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Discussion Starters

Keith S. Folse

To the Teacher

Teaching Discussion Classes

One of the most challenging teaching situations is the advanced discussion or speaking class. In theory, the teacher (or a student) can bring up a given topic and the students will discuss its merits or controversial aspects. In reality, however, this is rarely the case. In most classes, the most confident students tend to dominate the discussion and the weaker students, those who really need this class, quickly withdraw. In order to keep the "discussion" going, the teacher ends up trying to draw the students out. In effect, this "discussion" often becomes a question and answer exchange between the teacher and a few students.

With a wide variety of engaging topics and unique interactive exercises designed to keep the discussion flowing, Discussion Starters aims to balance the speaking loads of all the students in the class and thus promote an environment in which everyone has not only a chance but a real need to speak out. In fact, many times the exercises have been designed so that students cannot complete the speaking task unless everyone in the group participates and speaks up. Therefore, students actually need the input of other students to complete the discussion task.

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Using the Book

The most important pedagogical point involved in using this book is that the teacher give the students the time and framework to think about their own ideas so they can form a coherent opinion. It is extremely important to realize that our students have a number of factors working against them: they may lack confidence in their English skiffs, they may not have any background information about the topic, they may not have participated in group discussions much, they may not be interested in the topic (because they have not been engaged personally), and they may not have any opinion at all about the topic (though this last factor is definitely not limited to nonnative speakers).

These possible limitations of our students have been taken into account, and the exercises within each unit are set up in a special way in order to help the students develop and organize their ideas and thus foster confidence in their knowledge of the topic, which will facilitate speaking. Whenever a question for discussion is introduced, there is a prerequisite exercise which has the students write out their own ideas. This exercise sometimes consists of a series of short questions designed to guide the students through the critical thinking process. At other times, the exercise has two or three questions that are more general in nature but stiff aim to guide the students so that they can put their ideas down on paper.

This book is built on the premise that having to write out our thoughts on paper forces us to reexamine, rethink, and recycle our ideas until we have a much neater package. At workshops, when teachers are asked their opinion about a topic and then told, before everyone has had a chance to speak out, to write out their opinions in 25 to 50 words, it is usually the case that their written opinions have changed somewhat from their original opinion. Certainly they are more directed and more to the point. When teachers are then asked to continue talking about the topic in question, the discussion seems to flow much better. In addition, teachers who were reluctant to speak up before now do so. The printed word in front of them seems to be an anchor for those who were hesitant or reluctant to speak up before. The simple act of writing out one's thoughts on paper before having to speak does make a real difference in not only the quality but also the quantity (fluency) of the discussion.

For example, when a student is suddenly confronted with the statement "People shouldn't drink and drive" it might be difficult for many students to say something that makes much sense and really expresses their opinion. Most students in this situation in a group will be so nervous about what they are going to say that they can't and don't listen to the other students until after they themselves have spoken. Thus, what ensues more resembles a series of monologues than a dialogue or discussion of sorts. For this class to be a real learning and developing situation with interaction, it is much better (and I would argue necessary) to have the students write out their ideas briefly beforehand.

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Topics for Discussion

A quick glance at the table of contents will reveal that the 32 units cover an extremely wide range of topics. Though most of the topics in the text are serious (conservation, gun control, multiculturalism, AIDS), many others deal with lighter topics (humor and culture, group crosswords, traditional fairy tales, unique court cases). The topics that have been chosen do not contain material that will quickly become dated.

Unlike other discussion books on the market today, Discussion Starters rarely uses imaginary situations for discussion (e.g., "Imagine that a loved one is hooked up to a life-support system" or "If you could only choose five people to enter a fallout shelter, which five of these eight people would you choose?") When people have been challenged to come up with a potential solution to a task or problem, they rightfully expect to be able to hear what the "correct" answer is. For example, in the well-known "Baby Jessica" case (unit 6), students are told about the case and then asked to be the judge. After they have discussed each other's verdicts and reasons, they are then instructed to turn to the back of the book to discover the actual decision of the judge or jury in this case.

The activities and tasks in Discussion Starters are real situations from all over the world. When students are asked what they would do in a given situation or a judge should rule in a case, there is a real answer that is provided.

