Special report: Michael Bryant

Special report: Paris Colloquium 2005, Agir pour apprendre

Michael Bryant, Kevin Metz, David Sheehan, and Mary Vigier on “The Learner as Actor: Using Interactive Exercises for Improving Communicative Skills”

By Sue Dawson

A drama in seven acts

Mary Vigier - Housewife
David Sheehan - Husband
Michael Bryant - CNN’s Richard Quest
Kevin Metz - Ultra-Life Representative

The plot

A crossword was handed out as a warm-up activity, the answers to the clues gave vocabulary connected to the theme.

The ‘actors’ acted out a situation on the problems related to an Internet order for weight-loss pills (with free I-pod). In trying to cancel the order, husband and wife discovered the company did not exist. Their account had been debited. They never received the order and decided to cancel their credit card.

Three scam situations, each for 2 persons were handed out to the audience - a vacation club scam, a travel company cruise scam and a bank’s automobile association scam, so we worked in pairs, one person having the elements to represent the company and the other person having the elements to give the customer’s point of view in a short role play. We then got into groups of three, with each member relating a different scam.

After this there was a general group discussion on different scams.

At this point a ‘stop and analyse’ period enabled participants to take stock of what, in a similar activity, their students would be achieving, how the activity was successful and how it could pedagogically be made more successful. The crossword and the scene enacted by the teaching staff had given the topic, the structures and the vocabulary. The learner then had a confidence-building semi-controlled activity to work on with a partner to gain practice, and finally there was a free activity where the learners discussed their experiences. The subject is topical and concerns everybody and by the end of the session the learner has the vocabulary and structures to talk about it. The class has passed from being teacher-focused to being learner-focused. Assuming a role diminishes inhibitions and when the activity is well structured, everyone has the tools to participate. However, the choice of material is crucial. Context and content-free material is not able to sustain the learners’ interest so the topics must be challenging and controversial. Zoltan Dornyei was cited for his observations on increased learner motivation when work takes place in a climate of confidence and the activities enable him/her to play an active role where they can express themselves more freely. For effective learning to take place, learning situations must therefore be stimulating and enjoyable so the student is encouraged to be active.

At this point there was a workshop discussion on if, when and how to correct mistakes. Participants were against leaving feedback to the end of an activity. Suggestions were that peer review was one good way of avoiding and correcting mistakes. Other suggestions were to put a number of mistakes made on the board for class correction, or for the learners to submit summaries on paper, which would be made into a transparency for group correction.

The following ‘Act’ was on corporate responsibility, with a projection of ”Supersize Me”. We received sheets with the video summary and examples of ESC Clermont student activities engendered by the video. The video topic of fast food and obesity could be used for leading on to a discussion, making a survey, language study (superlatives), a courtroom role play or child/parent dialogue. Workshop participant suggestions were to give the learner questions on the vocabulary and content of the video, or to divide the class into groups to work on specific related subjects and then report back.

Following the theme of “Where does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility begin?” Mary Vigier explained how to create a successful debating activity. A group of 9 to 12 learners are given roles (to be found in ‘Mastering Business English’ see Bibliography below) for Chairman and McDonald’s CEO along with allies and opposition. Students must prepare their roles and then come to the debate, introduce themselves and give their position. The student with the role of Chairman must organize the debate, draw up the Agenda and ensure the debate is conducted in an orderly fashion. This debate is very successful and using roles can put the learner in the position of defending a view that is not his/her own. Also being given a role, rather then defending a personal point of view, means that remarks cannot be taken personally and thus avoids real confrontations.

The next step from this is for students to decide their own themes and work out roles and an agenda. Examples of ESC Clermont student themes were ‘driving violence’ and ‘sects’. The students’ themes can then be recycled by the teacher in other classes. As in the first activity on scams, the second on corporate responsibility takes the learner from a controlled, to semi-controlled to a freer situation, giving him/her the framework, vocabulary and structures so he/she acquires both tools and confidence to gain empowerment.

A discussion followed on how to organize the activity in class. Mary Vigier divides the class into 2, and in a 1 ½ hour class holds 2 45-minute debates. Students prepare a week ahead. Workshop suggestions were to have learners without roles as observers of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar; participant interaction. A shadow role play was proposed, with the shadow player attending to what his/her role namesake was saying. Another idea was to have non-debating students take the role of journalists and cameramen.

It was observed by Kevin Metz that this debating activity was difficult for lower-level learners, who might have to read out their part. However, apart from this, a role play in the form of a debate is very positive. Students are involved, they are more at ease working in a group, the activity enhances oral fluency and is enjoyable.

Curtain and Applause

Critic’s remarks

A lot of well constructed ideas and material were packed into the 1 ½ hour workshop. We came away with many ideas for structured interactive activities and how to conduct them. The steps from teacher-centred, controlled situations where the framework and target language are given to student-centred and student generated activities were very clear.
  • All 4 skills could be used in the activities in a natural way, e.g. ‘press’ reports, letters of complaint, so the learner gains in confidence and competence and ability to use these skills.
  • The activities proposed were coherent, varied and motivating.
  • The exercises presented could be the basis for a programme over a short or long period or could be used as stand alones.
  • It was a rewarding workshop and for some of us it must have provided answers to lesson and programme head-scratching.


Bryant M, Caquot H, Metz K, Sheehan D, Vigier M, Mastering Business English: A Learning Resource Book, (2004) Chiron.
Dornyei Z, Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Nunan D, Collaborative Language Learning and Teaching, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Wilkins D.A., Second Language Learning and Teaching, Edward Arnold, 1974

Contributed by: Sue Dawson
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