Karen's Linguistics Issues, March 2002 | This Month's Articles | Previous Months  


Encouraging “real world” fluency via turn-taking in small group discussions in the Japanese university EFL classroom

 by Stephen B. Ryan, Yamagata University

            Getting students actively involved in the classroom is something every teacher hopes to accomplish. Yet, many university ESL/EFL students have lost motivation to study English because of the way it is taught or the material used.  They need something to motivate them to produce language that they normally would not try (L+1). Within the speech event of a small group discussion, students need the opportunity and motivation to “take up” a turn when interacting in a small group setting. The term “turn-taking” (see Sacks et. al 1974, Levinson 1983) comes from Conversation Analysis (CA) theory. This paper advocates a more practical application of CA theory by describing how EFL learners can construct the spoken text to directly allocate their turns (e.g what do you think about …?) to other learners or construct a place where other speakers can easily take up a turn (e.g I’m not quite sure what you mean/ could you clarify that for me?) to further the discussion.  This is an area particularly useful for Japanese students whose communication patterns value more of an empathetic non-verbal (Ramsey 1998:119) approach over a direct verbal approach.  

            The small group discussion is not a new teaching technique, and this one has been adapted (Brown 1996) and used for more specific purposes. The methodology it offers has several advantages over a textbook driven methodology that are worth re-visiting. First, it offers students the opportunity to practice “real world” language by debating particular points in a logical way with each other. Second, the group discussion grading criteria provides a more objective way to score individual learners based on their performance. It rewards student interaction and discourages pre-prepared memorization of long passages.  Third, by forcing learners to accept more responsibility for their classroom success or failure, an intrinsic motivation is created for them to give their best effort and come away with s sense of accomplishment. Fourth, small group discussions are easily adaptable to students’ interest as the teacher has control over the content selected. This paper was written with the intermediate Japanese university EFL classroom context in mind.  

Stage 1 : Setting up – Phrase practice

            The initial set up stage is the most crucial to the methodology because it lets students know what they can be expected to do for the rest of the term or year.  On the first day of class, students are given a list of phrases (see Appendix) that they are required to use in their small group discussions to receive points.  Next, the teacher goes over each one of these phrases by giving examples how they are used and having students repeat to raise their awareness of them.  This may be done in the first few classes as there are quite a few phrases to cover and may overwhelm the weaker students. What seems most useful, however, is for the teacher to give specific examples of how each type of phrase is used in context. This can be done, for instance, by making purposely vague or intriguing statements. For example, to practice the phrase, “Excuse me, could you explain yourself more fully?”, the teacher can start by making a statement such as the example below:            

T: I think Japan is a mysterious place.

S:  Excuse me, could you explain yourself more fully?

T:  What I mean is that Japanese customs and beliefs are much different than in my country so they seem mysterious to me. 

            Once learners are aware of the use of the basic phrase types and how they are used, it is time to put them in groups and handout the first topic discussion.  Topic selection of the discussion allows the teacher the opportunity to modify the course for students’ needs. For instance, a class of medical students could be given a topic where students must choose the most suitable candidate for an organ transplant or controversial medical technique. Or. a class of business majors could be given a topic of a loan officer screening and selecting prospective borrowers or the best way to invest one million dollars. The topics chosen simply need to be provocative enough that students need to form an opinion after considering several plausible alternatives. 

Stage 2:  Forming groups and assigning a leader

            The next stage puts learners into groups of 3-5 and a group leader is chosen. Some teachers prefer to put stronger students with each other while others prefer to mix the stronger with the weaker ones.  For the author’s group discussions, students were randomly assigned to groups five students per group. An odd number is preferable so that the group cannot become deadlocked when trying to reach a decision via a consensus.  Students are randomly assigned to a new group at the start of a new discussion and a new group leader is chosen. The purpose behind random group selection is for learners to become more comfortable expressing their opinions in front strangers and also to have the opportunity to become the group leader. The group leader is responsible for keeping the discussion moving and bringing in new people to keep the topic from stagnating. Although it is more challenging for these students, it is also much easier to score points as we will see in stage 4. Once the small groups are formed and students choose their own group leader it is time for them to study and discuss the topic given to them by the teacher. 