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Types of Interaction in the Exercises

Most of the units in this book introduce a problem or controversial topic at the beginning of the unit. This is then followed by a series of exercises designed to are all of the students so that they can express their ideas at the next class meeting. A unit usually includes several kinds of oral fluency activities, but some of the major types of activities are listed here.

Problem-solving tasks: A unique feature of this text is that every unit in this text has several tasks in which students must cooperate to solve a problem while using English.

Court cases: Exercises 1. 1, 2.2, 2.8, 6.3, 6.6, 6.9, 21.4, 22.4, 24.1, 25.1, 26.15, 28.9, 31.1, 3 1. 10. Each of these exercises pertains to a real court case that involves the topic of the unit. Students are told to work out their own solution as if they were the judge or jury and then discuss their ideas at the next class meeting. Actual decisions are revealed in a special section at the back of the book.

Finish the story: Units 5, 20. A story that has a unique ending has been begun in the unit, but the ending has deliberately been left off. Instructions are given for having students discuss possible endings and reasons for their choices. As with an the material in this text, these are actual stories that, incredible as they may sound, really happened.

Speaking puzzles: Units 11, 29. Students work in threes to complete a puzzle. Each student has access to one-third of the clues. Students must cooperate by giving spoken clues to each other so that they can complete the entire puzzle.

Role-play: Units 16, 19, 23, 24, 27, 30. Though the unit does not revolve around the role-play exercise, these units do include an exercise that has the students do some sort of role-play regarding the topic of the unit. Possible roles are often suggested, but it is up to the teacher to choose which roles should be used. Whether or not role-plays succeed in class depends a lot on the dynamics of the given group of students.

Discussion and oral presentations: Units 3, 7, 10, 13, 18. Though these units contain other types of interaction, one of the main points of these units is that students bring in related material from outside class to present to the rest of the class.

Charts and questionnaires: Units 4, 10, 14, 23, 32. Students must work together to complete information in a chart or questionnaire. Since each student has only a piece of the information in the chart, it is necessary that all students speak up in the activity for the group to be able to complete the chart successfully Questionnaires actively engage the students at a personal level; later students compare their responses with responses of other students in their groups.

Put the story together: Units 9, 15, 17. Students work in large groups to solve a strip story. Each student has one piece of the story and all students must work together or a solution is impossible.

Small group discussions: Units 3,8,12,18. One of the main features of these units is an exercise that fosters active interaction among the members of a small group (three to five students).

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Text Organization

Discussion Starters consists of 32 self-contained units. There is ample background material in the text to start students on their way to a discussion. Teachers do not have to spend time searching for articles that most of the students in the class will be able to comprehend (which is in itself a major job for any teacher), and students do not have to do extensive outside reading in order to feel qualified to talk about the topics. Thus, students can spend their class time speaking about and discussing topics rather than reading about them silently. (Naturally, teachers may assign additional readings to supplement the topics in Discussion Starters if they wish.)

An important unique feature of this text is that there are efficient, i.e., simple yet effective, homework exercises in which students must sort out their ideas and opinions before coming to class to discuss or talk about the issues in the textbook. This allows all students to be prepared for the speaking activities in class and is of special importance to the weaker, less confident nonnative speakers. It also allows the teacher to feel confident that all the students in the class, regardless of their native country, education level, or age, now have a known common background about the topic. Some students will naturally know more about certain topics, but now the teacher at least has a common denominator from which to start discussions.

Each unit contains a number of exercises (usually around 10) that provide speaking interaction about a central topic or idea. In most of these activities, students must work together in pairs or small groups to solve a problem, reach a consensus, discuss ideas, or complete some other kind of speaking task.

A particular strength of the design of this text is that there is no set pattern for introducing a topic. Units begin with cartoons, questionnaires, puzzles, court cases, and proverbs. This variety should help keep a discussion course from becoming monotonous or too predictable after a few weeks.

