We’re excited to a brand-new series, Adrift, a four-episode video drama and accompanying coursebook for learners created by Chasing Time English for C1+/advanced language learners. The videos (available for free on the Chasing Time English site) provide engaging input for natural language as well as demonstrating how body language, gesture, facial expression, and voice are used to communicate non-verbally.

And the story line will get students talking as if it were their new favorite TV show:

A man wakes up in a mysterious room.

An unknown agent interrogates him about his last job, a job that went wrong, unbeknownst to him.

We learn more and more about the job, the agent, and what went wrong. But will we ever know the whole truth? 

The series reminds me a bit of the early seasons of Lost or a good James Patterson or John Grisham novel. You know a little bit of what’s going on, just enough to follow the plot. And you feel everything might change at any moment.

Written with language learners in mind, the story and the language never stray too far into the esoteric, and despite the mysterious setting, the action and the language is classroom-safe: no violence, no bad words.

The Hidden Grammar of Conversation

What really makes Adrift such a powerful and unique language-learning tool, is the approach, particularly the focus on adjacency pairs, a concept taken from sociology and Conversation Analysis.  Conversation Analysis is an approach that looks at the structure of natural, spontaneous conversation, the unwritten rules that we generally follow (or break for good reason). For example, we chose which register we speak in depending on our relationship and the context. We use certain fixed expressions to mark our intentions.

I’ve heard these concepts referred to as the grammar of conversation. And like grammar, the insights of Conversational Analysis can help students follow a conversation better to understand what speakers expect from them. More importantly, it can help them understand how to respond to a fluent speaker of English in order to get what they want.

I call it the hidden grammar, because fluent speakers generally don’t think about these rules and may not even be able to articulate them. And the rules tend to be culturally dependent, so our students can be very effective communicators in their own languages, but struggle in English due to cultural misunderstandings. Finally, our ELT materials tend to address grammar and vocabulary, but neglect pragmatics and principles of social conversation.

Throughout the book, students will be learning about and practicing adjacency pairs. So what are they?

What are adjacency pairs?

Adjacency Pairs diagram shows the grammar of conversation.

In many contexts, we tend to take turns when we speak. And what we say limits the ways that the other person typically can respond. For example, if we are at a teacher’s convention and I ask a stranger, “Is this seat taken?” there’s really only two ways they can respond: yes or no. How they phrase it will vary but it would be extremely strange if they responded by saying, “I like flying kites.

By the same measure, if the person answers, “Yes, I’m afraid it is,” I really can’t answer by ignoring them, arguing with them, asking more questions, or by starting a social conversation. I have to acknowledge their answer. And that will generally be the end of our conversation.

It’s surprising how many of our conversations fall into these kinds of predictable, determined patterns of turn-taking. And of course, sometimes we do break the rules, but we do so for very good reason or we are aware that we are breaking the rules and have to adjust our rhetoric to acknowledge that.

Once we’ve taught students this tool, we can expand on it in many ways.

  1. Categorize pairs by function: Invitation and Acceptance, Informational Question and Answer, Request and Granting, etc…
  2. Analyze indirect utterances. “Is this seat taken?” looks like an informational question, but it’s also a kind of request to sit down. If someone told you the seat was taken, it would be odd to answer, “OK, thanks for telling me!” and walk away.
  3. Show how adjacency pairs can be expanded (and much of Adrift does this very thing): We don’t always accept an invitation right away. We might ask an informational question or two first, creating a sort of pair within a pair:
    Want to go to the movies tonight?
    What’s playing?
    Black Panther
    I’ve heard that’s really good. Let’s go.
    Notice that as speakers we tend to keep track of the pairs and try to close them in order.
  4. Discuss differences between preferred and dispreferred responses. Not only are our responses in conversation determined by what was said to us, but also there tends to be a preferred, expected, positive set of responses and a negative, unexpected, dispreffered set. When we offer to help, accepting that help is the preferred response and declining it the dispreferred response. When we reject help from someone, we tend to give an explanation and sort of soften the blow to not seem ungrateful, for example.

Activities to Practice Adjacency Pairs

Throughout Adrift students analyze and practice using adjacency pairs to communicate more effectively. Here are a few ideas that you can use in your classroom.

  • Write down a few examples of turns in a conversation with the first part and the second part on separate slips of paper. Make enough that each student has one slip of paper with an utterance and a response. For example, “Can you pass the ketchup” and “Here you go.” or “Is this the library?” and “It’s over there.” Give one slip of paper to each student have them find their partner. Note that there might be more than one ‘correct’ pairing.
  • Give students a worksheet with mixed up utterances and responses and have them match them. Again that there might be more than one ‘correct’ pairing.
  • Give students a matching pair of utterances and have them add new pairs in between them, before them, or after them.
  • Give students an utterance and have them think of as many appropriate responses as they can. They can then pick the best one and create a dialogue around it.

Once your students are aware of adjacency pairs, they’ll start hearing them everywhere. They’ll notice when people respond inappropriately, or don’t respond at all. They’ll think about why a rejection to an invitation is usually so long but an acceptance is usually short.

The Adrift Student Book features four units, one for each episode of the video series. Each unit contains a:

  1. preview and vocabulary section
  2. a thematic section that explores the theme of the episode with writing, discussion, and reading assignments
  3. a pragmatics section that teaches adjacency pairs and related concepts
  4. confidence in communication section that helps students apply what they have learned to speaking (with a strong focus on using drama in the classroom).

There’s also an extension section with readings, listening exercises, grammar and vocabulary checks that can be used to fill out the lessons, assigned as homework, or used for assessment.

The last chapter is a final assignment that guides students to complete the story of Adrift on their own and also put into practice all the communication skills they have been building throughout the course.

The accompanying Adrift Teacher Book has a teacher’s guide to each activity in the book with instructions for implementing them and suggested variations, along with extension activities, and a complete answer key.

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