making mistakes and/or because they feel embarrassed. I always try to find ways to avoid making them feel “examined”. For example, getting them in groups of 3 or 4 and giving them boardgames with questions about different topics we’ve been working with in class, is a very effective way to get them to speak… They help each other and usually the more advanced students correct the others and ask you when they’re not sure. I notice they feel more relaxed because they’re actually “playing” a conversation game in English. However, there are always more reluctant students hard to convince about the fact that speaking is a necessary activity. I always remind them that when they speak they all make mistakes but they also become aware of them, and so, If they didn’t make mistakes they wouldn’t be able to improve their speech.

    As to the video, I think Ahmed is clearly having difficulty in using verb tenses. He seems to understand when Nick asks the questions and tries to correct them because he realizes he’s used the wrong tense. However, sometimes it is not enough to just improvise a question and see if the student reacts and learns from his tense mistake.
    You might think I’m old-fashioned or traditional but students sometimes need to be given grammar feedback about verb tense uses so that they can understand how to use them. In fact, in my opinion, it’s very snobbish to think that all our students grasp the use of a tense or a grammar structure without an explanation.


  4. Hi Marga. Nice to see you here 🙂 Yes I strongly agree that explicit grammar feedback can be very useful, especially when it is on utterances that have come from the learners’ own speech. One of the advantages of using this technology is that the recording of the conversation and/or the transcript can be shown to the learners afterwards and, without the pressure of trying to communicate, they can often notice improvements that can be made, or these can be pointed out to them if necessary.

    Actually I think Ahmad does a brilliant job of communicating what he wants to say and manipulating grammar, given that he is doing this in front of the whole class, with a native speaker, and with the added stress of a weak internet connection. Thanks for the suggestions regarding safer ways to conduct speaking activities where students are not put under so much pressure. I think these things can be very useful ways of building confidence and providing practice in producing fluent utterances. Their teacher can do these kinds of things with them but I can’t really when I’m not in the room so I guess I’m focussing more on what can be achieved through student to teacher interaction. But even in face to face settings I do think that this student to teacher follow up stage to group speaking activities can provide a bit of necessary push sometimes. Of course it’s not that you can go from not knowing something to mastery within the space of a few utterances but perhaps it’s more likely to raise awareness and encourage self reflection than simply interacting with peers. Maybe we need a little more challenge, even tension, sometimes?


  5. In response to the comments arguing that focused activities of tenses seem to be better than real or authentic conversations. I wonder why tenses are always taught at schools from the first grade to the 12th grade, but not all students seem to learn these tenses perfectly. I wonder why many Palestinian workers who work in Israel learn Hebrew in a short time and I wonder why anyone, who travels to America, may learn the language in 6 months. They learn it rapidly because of the direct interaction and real conversations . To sum up what said, focused activities and real interaction are both necessary, but real interaction can accelerate learning the language. It can make the language natural and spontaneous inside the learner’s mind.


  6. Thanks for your interesting comment Atiyyeh. I particularly like what you say at the end… ‘focused activities and real interaction are both necessary, but real interaction can accelerate learning the language. It can make the language natural and spontaneous inside the learner’s mind.’ I guess Richard Schmidt’s ideas about noticing (Schmidt and Frota 1986) come into play here; learners study the grammar in controlled ways in class and then when they interact with others outside of class they suddenly start hearing it and even start trying to use it themselves. Perhaps without the controlled activities beforehand in class they wouldn’t be in such a good position to notice the grammar in the more natural conversations that they are having online?


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