Stage 3: Group Preparation

            Preparation for the first discussion will be the most difficult as learners feel unsure of what to do or how to approach practicing for the discussion in front of the teacher. In addition, some may have difficulty forming or expressing an opinion. In this case, the teacher may want to explicitly teach a few phrases that learners should emphasis.  One topic used in the author’s class, for example, had students choose the best mate for a single 33 year-old working woman. Students had to formulate and express their opinions for each bachelor from the information given. For instance, “Bachelor A is a 50 year old successful businessman who enjoys traveling and does not want children”.  “Bachelor B is a 38 year old college professor who enjoys music, reading and quiet evenings at home. He would like to have children”.  Based on this type of information, students form their own opinion and express this to the group while trying to incorporate the phrases. For example, students may say something like,  In my opinion, Bachelor B is better because… or “I agree with you on that point” or “Actually, I think …” It may prove useful for the weaker students to write down specific phrases to practice their opinions.

Stage 4:  The Discussion & Grading

            By the third class (90 minute class), most groups are ready to begin their first discussion. The teacher will need to be in front of the particular group or part of their circle to listen for and award points to each person.  The teacher can use the following grading criteria for a total of 25 points per discussion:


            Learners will quickly realize that to score well, they must speak and interact more and use the phrases.  Thus, the grading system itself provides an intrinsic motivation for students to prepare well for their discussions. Another advantage of the grading criteria is that there is less subjectivity as it is mostly based on students’ performance and not merely the teacher’s interpretation.  The award of 3 points for “logically” used phrases does allow some subjectivity for the instructor to judge if the phrase was particularly logical to the speech event or natural in the course of the discussion however. Below is an example of the beginning of how one can score a discussion.

Example Discussion

Mr. Ito (leader):  We are here today to discuss who is the best person for Jane. (2)

                        What do you think Mr. Suzuki? (2)

Ms. Suzuki:  In my opinion, Bachelor B is the best person because he has a lot of money and could take care of  her. (2)

Mr. Honma:  I see your point, but I can’t agree with you. (3)

Mr. Ito:         Why not? (1)

Mr. Honma:  Bachelor B is too old for her.  That is, he will not be interested in the same lifestyle as her. (2)

Mr. Ito:     Do you agree with him Mr. Tani? (2)

Mr. Tani: I completely agree with him. (2) Personally, I think it is important to have similar lifestyles. (2)


Points awarded:

Mr. Ito (leader):  7 points

Ms. Suzuki:  2 points

Mr. Honma: 5 points

Mr. Tani:      4 points


The group leader has the most opportunity to score points by keeping the discussion moving along. However, (s)he also has more responsibility. In the example, discussion above, Mr. Honma was awarded 3 and 2 points each for his two phrases. The phrase, “ I see your point, but I can’t agree with you”, was used correctly and judged to be used in a logical way – 3 points.  It also served to expand the conversation for the others.  Ms. Suzuki took one turn and used one relevant phrase for 2 points. The group leader, Mr. Ito, took three turns and used two phrases for a total of 7 points.

After 15-20 minutes, students should be nearing completion of their discussion. The teacher can then total each students’ points and explain any relevant speech errors that need correcting. Providing corrections or feedback in the middle of the discussion may hinder students’ performance. In the author’s class, feedback was given to each group immediately after each discussion had finished to aid their performance on subsequent  group discussions. 


Through the use of specific topic oriented phrases, this small group discussion methodology allows learners to practice language that they would normally not produce. It  also allows for teaching creativity in choosing topics and a more objective way for the teacher to grade conversational interaction based on turn-taking. This methodology also works well if supplemented by a listening or pronunciation textbook to add some variety to the course. In addition, the author’s students were occasionally quizzed on the relevant vocabulary they had to work with in their topic preparation. 

The limitations of this technique are that it may be too difficult for beginning or unmotivated learners. Also, the group discussion is necessarily staged at the beginning as learners begin to feel comfortable with the flow of managing the discussion.  However, students who are willing to say their opinion and enjoy interacting with others will practice a wide variety in phrases and language that they normally would not have in a standard textbook course. Another assumption and limitation of this methodology is that learners will be motivated and mature enough to practice the discussion topic amongst themselves without constant teacher supervision or prompting. The author has successfully used this teaching method with motivated third-year Japanese university students giving 4-5 discussions sessions each semester.           

Finally, while a learner-centered small group discussion may not be for everyone, it offers learners an excellent opportunity to practice their language and debating skills in their future interactions with other English speakers outside the classroom. It also offers the teacher a way to tailor the course to the specific needs of the students and a more objective way to grade oral discussion without significant effort to motivate students to perform at their best.


Brown, J. 1996. Creating a Small Group Discussion Course in Japan. Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities Journal. Vol. 42, pp. 59-70. Nagoya City University, Nagoya Japan. 

Levinson, S. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Ramsey, S. J. (1998). Interactions between North Americans and Japanese: Considerations of Communication Style. In Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Bennett, M. (ed). Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press. 

