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Topic 5 – Oral communication. Elements and rules of speech. Routines and formulae. Strategies of oral communication.

According to current legislation, students must be able to “understand and express themselves in an appropriate manner during situations of communication”. Communicating effectively consists of being able to produce lots of correct language, but also to use it appropriately depending on who we are talking to, where we are and why we are speaking. In this topic, I will deal with the oral exchange of that information, that is to say, with oral communication. I am going to divide the topic into five different sections. I will begin by giving an overview of oral communication. In order to understand it clearly, I will establish a comparison between oral and written communication. In my second section I will include the main elements and norms governing oral communication. Then I will move on to deal with some routines and formulae associated with oral communication. In my fourth section I will have a look at the most significant strategies of oral communication and finally, I will reflect upon the importance of non-verbal communication in oral interactions.

Let’s begin with my first section, in which I am going to establish a comparison between speech and writing, in order to understand oral communication better. Spoken and written language display a number of important differences over and above the obvious distinction in physical form -that speech uses sounds whereas writing uses marks on paper. These differences are chiefly to do with language use, arising out of the fact that speakers and writers are operating in fundamentally different communicative situations. But there are also differences in language structure: the grammar and vocabulary of speaking is by no means the same as that of writing.

Writing is sometimes thought to be little more than “speech written down”. However, the two mediums function as independent methods of communication. Let’s see some features of oral communication compared to that of written language:

  • Speech is time-bound, dynamic and transient. It is part of an interaction in which both participants are usually present, and the speaker has a particular addressee in mind. On the contrary, writing is space-bound, static and permanent. The writer is usually distant from the reader, and often does not know who the reader is going to be.
  • In speech there is no time-lag between production and reception, unless one is deliberately introduced by the recipient. The spontaneity and speed of most speech exchange make it difficult to engage in complex advance planning. The pressure to think while talking promotes looser construction, repetition, rephrasing and comment clauses. Intonation and pause divide long utterances into manageable chunks, but sentence boundaries are often unclear. On the contrary, writers must anticipate the effects of the time-lag between production and reception, and the problems posed by having their language read and interpreted by many recipients in diverse settings. Writing promotes the development of careful organization and compact expression, with often intricate sentence structure. Units of discourse (sentences, paragraphs) are usually easy to identify through punctuation and layout.
  • Because participants are typically in face-to-face interaction, they can rely on such extralinguistic cues as facial expressions and gestures to aid meaning. The lexicon of speech is often characteristically vague, using words which refer directly to the situation (deictic expressions, such as “that one”, “in here”, right now”….). On the contrary, lack of visual contact means that participants cannot rely on context to make their meaning clear; nor is there any immediate feedback.
  • Some words and constructions are characteristic of speech, especially of informal speech. Lengthy coordinate sentences are normal and are often of considerable complexity. There is nonsense vocabulary, obscenity and slang, some of which does not appear in writing, or occurs there only as a graphic or euphemism.
  • Speech is very suited to social or “phatic” functions, such as passing the time of day, or any situation where casual and unplanned discourse is desirable. It is also good at expressing social relationships, and personal opinions and attitudes, due to the vast range of nuances which can be expressed by the prosody and accompanying non-verbal features. Writing, on the other hand, is suited to the recording of facts and the communication of ideas, and to tasks of memory and learning.
  • There is an opportunity to rethink an utterance while it is in progress. However, errors, once spoken, cannot be withdrawn; the speaker must live with the consequences. Interruptions and overlapping speech are normal and highly audible. Errors and other perceived inadequacies in our writing can be eliminated in later drafts without the reader ever knowing they were there.
  • Unique features of speech include most of the prosody. The many nuances of intonation, as well as contrast of loudness, tempo, rhythm and other tones of voices, cannot be written down with much efficiency. Writing, on the contrary, include pages, lines, capitalization, spatial organization, and several aspects of punctuation. Only a very few graphic conventions relate to prosody, such as question marks and underlining for emphasis.

After presenting the main features of oral communication, and before moving to my second section, I am going to deal with some theories related to oral communication. Let’s begin with the speech act theory. Austin and Searle conceptualized speech acts as comprising three components. First, the locutionary act, the act of saying something as the actual form of the utterance. Second, the illocutionary act, as the communicative force of the utterance, that is, the intention of the speaker when producing the utterance. For example, we promise, threaten, warn etc. Finally, the perlocutionary act, depicted as the communicative effect of the utterance upon the feelings, thoughts or actions of the audience. For example, a promise could have the perlocutionary effect of persuading, misleading, whereas a threat could have the effect of terrifying or crying.

Speech acts may be divided into five categories, depending on what the speaker wants to do with language. Thus we have representatives, directives, expressives, declaratives and commisives. So we may find greetings, requests for information, assertions… However, when we look at conversations we need a unit of analysis wider than speech acts. What people say to one another partly acquires meaning from the sequence within which it occurs, for example, an answer to a question. For this reason, conversation analysts introduced the notions of cooperative principle, turn-taking and adjacency pairs.

