The tip of the tongue phenomena is a killer. The words just seem to freeze in the brain and refuse to come out.
It is a sudden reminder to us all that speaking is quite a complex process which involves constructing thoughts, grammar, and vocalizations, and fitting it all into the social context of the conversation. Yet, we have so much practice in our native languages that we have made this complex process almost automatic.
However, when we attempt to speak in another language, we are confronted with just how complex it can be. Is it any wonder then that EFL students struggle with producing natural sounding conversations? They are being given a task which has a large cognitive load—often without support. This leads students to adopt one of two basic strategies to reduce the cognitive load.
The first strategy is the short pre-scripted answer.
How are you?
I’m fine thank you, and you?
This is a strategy employed by native speakers as well—usually to buy time to think about the question they’ve been asked.
However, over-reliance on it as a strategy leads to “parrot” style answers. It also encourages the belief that every question has only one correct answer—that there are right and wrong answers in a conversation.
The second strategy is the writing out of all the conversation in an attempt to ensure everything is correct.
This unfortunately breaks one of the primary rules of conversation; namely that it be produced in real time. It also makes the conversation vulnerable to the partner not following the established script.
One way to reduce the cognitive load is to train students in the use of mind maps for conversations. Mind maps record the students thoughts about the topic at hand in a way that can be referred back to as opposed to holding it in working memory. With practice, they are also faster than fully scripting the interaction. This reduces the cognitive strain, allowing the student to attend to the other parts of the process. In computer terms, it allows students to engage in serial processing of the task rather than parallel processing.
Not all mind maps are created equal however. The more layers that the mind map has, the more complex and interesting the conversation that emerges from it is likely to be. It is not enough, therefore, to tell a beginning student to make a mind map—some scaffolding is required.
Three basic scaffolds are listed below. They can be used in conjunction or independently.
The “polar elements” model
The teacher provides two poles to focus the discussion.
For example, in the discussion of food, the poles could be love and hate. The teacher puts these on the board and asks the students to brainstorm the names of foods they love and they hate.
The teacher gives an example of the answer from themselves.
What food do you love?
I love pizza.
This mind map will need to be expanded to a third or fourth level to move it from controlled practice to free practice, however. Two methods that can be used to do this are listed below.
The “why, but, so” model
In this method, the students are asked to answer the question why on the second layer of the mind map.
Following on from the example above…
I love pizza.
Because it is delicious.
Students should be given a few minutes to fill out this part of their mind map before proceeding.
They are then asked for a negation—a but sentence, for example…
But pizza is unhealthy.
Again, they must be given time to carry out this step before going on.
Finally, they are asked for a so statement to bring it all together…
So, I eat Pizza once a month.
Bringing us a full interaction of :
A: What food do you love?
B: I love pizza because it is delicious, but it is unhealthy, so I eat it once a month.
If student B gets stuck at any point, A has prompts to move the conversation back on track.
The “many questions” model
In this model the teacher puts question prompts—who, what, when, where, how much, can you, etc.—along the side of the whiteboard.
When the students have finished the first level of the map, the teacher asks them to make a question from the list about their idea, and answer it.
To go back to the pizza example…
What is your favorite type of pizza?
Where do you buy pizza?
This method produces a much larger and spread out map than the “why, but, so” model. However, it can be problematic for very low level students.