Logical Conversation Flowcharts

For Greater Learner Autonomy

Presentation at NYS TESOL 2000, in Rochester, NY

2:00 - 3:30 PM, Saturday, October 28, 2000

By Robert Bruce Scott

[Dedication to O. Dean Gregory, 1927-2000]

Context for the Study

I am going to present what I hope sounds like a reasonable argument in favor of using logical conversation flowchart activities to empower intermediate and advanced English learners to manage their conversations more effectively by understanding the basic grammar of arguments and disagreements. But the first thing any educator ought to acknowledge when promoting his or her personal favorite teaching approach is what N. S. Prabhu pointed out in his 1987 book, "Second Language Pedagogy": (a rough paraphrase) the key factor influencing the success or failure of a learning activity in any given classroom on any given day is going to be the attitude of the teacher, his or her belief in the validity of that activity.

In their 1997 TESOL Quarterly forum piece, "Direct Approaches in L2 Instruction: A Turning Point in Communicative Language Teaching," Marianne Celce-Murcia et al issued a call for applications of discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, pragmatics and other research relevant to communicative competence, towards the goal of describing communicative language teaching more systematically. Celce-Murcia’s argument suggests there is a perception that the first several decades of communicative language teaching, dating back to the ‘70s, have been characterized primarily by Krashen-like "natural" curricula, in which any focus on form was eschewed and the only rule was to keep things interesting while learners indirectly and unconsciously acquired English.

Celce-Murcia conjures up the "consciousness-raising," anti-Krashen revolt of the late ‘80s with a reference to Henry Widdowson, who in his 1990 book, "Aspects of Language Teaching," remarked that natural language acquisition is a "long and rather inefficient business," and that (quoting from Widdowson):

…the whole point of language pedagogy is that it is
a way of short-circuiting the slow process of natural
discovery and can make arrangements for learning
to happen more easily and more efficiently than it
does in natural surroundings.

Many teachers would agree with Widdowson and readily admit that even when they were trying to teach communicatively they were actually just as often teaching traditional grammar, explaining rules and practicing them directly with pattern exercises. Others may see Widdowson’s argument against the natural approach as vindication of their years of resistance to the general looseness of more communicative teaching strategies.

But Celce-Murcia is not calling for a wholesale return to direct teaching of sentence-level grammar. Rather she and her colleagues want to raise the level of discussions about communicative teaching, in order to build up a system for what they call "a principled communicative approach" that recognizes "a shift toward direct teaching" of conversational or discourse-level grammar.

According to Celce-Murcia, this shift toward direct teaching has three main tendencies:

first, adding specific formulaic language input to communicative tasks;
second, raising learners’ awareness of the organizational
principles of language use within and beyond the sentence level;
and third, sequencing communicative tasks more systematically
in accordance with a theory of discourse grammar.

In declaring the reasonable view that communicative language teaching has matured over the past quarter century far beyond its indirect, free-conversation origins, Celce-Murcia is tapping into a widespread uneasiness among ESL teachers regarding so-called "communicative" activities. As Emilio Santa Rita and Jennifer Misick said it in their 1996 article, "An Adaptation of Group Dynamics Techniques to Conversation Workshops for ESL Students":

…there is often a feeling on the part of ESL teachers that time
spent on these free conversation activities is somehow illegitimate;
that this time might better be spent on drilling structures by means
of pattern practice.

"Often the structural aspects of the program are mandatory in the curriculum," wrote Santa Rita and Misick, "while conversational activities are left up to the judgement of the individual teacher." They suggest that relegating communicative activities to second-tier status ignores the fact that there are two processes in learning a language. Borrowing from Krashen, the authors describe these two processes:

first, to approximate the phonetic, morphological and
syntactic patterns of the language; and second, something
other than accuracy of patterns, which allows a speaker
to make himself or herself understood.

Santa Rita and Misick refer to Hirsh, 1988, when they state that "the requirement for the development of fluency is the will to communicate." "Communicate," they say, "means not merely to speak but to say something."

Santa Rita and Misick point out a fundamental problem with what are typically called "free conversation" activities, namely, that only a few students are actively speaking or listening. "A student may think he or she is listening," these teachers from Bronx Community College explain, "but may not be able to summarize what the speaker has said." This lack of listening, according to Santa Rita and Misick, can be the result of two factors: "the number of participants and the desire of students to speak but not to hear."

Santa Rita and Misick describe in their paper a problem-solving task in which students debated a moral dilemma (taking the role of a teacher who catches a student cheating), breaking into "buzz groups" of three to six students in order for each student to participate more fully. Each group had to arrive at a consensus, so each student was motivated to express his or her views persuasively. "In most classroom activities there is a two-way participation pattern," reported Santa Rita and Misick, but "in the buzz group the pattern is multidirectional; all members speak to one another or to the group as a whole." According to the authors, the success of the exercise was the result of:

    1. the inherent interest of the topic; and
    2. the structure of the problem, which permitted

    3. and demanded active participation in the
      communicative process.

