A Recursive Materials Series for an English Speaking Course for First-Year Japanese University Students

A Recursive Materials Series for an English Speaking Course for First-Year Japanese University Students

By: Duane Kindt

I’m sure that, like me, you have often tried to figure out how to deal with the challenges and dilemmas you face in teaching spoken English, especially in big classes, with students at greatly different levels, and following a communicative approach. One common dilemma is how to give students multiple opportunities to develop skills in a second language (L2) while they are at the same time trying to communicate with their classmates in the L2. Without a clear solution to this, teachers may put too much attention on rote memorization of words and phrases in lists or one-off tasks that do not provide enough chances for meaningful practice. To try to better deal with this situation in my courses, I began developing a collection of tools and procedures that improve students’ active communication skills in English while at the same time providing several chances to make meaningful connections. To see how I approach the common dilemma mentioned above, I’ll explain five types of tools and activities (in bold italic below), showing where they fit in the entire eight-part materials series, Tools for Increasing Proficiency in Speaking (TIPS), Book 1 and Book 2 (Kindt, 2019a, 2019b):

    1. Topic/vocabulary introduction: Topics and related vocabulary and useful expressions presented as they are actually used in sample conversations (Lott, 2015).
    2. Peer model materials: Student recordings from previous years’ conversation tasks are used as a basis to create new materials for similar activities, tasks, or courses (Kindt, 2004, p. 38).
    3. Communication strategies: Expressions and gambits that can provide “a way to fill the gap between [students’] communication effort and immediate[ly] available linguistic resources” (Maleki, 2010, p. 240).
    4. Conversation cards: Index cards that have notes and images to support practice conversations (Kindt, 2019a, 2019b).
    5. Recursive practice: The “return to a similar experience—but with a wider knowledge” (Kindt, 2004, p. 15), that wider knowledge representing the connections necessary for language development (Bowyer, 2018, p. 144).
    6. Conversation recordings: Recordings of students doing a task, in this case a topic-based conversation (Kindt, 2001), which provide excerpts for later correction and improvement.
    7. Peer editing: Peers’ offering help and suggestions with editing scripts from recorded conversations (Kindt, 2021a).
    8. Collective feedback: The teacher providing summary feedback to the whole class based on common issues in students’ work (Kindt & Murphey, 2000)

Teaching context

Over the past 20 or so years, I’ve developed the materials described above in a typical freshman oral communication course at a private Japanese university. This year-long course normally has about 25 students and meets once a week for 90 minutes, totaling 15 meetings in each of the first and second semesters. The majority of students have limited interactional English skills, as most of their previous studies focused on English as a subject rather than a tool for communication. Because of this, I use the TIPS materials series, which includes the tools and procedures mentioned above, among others. An introduction to the textbook is available at this link.

Peer model materials

One very useful type of peer model material is a transcription of a recording of students completing a required task in the same (or similar) course in years past. Peer models should not be confused with typical dialogues from textbooks as they are not made up by the teacher or materials writers but are actual spontaneous or semi-spontaneous speech that has been recorded and then written out. The task in this case is a seven-minute conversation in English between students in pairs or threes related to the theme “Three Things about Me” that besides being used to introduce students to one another and begin rapport-building, presents the material series and how it is used throughout the course.

Peer model materials provide a number of helpful, recursive features, including useful expressions and chances to notice common near-peer errors. Unlike the way dialogues in textbooks are usually presented, errors in these materials are not erased from the script, but corrections and improvements are displayed in bold (indicating that a word should be added) and bold strikethrough (indicating a word should be deleted). After becoming more familiar with the system, students may notice these errors and improvements on their own or I can bring them to students’ attention, either before or after they pop up during recursive practice. Take a look at this Excerpt taken from a near-peer example conversation:[1]

[1] The entire conversation, along with an expert-speaker conversation, is included in Chapter 1, available as a pdf file from this link: http://www.profkindt.com/site/tips_files/chpt1.pdf.

Part of a peer model conversation from the topic Three Things about Me

Along with expert-speaker examples of a conversation on the same topic, complete peer model conversations, like the one that Excerpt 1 is derived from, introduce students to not only the overall task requirement, but also how previous students approached it. Here, useful expressions in context, like “I’ve been working in a tavern” and “Tell me one last things thing about yourself” are introduced (in underline) along with communication strategies in focus (in square boxes), common errors, and areas that could be improved.