According to Grice, the communicative use of language rests on a set of implicit understandings among language users. According to him, conversation is an intrinsically cooperative endeavour. To communicate, participants will intrinsically adhere to a set of conventions, collectively termed the cooperative principle, by making by making their messages conform to four general rules or maxims. These are quality, which envisages messages to be truthful; quantity, by means of which messages should be as informative as is required, but no more; relation, for messages to be relevant; and manner, where messages should be clear, brief and orderly.

Another important aspect attached to conversations is turn-taking. A main feature of conversations is that they tend to follow the convention of turn taking. Simply, this is where one person waits for the other to finish his utterance before contributing their own. This is as much utilitarian convention as mere manners: a conversation would cease to take place if the agents involved insisted on speaking even when it was plain that the other was trying to contribute. Moreover, it is comforting to know that the other person respects your opinions enough not to continually interrupt you.

Another fundamental feature of conversation is the idea of adjacency pairs posed by Goffman. A conversation is described as a string of at least two turns. An example would be a question-answer sequence. Both conversing parties are aware that a response is required to a question; moreover, a particular response to a particular question. The first part often predicts the occurrence of the second.

How are you?

Fine, than you, and you?


Up to this point I have presented the main features of oral communication and have introduced some theories related to aspects having to do with oral communication. Now I am going to move to the third section of my topic, in which I will deal with the elements and rules governing oral communication.

Let’s start with the elements involved in oral communication. We find linguistic elements, such as prosodic elements, which give us information about the oral interaction. Examples are stress, rhythm and intonation. These elements may provide the audience with information about the meaning the speaker is trying to convey. Much meaning is not actually uttered, but expressed throughout these prosodic elements. Together with linguistic elements, in oral communication we find non-linguistic elements, gestures, which accompany speech and are regarded as communicative devices whose function is to amplify or underscore the information conveyed in the accompanying speech. I will deal with non-verbal communication more deeply in the last section of the topic.

Regarding the rules governing oral communication, we should distinguish between rules of use and rules of usage. Rules of usage are concerned with the language users’ knowledge of grammatical or linguistic rules (grammatical competence), whereas rules of use are concerned with the language users’ ability to use his knowledge of linguistic rules in order to achieve effectiveness of communication, that is, discourse, sociolinguistic and strategic competence. Generally speaking, when we learn a second language, there is a tendency to think of new vocabulary, new grammar and new sounds, forgetting the sociolinguistic behaviour of the target language. However, we must not forget, that, as I mentioned at the beginning of this topic, our final objective in the teaching of a foreign language is achieving effective communication in that language. Communicating effectively consists of being able to produce lots of correct language, but also to use it appropriately depending on who we are talking to, where we are and why we are speaking. So we must take into account both rules of use and of usage.

Curiously, native speakers are normally tolerant of foreigners´ mistakes in pronunciation, syntax etc. However, when rules of use are broken this tends to be interpreted as bad manners. For instance, in the USA students are allowed to stretch, yawn and even eat when they are in class. However before coming to study to Spain, they should know that this is not appropriate here, but rather it is seen as bad manners. Therefore communicative competence it is of vital importance and as teachers, we should introduce it in class.

Some rules which govern speech are the so-called by Goffman (1976) System Constraints. According to Goffman there is a set of universal constraints on all communication and different languages differ in how those constraints are met. Goffman’s system was divided into two different types:

System Constraints: they are the components required for all communication systems. They include elements such as openings and closings, in which we signal our intentions to initiate or terminate a message ; back-channel signals, which constitute the way we indicate the message is being received (eye contact, noises like “uhhuh” etc.); bracket signals, which consist of verbal punctuation to initiate a comment, something aside (E.g.; by the way…)

Ritual Constraints or rules of social interaction. They form the basis of a system of social markers that enable communication to take place in an appropriate manner. For example, if we greet someone we normally expect the other person to greet us in return, if not we might assume that he is angry with us. Social interaction is structured by these ritual expectations. All social groups are governed by ritual constraints, however they may differ from one culture to another. For instance while in Spain we kiss a person twice when we are introduced, British people shake hands. As mentioned above, it is of vital importance to teach these rules to our students so that when they go abroad they adapt to that culture easily.

Once all this is clear, let me move on to the fourth part of this topic, routines. Although all conversations are unique, it is true that we find ourselves in recurring situations almost on a daily basis and therefore routine is very present in oral communication. Daily, we greet people, say goodbye, express gratitude, ask for something etc. Such situations are encountered with such high frequency that we make use of similar and sometimes identical expressions. Therefore, routines are expressions which help us to reach communication automatically in repeated situations.

We can define routines as fixed utterances or sequence of utterances which must be considered as single units because meaning cannot be derived from consideration of any fragment apart from the whole. Routines fulfill a communicative function, and their length may vary from a single word to a set of sentences.

