November 20, 2016
What allows you to walk out of the room, run to the copier and come back and still have them talking? What allows you to send them out to record a conversation and know that they won’t script? What is it that makes them confident to use and sustain a conversation in the Target Language? If you know – please share! This is an ongoing quest for all of us. I have been trying, as you all have over the years, to imbue in my students the ‘confidence’ to risk, to try, to talk. Here’s a few of my ideas on what helps them out.. what I find helps them want to not only talk, but to sustain their talking in the Target Language.
It Begins with the Setting – A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Catherine Ousselin at her school – my first #langchat face-to-face encounter. What I took away from that, beyond the idea to do more ‘stations’ in class – was her setup. Tables – long tables that allowed students to sit in groups and face each other. Imagine. No desks in rows facing the front. How could I have a communicative classroom if I made it physically difficult for them to communicate. When I returned home I made the immediate switch to tables of 4. No more rows, no more facing front. In fact I also removed myself from the ‘front’ of the room – switching my teacher area so that I am the ‘coach on the side‘. Now there is more room for their tables, and more room for them to move easily to find a new partner…
They Build Their Confidence With “I Don’t Understand!” – It’s their biggest fear – that they won’t know what someone is saying, that they don’t really understand what someone is saying and that they are at ‘fault’ because they don’t. So from Year 1 we take on this fear. Our belief in class “If you don’t understand what someone it’s your job to tell them! And their job to assist you in understanding!” So we practice saying “I don’t understand!” We even practice not understanding – yes on purpose – and how to help someone out. In Year 1 it involves repeating, giving your own answer and/or providing examples. By Year 3 and 4 they are including circumlocution practice for their self-selected vocabulary. It’s these skills that allow students to use the vocabulary of their choice with their peers. As we say “You can use any word as long as you can explain it!” And knowing how to do so reduces the fear and increases the likelihood of risk.
It Includes Teaching Conversational Skills – I firmly believe that often the cry of “They won’t talk!” is really not because they don’t want to but because they don’t know how to. We just assume that they can – which I find ironic because I am terrible at it at age 54 – why do we assume that they are practiced conversationalists at 15? So we practice and learn how to via follow-up questions. We make it a game initially in the early years and then I continue to expand it as they move up in their studies (they are always found in their course resource package & up on the wall in my room.) Students know, because they have practiced and used them over & over, how to extend the conversation. Interestingly I have found that the follow-up question approach also helps them to expand their presentational writing – an exercise we call “Wheel of Detail“.
We Set The Expectation of TL Use in the Post-Activity Rubric – I firmly believe that the value of a rubric is not in what is filled in – but in what it can communicate about expectations. I have used the same activity rubric over and over. “How Did That Go?” rubric sets out the goals that the student will work in the TL, will be an equal partner in the conversation and will ask & answer questions. Prior to the activity we look at the rubric and I always ask my students to set out their personal challenge as well as something they know they will be comfortable doing. It is amazing to see the number of students who choose “Didn’t use English” as a goal. They actually want to speak in the TL. After, because we always reflect before the rubric is filled in they get a chance comment on how it went – and again many are thrilled that they used their circumlocution skills to stay in the TL.
The Intention of the Activity Is Clear to Them – “Why are we doing this?” “What’s the purpose?”. I know I’ve sat through many meetings or even ProD sessions when I couldn’t answer this. I know that, as a teacher, I have the idea of why in my head. So I’ve started to also let them in on it and go over the intentions of the activity. Now I don’t do these for every one – and sometimes I rely on past practice or the post-activity rubric to set them out less explicitly. But before many interactive summatives I now do. In the junior classes I find that I spell it out for them, but in my senior classes I ask them – and they can, as a group, tell me why every time.
They Have a “Compelling” Reason to Want To Talk – I don’t think there is a teacher out there that doesn’t try to find a purposeful task to encourage students to interact. It is a challenge to continue to find them and I have used a variety of ideas, many adapted from those shared with the #langchat community by generous teacher. Lately I have been working to make the talking ‘valid’ by using the information gathered for a presentational task. In Year 1, for example, students find out if their peers like the same foods that they do (and how often they ear them) and then write out what they learned in basic comparing sentences (an extension that reinforces written work). In their reflections many said how fun it was to meet new people and learn more about them in another language. “Oral Worksheets” provide both an opportunity to talk and dig for information as well as practicing particular concepts. In my summative oral Interactive Fairs in all levels the information gathered is always used in the summative writing task. As they go about all of these tasks they do so without my guidance – moving from a current partner to the next one on their own (something we call “Talk,Stand, Switch“).
There are so many more ideas out there shared by the #langchat community on how to encourage sustained TL use. The ideas above are a product of the professional development work that the community engages in on a daily basis. And I thank everyone for sharing what they have learned via their amazing #actfl16 tweets – it’s almost like I was there….