Communication strategies

Way back in 1995, Zoltan Dörnyei reviewed the arguments for and against openly teaching communication strategies, which include  using filler words ,  getting time to think ,  using the L1  (also known as codeswitching), and the like (p. 58). Referring again to Excerpt 1 (above), communication strategies in use, like  follow-up questions , can be presented to students in the peer models, displaying how the strategies were actually used effectively in ongoing conversations, and how they might be used when current students later have a similar conversation about the topic. What’s more, students are often motivated by seeing near-peers—who are at about their same age and likely producing language close to their level—successfully complete the task using strategies.

Two or three communication strategies are introduced in each chapter in the textbooks. Since spoken interactional competence (IC) includes the ability to reach understanding with others in conversational English, strategies later in the textbook include  asking for clarification ,  correcting yourself ,  summarizing , and the like. As courses progress, students are encouraged to use strategies they learned previously as the need arises. This recursive process gradually develops their “interactional repertoire,” an important “component of [IC]” (Hall, 2018, p. 35). A growing list of communication/conversation strategies is available here: http://www.profkindt.com/site/strategies.html

Recursive practice

It’s likely you’ve all experienced and promote the benefits of experiential learning, trying something again to get better at it. This is recursion. It is a basic learning process in the brain, as the opportunity to revisit experience is at the heart of learning. In one-off activities, the emphasis is not on recursion, the assumption being that students simply memorize the forms and expressions under study for subsequent use. When following the suggested materials series, however, recursion occurs at multiple levels, including several iterations of recursive practice, a recording of the final conversations, a transcription of the recording, multiple peer editors, and collective feedback, which all support the development of students’ communicative speaking abilities.

Peer editing

Once a student has written a transcript of their part (either a half or a third depending on the number in their group) of the recorded conversation, they bring a printout of it to the next class. At that time, they and their partner (and subsequently two other classmates) take turns reading through it aloud together, stopping when necessary to correct any errors and add any improvements that they may notice. Each editor uses a different color pen, so they and the instructor can see who is offering which feedback. Students of different ability levels may see different possible corrections, itself a recursive, developmental process, but they gradually improve at giving effective peer feedback.

Collective feedback

As Lightbown and Spada (2013) note, feedback “play[s] a crucial role in helping learners to make connections between form and meaning” (p. 167); “form” being the grammatical shape of the language while “meaning” is the information the forms carry. To provide students with a final opportunity to (re)attend to the language used in their conversations, I note a selection of common errors and areas for improvement that remain in the scripts and make a review sheet to be returned to them collectively. This allows for an end-of-series assessment of their understanding of a variety of the forms and functions that emerged:


Though these collective reviews change with the errors and improvements that emerge from students’ peer-reviewed scripts, in this case, the chapter focus on the strategies of  5Ws and an H questions  and  follow-up questions  could be revisited, along with a review of count/noncount nouns, subject-verb agreement, and the like. In this first iteration, Chapter 1, I based the review on the original peer model, but in subsequent classes I could use other peer models or ask students in the course for consent to use theirs. See below for an example from the second cycle (names are pseudonyms). In the course described in this paper, students receive this collective feedback 12 times a year, the final review ending every two-class recursive cycle.


As mentioned above, there are tools and procedures we can use to help overcome some of the dilemmas that arise in teaching spoken English. These include the following:

    1. Peer model materials: conversations made based on work that former students have done.
    2. Communication strategies: useful expressions and gambits to help students move conversations forward and overcome breakdowns.
    3. Recursive practice: several opportunities for meaningful practice.
    4. Peer feedback: fellow students who act as peer editors.
    5. Collective feedback: feedback from the teacher to the whole class based on a selection of common errors.