Understanding routines require a cultural knowledge because they are generally abstract in meaning and must be interpreted at a non-literal level. For this reason, it is important to provide our learners with the necessary background to understand routines and use them appropriately.

Let’s see an example: many non-native speakers generalizing on characteristics of Americans complain at how invitations are offered but never followed up compared to other cultures like for instance the Asian ones. For instance:

A: Are you free tomorrow?

B: Yes, I am

A: I wondered if you´d like to come over for dinner?

B: Of course, what time shall I come over?

A: What about 5pm?

B: Perfect, see you tomorrow at 5 then.

However, in the US the conversation would be full of a range of invitation-like forms, very vague and not regarded as such by native speakers. These “invitations” tend to use vague time expressions such as “soon”, “some time” etc. For instance:

A: Okay, good talking to you. Let´s get together some time.

B: I´d love to!

A: Great, I´ll call you and we´ll have lunch together soon.

B: Okay, see ya!

If we compare this conversation to the previous one, we notice how Americans although using invitation-like forms, do not mean that shortly; instead, it is like a hypothetical situation.

After analyzing the value of routines in oral communication, I am going to deal with the last section of this topic, in which I will reflect on some strategies used in oral discourse. A major feature of conversation between native speakers and between conversation involving L2 learners (L2 refers to second language acquisition) is that the learner and native speaker together strive to overcome the communicative difficulties which are always likely to arise as a result of the learner’s limited L2 resources. This has become known as the negotiation of meaning. On the part of the native speaker this involves the use of strategies and tactics. Strategies are conversational devices used to avoid trouble; examples are relinquishing topic control, selecting salient topics, and checking comprehension. Tactics are devices for repairing trouble; examples are topic switching and requests for clarification. Other devices such as using a slow pace, repeating utterances, or stressing key words can serve as both tactics and strategies. By the same token, the learner needs to contribute to the negotiation of meaning, however, as it is a “joint enterprise” he/she can do so by giving clear signals when he/she has understood or not understood and, most important, by refusing to give up. Thus, the result of the negotiation of meaning is that speficic types of input and interaction result. In particular, it has been hypothesized that negotiation makes input comprehensible and in this way promotes second language acquisition.

Likewise, in attempting to express themselves, people/students do not only produce utterances containing grammatical structures and words, they perform actions via those utterances. You’re so dead! (i.e. what one kid says to another kid after he/she has broken a vase at home). Actions performed via utterances are generally called speech acts and, in English, are commonly given more specific labels, such as warning, apology, complaint, compliment, invitation, promise, request… These descriptive terms for different kinds of speech acts apply to the speaker’s communicative intention in producing an utterance. The speaker normally expects that his or her communicative intention will be recognized by the hearer. Both speaker and hearer are usually helped in this process by the circumstances surrounding the utterance. These circumstances are called the speech event.

Finally, before finishing I would like to comment on the importance of non-verbal communication in oral interactions. In order to communicate effectively in English, students need more than just competence in grammar and vocabulary. They may also have an awareness of the culturally-determined patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication which speakers of English follow, the styles of language that are more appropriate for a particular situation and the non-verbal communication signals most commonly used in English-speaking culture. Culturally, different patterns of communication are a common cause of misunderstanding and can be a source of discomfort in cross-cultural situations. We need to develop an understanding of the differences in communication styles between the different cultures involved in communication.

Non-verbal language, which is closely connected with culture, need to be dealt with in language classes. In order to communicate effectively in a culture it is necessary to be familiar with that culture’s non-verbal patterns of communication. Non-verbal things that are acceptable in one culture may be completely unacceptable in another. Furthermore, studies of the communication of attitudes and emotions in the US have shown that up to 93% of a message may be transmitted non-verbally. Apparently, the body language is at least as important as the words we speak. Sometimes, the two can be contradictory. For instance, people may say they agree with you and at the same time they tilt their chair back and lean away from you. By physically distancing from you, they are actually expressing disagreement.

We should have in mind that it is important to know the meaning of body signs. For instance, in Britain a V-sign means victory if the palm is held outwards; if the palm is turned inwards the gesture is rude and offensive. In Spain this is not so, and it is important to take it into account. Another difference between the two cultures is, for instance, related to personal space. British people prefer to maintain personal space by keeping their distance between speakers, whereas Spanish people tend to touch their interlocutor more often.

To sum up, I have divided the topic into five different sections. I began by giving an overview of oral communication. In order to understand it clearly, I have established a comparison between oral and written communication. In my second section I have included the main elements and norms governing oral communication. Then I have moved on to deal with some routines and formulae associated with oral communication. In my fourth section I had a look at the most important strategies of oral communication. Finally, I reflected upon the importance of non-verbal communication in oral interactions. As a final word, I would like to say that in order to be communicatively efficient we have to pay attention to all aspects, verbal and non-verbal, included in the communication process, and in order to do so we must try to develop all the sub-competences included within the notion of communicative competence.

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