Ten Octobers ago, I was kind of a roving reporter at JALT ’90, the annual conference of the Japanese Association of Language Teachers, that year meeting in Omiya, about half an hour by train from Tokyo. As a member of the Tokyo JALT executive committee, I had submitted a number of monthly reports on our chapter meetings to a publication called The Language Teacher. But this time I wanted to "grok" a complete conference and convey an impressionistic interpretation of the entire experience.

[JALT article]

Now it’s 10 years later, and we’re in the middle of another conference that is surely on its way to being a major success, too.

Learner autonomy is not easy to achieve. Many of us have struggled at one time or another with students who can barely manage to participate at all on an assigned classroom task, much less reach Candlin’s ideal of negotiating the classroom agenda with their teacher.

In 1988, I was working as an ESL teacher and counselor in the Applied English Center, at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Kansas, when I was hired to go help set up an American branch campus program near Niigata, Japan. One of the students I had counseled was from China, and she gave me some valuable advice about teaching Japanese and Asian students in general. "It’s not their fault that they are so passive in the classroom," she told me. "You need to teach them how to be active."

"Why Do Many Students Appear Reluctant to Participate in Classroom Learning Discourse," is the title of a 1997 article by University of Hong Kong authors Ngar-Fun Liu and William Littlewood. Liu and Littlewood surveyed students regarding their willingness to adopt active speech roles in second-language classrooms. They found that students like communicative tasks and prefer classes where students are allowed to do most of the talking. However, the survey also found that most students had low confidence in their ability to speak without prior planning.

I’d like to share with you a teaching approach that seems to help students plan and practice for greater awareness of the discourse patterns in academic conversations, or arguments, and greater confidence to assert themselves in their interactions with English speakers, whether teachers or other individuals they meet. I believe that these logical conversation activities answer Celce-Murcia’s call for direct communicative teaching techniques, help students and their teachers meet as equals on higher conversational ground and incorporate some of the group-dynamics principles described by the two teachers from Bronx Community College.


  1. Conversation Discourse Chart
  2. Logical Conversation Grading Chart

The Logical Conversation Method

Step 1: Introducing the Conversation Flowchart & Speech Formulas

In this step, learners are given the conversation discourse chart, something they can understand readily because of the widespread use of flowcharts in many different fields today—business decisions using decision trees, qualitative analysis in chemistry using flowcharts, for example. The conversation chart is like a road map—it helps you get to where you’re going, but you find out much more (shortcuts, sideroads, picnic spots) when you actually get there.

The labels from the chart are conversational moves or functions, and students will need some help practicing how to fulfill these intentions. This will require pronunciation work, sentence-level grammar exercises, examples and a lot of repetition until they all become proficient at efficiently utilizing their turns in arguments or academic discussions.

Here are some of the formulas for starting statements to fit the basic labels from the conversation chart.


I believe that …

I think that …

In my opinion, …


Why do you say that?


Because …


What do you mean?

For example?


For example, …

Let me tell you what I mean…

Step 2: Mapping Sample Conversations

Now that students are familiar with the language associated with participating in a logical conversation, they can be given several easy sample conversations (on paper or taped) to trace or follow each conversational move along the flowchart.

Here’s an example:

Topic: Who is the better candidate, Hillary or Rick?

A: I think Hillary is better than Rick.

B: I think Rick is better than Hillary.

A: Why do you say that?

Tracing a sample conversation

Step 3: Creating Conversations to Follow Particular Flowchart Paths

In step 3, students are given a sequence of conversational moves using labels from the conversation chart, and practice writing both parts of a conversation to match the selected paths. The teacher assigns topics and paths like this:

Topic: What is the most important thing in life?

A: (Give your opinion and a reason for it)

B: (Disagree and give a reason to support your opinion)

A: (Contradict the reason with an example)

B: (Accept the example, concede)

In order to provide interesting topics for these sample discussions, the teacher may want to start a topic-recycling list. This starts with a list generated by the teacher, who asks learners to circle the best five topics, cross out the worst ones and write in several of their own suggestions. The teacher then tallies the results to come up with a refined list, closer to the interests of the students. After several times through this recycling process, there is a pretty solid list of topics for students to choose from in the rest of the logical conversation activities.

[Sample List]

In step 3, it is also necessary to work on exercises to help students distinguish between fact and opinion statements, as well as working on exercises in which they have to label and re-order opinion, reason and example statements, so that they become better able to distinguish among these key elements in logical conversations.

Step 4: Flashcard "Debates"

There are three different modes I have used to incorporate a "flashcard" element in the logical conversation activities. First, I will divide the class into two "teams" and conduct an orchestrated debate-like activity in which team members take turns attempting to say something that fits the label on the flashcard I am holding up. The flashcards are just bigger versions of the boxes from the flowchart.