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Communication Activities

At the back of this text, there are 55 communication activities. These are an essential part of certain units. In a given exercise in a unit, students are often told to work in pairs or small groups. Student A will be told to look at one communication activity while student B will be told to look at another communication activity. In this way, the students hold different pieces of information which only they know and which they must share verbally with their partner. Since the two pieces of information are not on the same page or even near each other in the text, the students must talk to their partners to complete the given language task.

It is essential that students understand the whole activity before teachers have students do the communication activities. The teacher should give an overview of the exercise, explain how the communication task will work, divide the class into pairs or groups as the exercise says, and then walk around the room to help any students who might still have questions.

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Fluency versus Accuracy in Language Learning

All exercises that are done in any language class are done either for accuracy, for fluency, or for a combination of the two. However, we teachers very often tend to do one to the exclusion of the other, and much of what we do, especially what we have traditionally done, is heavily oriented toward accuracy. While this may be appropriate at lower levels of language proficiency, there is a need to balance accuracy exercises with fluency exercises.

For an exercise to be fluency-oriented, the exercise should be slightly below the actual level of the students so that the student can practice extensively without becoming too distracted by difficult or unfamiliar vocabulary and grammatical points. In other words, the students should find the language level in the exercise easy. The purpose of a fluency exercise is to increase the volume of actual language practice that students can accomplish in the given time limitations. Having the students write out their opinions ahead of time, as many of the exercises require, will allow the students to concentrate their efforts in class on actual speaking rather than reading, listening, or vocabulary. Students will learn to speak about a topic in English by doing just that-actually spending class time speaking.

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Integrated Skills

Having students write something on the topic before they discuss the topic is innovative and integrates writing and speaking. Although this book is designed primarily to encourage speaking, it calls for other skills such as reading, writing, listening, working in groups, and cooperative learning. Yet this is accomplished without students having to do an extensive amount of outside reading or writing, which allows the students to focus on the primary goal of this text: speaking fluency and discussion skills.

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Vocabulary Development

Regardless of any ESL or EFL student's level, vocabulary development is one of the primary concerns of many students. To help students acquire and retain important new vocabulary which pertains to the topics presented in the units of Discussion Starters, each unit concludes with a vocabulary check exercise called Language Review. The format for this exercise varies from unit to unit. The seven different formats used for vocabulary review in this text are as follows.

Key word

Read the key word in the left column. Circle the letter of the word that is related to the key word.

     1. maternity     a. importance     b. arithmetic     c. pregnant

Completion requiring some grammatical changes

Use the vocabulary to complete the sentences. Make grammatical changes when necessary.

     expose     hazard          addictive     sue     patch

1. Due to the    hazardous    weather around the airport, flights were delayed for 45 minutes.

Dialogue completion requiring some grammatical changes

Use the vocabulary to complete the dialogues. Make grammatical changes when necessary.

     recently     occurred     have to do with:

A: Do you want to go to a movie tonight?
B: The weather's really cold today, isn't it?

A: Wait, you've lost me. What    does that have to do with    going to a movie???

Word collocation

Match the words in the columns to form a correct phrase in English.

  c    1. abort
  a    2. attempt
  b     3. calm

a. to do something
b. down
c. the landing

Short answer completion

1. Name two things that hot chocolate and coffee have in common.
   1.Both are drinks. 2. Both have caffeine.
2. What are two things that Colombia and Argentina have in common?
   1. Both are courtries in South America. 2. The people speak Spanish.


Match the definition from the right column with the correct word from the left column.


    b    1. patient
    a    2. ironic
    c    3. in order


a. unexpected, surprising
b. a sick person who goes to see the doctor
c. correct, no problems

Solving problems using the vocabulary

Each question contains an italicized vocabulary item from this unit. Show that you understand the meaning of the italicized item by answering the question.

  1. If you have 10 apples, 30 bananas, and 15 potatoes, and if you give 5 of the bananas and 5 of the potatoes to a friend, how many pieces of fruit are left?
  2. If a large order of fries can feed two people, how many orders of fries does a table of six customers need?

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Answer Key

The answers for Language Review, the last exercise in each of the 32 units, are provided at the back of the book. These answers are provided so that students may check their own work. It is supposed that students will use the key only after they have actually completed the exercise. It is further hoped that students win return to the exercise to detect the source of their error to complete the learning process.

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