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It’s Not Rude, It’s Lively: Learning to Interrupt In Small Group Discussions

Writer(s): 
Sylvan Payne, Hitotsubashi University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Discussion skills, turn taking strategies
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner Maturity: Senior high school and above
  • Preparation Time: 10-15 minutes
  • Activity Time: 30-40 minutes
  • Materials: Handout (see Appendix), a smartphone or similar device to record video or audio, a deck of playing cards. 

Typically, language learners in Japan hesitate to interrupt others during small group topic discussions. Even when familiar with phrases and strategies for actively participating in or leading a discussion, most conversations devolve into a mechanical seesaw rhythm of the leader asking for an opinion and going around the circle getting each student to respond in turn, then repeating the cycle with each discussion question. Sometimes students will agree, politely disagree, or ask for clarification, but even that tends to be politely monotonous (and unnatural). In the real world, lively group discussions are typically messy with members constantly interrupting each other. 

This activity was used in a preparation course for scholarship students preparing for a year abroad, but it can be adapted for any class involving small group discussion skills. 

Preparation

Step 1: Create a list of useful phrases for interrupting and add the rules of the interruption game (see Appendix 1). Print as a handout for each student.

Step 2: Video or audio-record a few minutes of the students having a small group discussion.

Procedure

Step 1: Play the recording and draw students’ attention to the lack of interruption. Point out how each speaker is politely allowed to finish their thought, no matter how long it takes.  Stress that this is unnatural in the real world and that learning to interrupt and dealing with interruptions are important skills they should acquire.

Step 2: Hand out the interruption phrases and go over them briefly with students. 

Step 3: Explain the rules of the interruption game: Ten cards are placed in the center of the group at the beginning of a discussion. Each time a member uses one of the interruption phrases they can take a card. Stress that an actual interruption has to occur during cross-talk, when two are people talking at the same time. When all the cards have been taken from the center pile, the students can begin taking cards from each other by interrupting.  

Step 4: Divide students into groups of no more than six and have them begin their discussions. In my case, student discussion leaders prepare their topics, and the other students will have read the online texts or handouts on which the discussion is based. Monitor the discussions and arbitrate disputes or misunderstandings. 

Step 5: Debrief at the end of the session concerning the use of interruptions. Ask students to compare this discussion with the recorded discussion they considered at the beginning of the lesson. Ask students who “won” the game, and how. 

Conclusion

I found that I didn’t need to repeat the game again.  However, lower level or less confident students may need a couple of times to get the hang of it. Once students had a frame of reference for what interruptions were, they put it into practice in subsequent discussions.  However, the game was necessary to help students break through their natural reticence.

The activity is useful on many levels, but one aspect that surprised me was its consciousness raising. One student remarked that he initially thought interruption was “not good for discussion” because it showed that members were not listening to speakers. However, he realized that “if we want to interrupt, we have to listen more carefully.” 

Appendix 

The appendix is available below.

 
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