Robb Scott leading a flashcard debate

A second mode has the class divided into groups of three, with members of each group taking turns being either the flashcard holder/judge or one of the two participants. The third way this activity can be done is to miniaturize the flashcard sequences into little Conversation Adventure Booklets, which pairs of students go through, taking turns as participants in conversations that follow particular paths on the chart. Sometimes it’s nice to include little surprises in these adventures, such as "Participant A pounds the table to emphasize a point."

The value of cycling a number of times through these three various flashcard modes is that each mode evokes a different teacher-student relationship. In the first mode, the teacher can communicate with the class as a whole and reinforce everyone’s understanding of the logical conversation process; in the second mode, similar to Santa Rita and Misick’s "buzz groups," students gain autonomy and get the chance to be "judges" themselves of whether each conversational contribution meets the standards or not; in the third mode, with adventure booklets, students work in pairs and go through as many different flowchart sequences and topics as possible. In small groups and in pairs, learners also benefit from more individualized attention as the teacher moves his or her attention from one group to another. Sometimes the teacher will want to come back to the class as a whole in order to underscore or introduce a particular aspect to everyone at once.

Step 5: Freestyle Debate

At this point in the logical conversation activity, students are very familiar with the labels from the flowchart and have a fair amount of experience talking along various flowchart pathways. The grand finale is a "Final Debate Event."

First, students are asked to propose and vote on the topics for the big debate event. The results in one recent class:

Can different ethnic groups live together in peace?
Should medical care be free?
Which is more important: freedom or control?
At what age should children start school?
Should U.S. immigration laws be changed to make it easier to immigrate to America?

Students then break into pairs or small groups and compete in a brainstorming activity, seeing who can come up with the longest vocabulary list for each of the chosen topics. Their homework ahead of the final debate is to think about the topics and be ready to argue about them.

Students are also given a quick introduction to H.P. Grice's principles of logical conversation ("Logic and Conversation," in Syntax and Semantics, v. 4, ed. John P. Kimball, Academic Press, 1975), which are the basis for the conversation grading chart used to determine "winners" in the debate.

The key to a successful and satisfying conclusion to this conversation activity is to heavily promote the Final Debate Event--build it up, promote it and tap the students' competitive spirits. For one recent final debate, I made little flyers and posted them all over the school, even in the elevator so that students would get pumped on their way up.

After the big debate (with no flashcards, of course), it is relatively easy to transition into other activities that allow students to exercise their newly acquired argumentative skills. For example, students can give speeches and lead class discussions on interesting topics of the day. This is also an excellent time to work on argument or persuasive essay writing.

This is only one of many ways that flowcharts can be used to facilitate direct communicative ESL teaching. In 1977, Mohan and Katz ("Communicative Competence and Flowcharts," TESL Talk, 8, no. 1) introduced the use of flowcharts to ESL teaching, mapping a shopping conversation between a clerk and a customer. In 1980, J.B. Heaton ("Communication in the Classroom: Preparing a Functional Language Course for Teachers," English Language Teaching Journal, 35, no. 1) used flowcharts of classroom communication to help re-train content-teachers in Singapore conduct their lessons in the new official language, English. As a member of the OPELT (Ohio Program for English Language Teaching) curriculum research and design team in Kasugai, Japan, I used flowcharts to help Aichi prefecture police learn basic English for dealing with foreigners, asking for identification, giving directions, etc.

None of this means, however, that indirect, more "natural" ESL teaching has no value. Indeed, 75 percent of what students learn from are probably things we're not even noticing about what we're doing as teachers. It's tough to control for attention and focus. When I studied teacher observation with John Fanselow at Teacher's College, Columbia University, he continually reminded us to redirect our attention away from the obvious focus of any given situation.

The recent big debate event was a huge success. The class was divided into two teams, and they knew that the winners would be those who supported their opinions with reasons and gave clear examples to illustrate their reasons. The winners might even be those who responded to strong reasoning from the other side by being flexible enough to change their minds. It was exciting to see the fervor with which each team conducted its internal debate on what their team opinion would be and what their discussion strategy would be. The intensity of these preparatory discussions was actually better in many ways than the actual formal debate.

After we finished the activity that evening, and I was heading down the street to the subway, I realized that my mind was energized around the several topics that the students had so enthusiastically debated.

I imagined that they, too, had walked away from our debates with lingering questions, turning over in their minds the different arguments for different opinions, and thinking how they might do it again in another way.

There is no teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfusion takes place; he [or she] is you and you are he [or she]. Then is a teaching, and by no unfriendly chance or bad company can he ever quite lose the benefit.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

See also: "The Use of Flowcharts and Logic to Teach Conversational Skills in Advanced ESL Classes," by Robert Bruce Scott (Master's, University of Kansas, 1984), document available on ERIC microfiche, 1985, ED 247 744.