Sacks, H. Schegloff, E.A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. In Language V.50 N.4. pp. 696-735


1. Introducing the topic

Ø      Today we are here to discuss…

Ø      The goal of our discussion today is…

2. Bringing in other people

Ø      What is your opinion, Mr. Ito?

Ø      Do you agree with Mr. Ito’s opinion, Ms. Suzuki?

Ø      Mr. Ito, what do you think we should do?

Ø      Mr. Ito, what are your views regarding this point?

3. Keeping the Discussion Moving

Ø      Let’s go on to another point.

Ø      Next, let’s talk about…

Ø      Let’s talk about that later.

4. Giving an opinion

Ø      In my opinion…

Ø      As far as I’m concerned…

Ø      Personally, I believe that…

Ø      The way I see it is… 

5. Getting further information

Ø      Would you mind explaining that a little more, please?

Ø      Could you explain that more fully?

Ø      Could you tell us a bit more about that? 

6. Restating an idea

Ø      In other words,

Ø      That is, …

Ø      What I’m trying to say is…

Ø      I mean…

Ø      To put it another way… 

7. Persuading Convincing

Ø      You must admit that…

Ø      Don’t forget that…

Ø      You must remember that… 

8. Inquiring about Agreement or Disagreement

Ø      Do/don’t you agree, Ms. Suzuki?

Ø      Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Ito? 

9. Expressing Agreement

Ø      Yes, that is right/correct.

Ø      You are right/correct.

Ø      I definitely agree with Ms. Suzuki.

Ø      That is exactly what I think. 

10. Expressing Disagreement

Ø      I don’t really agree with him/her.

Ø      I’m afraid I can’t agree with his/her opinion.

Ø      That’s not quite how I see it.

Ø      I can see your point, but I don’t really agree with it.       

11. Expressing doubt or reservation

Ø      Well, maybe, but I’m not sure about that.

Ø      Hmm, he may be correct but I’m not sure.

Ø      I can see your point, but I’m not sure I agree. 

12. Refuting a fact

Ø      Actually,

Ø      As a matter of fact, …

Ø      Well, I’m not sure that is true/correct because… 

13. Dismissing an irrelevant point

Ø      I’m afraid you’re missing the point.

Ø      I don’t think that has anything do with the goal of our discussion. 

14.  Making suggestions

Ø      Why don’t we/you…

Ø      How about…

Ø      I suggest that we/you… 

15. Agreeing with a suggestion

Ø      Ok. That makes sense.

Ø      Of course.

Ø      Certainly 

16. Refusing a suggestion or request

Ø      I’m sorry but that is out of the question

Ø      Unfortunately that is not possible. 

17. Capitulation

Ø      Mr. Suzuki has convinced me that my opinion/suggestion/idea is not useful/practical/necessary/good. Therefore, I have changed my mind.

Ø      OK. You have persuaded me to change my mind. I can agree with you. 

18. Expressing similarities

Ø      Those two points/suggestions are similar.

Ø      Mr. Suzuki’s idea is about the same as Ms. Ito’s.

Ø      My idea/suggestion is (more)....er than mine/hers.           

19. Interrupting

Ø      Excuse me for interrupting, but…

Ø      Sorry to interrupt, but… 

20. Getting a point into the discussion

Ø      I have a point I’d like to make.

Ø      I’d like to add something here.

Ø      I’d like to say something about your/her/his idea. 

21. Seeking clarification

Ø      What do you mean?

Ø      Sorry, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

Ø      Do you mean that…?

Ø      I’m sorry, I don’t quite follow.

Ø      I don’t quite understand what you’re saying. 

22. Paraphrasing another person’s idea

Ø      What Ms. Ito means is that…

Ø      What (s)he is trying to say is that… 

23. Requesting

Ø      Ms. Ito, I wonder if you would mind................., please?

Ø      Mr. Kato, do you think you could..............., please? 

24. Making comparisons

Ø      Mr. Ito’s explanation is more/less............than hers/his.

Ø      Your opinion/idea is.............-er than mine/hers. 

25.  Expressing Preference

Ø      I think the best/worst suggestion is …

Ø      His idea is the............-est  (best, most reasonable etc.)

Ø      Her proposal is the most/least…

Ø      One of the most practical items is..............., so we/you should definitely take/use it. 

26. Closing the Discussion

Ø      In conclusion, the purpose of this discussion…

Ø      The goal of our discussion is to….

Ø      We have concluded that…       


(Adapted with permission from Brown, J. 1996)

The author is a long-term and permanent resident of Japan and teaches at Yamagata University.  He is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester and is currently researching cross-cultural miscommunication between Japanese and Americans.  http://www-h.yamagata-u.ac.jp/~ryan/


©Stephen B. Ryan 2002. All rights reserved.