These examples are from an oral communication courses, but the tools and procedures can be used in other learning contexts. In an advanced undergraduate communication skills course, for example, I rely on peer videos from previous students to model assignments related to vocal, nonvocal, and material communication skills, and build students’ strategic and analytical skills by focusing on effective and improvable instances in their excerpts and then sharing these with others, which allows for peer feedback and resubmission of their work before I provide collective feedback to the whole class (see Kindt, 2021b). For more details, a related presentation (Kindt, 2021a) can be viewed here. From experience in several teaching/learning contexts, I believe that whatever the context, it is through these tools and procedures and multiple recursive cycles at various levels that students have enough opportunities to make the connections necessary for increasing their communicative English skills.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publishers!

The phrase, “commissioning artwork for a publishing company” might perhaps sound quite alluring. Conjuring up perhaps imagined discussions about Monet’s impressionism vs Paul Cezanne’s post impressionism and the like. The reality, at least in ELT, is quite different. The story is, I wanted an illustration of a “bowl of clam chowder and a spoon.” If I say this to people who grew up in the English-speaking world, what sort of bowl do you imagine? What sort of spoon do you imagine? I’m quite sure you imagined a bowl with a bit of a wide flat horizontal brim around it, perhaps for resting a wee piece of bread on, or something like that, and so on. The soup spoon would also be a typical soup spoon, a bit wider, deeper and rounder than a typical spoon. Yes?? Well, the problem was, I was having the artwork done in Korea. And those of you who have been to Korea, might understand the problem that was coming. What I got was a bowl, with high vertical sides, and a nice long spoon. Basically, it was a bowl and spoon for bibimba. After multiple redraws, and multiple pictures being sent back and forth I finally got a bowl of soup with a spoon. Now, multiply this by 75% of the artwork in the book . . . This was one of my first big lessons: Work with artists who have a cultural understanding of the context being drawn!

Alastair Graham-Marr is an author and editor for many of the ABAX books including Communication Spotlight and Top-Up Listening, the latter of which features a bowl of clam chowder with a spoon!


  • Bowyer, D. S. (2018). Exploring the effects of recursive conversations on L2 learner beliefs. JALT 2018 • Diversity and Inclusion, Shizuoka, Japan.

  • Dörnyei, Z. (1995). On the teachability of communication strategies. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 55-84.

  • Hall, J. K. (2018). From L2 interactional competence to L2 interactional repertoires: Reconceptualising the objects of L2 learning. Classroom Discourse, 9(1), 25-39. https://doi.org/10.1080/19463014.2018.1433050             

  • Kindt, D. (2001). Learning independence: Recording conversations for student evaluation. Independence: Newsletter of the IATEFL Learner Independence SIG, 29, 5-9.       

  • Kindt, D. (2004). A systemic view of emergent course design: A multimethod exploration of the complex, dynamic nature of student engagement in an emergent EFL course [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Birmingham]. Birmingham, UK.   

  • Kindt, D. (2019a). Tools for increasing proficiency in speaking, book 1 (12th ed.). WellOn.

  • Kindt, D. (2019b). Tools for increasing proficiency in speaking, book 2 (12th ed.). WellOn.

  • Kindt, D. (2021a). Co-construction in sharing multimodal analyses of learners’ own L2 production. International Pragmatics Association 2023 (IPrA2023), Winterthur, Switzerland.

  • Kindt, D. (2021b). Displays of analytical skills in sharing excerpts of learners’ own L2 interaction. In H. Jung & E. Hauser (Eds.), Proceedings of the 4th CAN-Asia Symposium on L2 Interaction (pp. 104-111). CAN-Asia.          

  • Kindt, D., & Murphey, T. (2000). Feedback as feedforward: Action logs and class newsletters. In D. Brooks, R. Long, & J. Robbins (Eds.), JALT1999 International Conference Proceedings (pp. 85-90). JALT.           

  • Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2013). How languages are learned (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

  • Lott, D. (2015). Learner-centered teaching and student beliefs. [MA thesis, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies]. Nagoya, Japan.

  • Maleki, A. (2010). Techniques to teach communication strategies. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 1(5), 670-646. https://doi.org/10.4304/jltr.1.5.640-646  

Duane Kindt is a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in Nagoya, Japan. He received his MAT from the School for Int’l Training (Brattleburo, VT) and his PhD from the Univerity of Birminham (UK). He is interested in researching the positive effects of recursive practice and related skills on L2 development. Some of his recent publications have used Conversation Analysis (CA) as an approach to explore this.

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