Participation – it’s a hot topic in language-teaching circles these days. Specifically the old chestnut – the ‘participation’ mark. I can see why it is popular with some. Its a reward for a student who chooses to engage in the class – using the class material. It represents a view that if marks are attached even the most reluctant student will be so concerned that they will push their shyness and/or hesitancy out the window because they want a mark! But, for me, the inherent failure in this is that I was controlling the evaluation of participation – if the ‘teacher’ saw it then it counted. I’ll admit I used to think that I had to attach the mark to ensure their buy-in. But no more….
When I was asked if I marked for participation I found myself answering “No, because in my class it is expected that you are participating.” This led me to think – what are the key things happening in my class that lead my students to participate…despite no ‘marks’ being on the table.
SetUp – How my classroom is set up is one way that encourage participation. I wrote about my ‘light bulb’ moment about the importance of set-up when I was visiting with Catherine Ousselin and her classes. My students now sit in tables of 4 facing each other. The board (and me) are at the side of the room. The focus is on their group, their table. And its hard not to participate when just 4 people are at the table, and no one else is looking on! The advantage of the small tables is also that it sets up work with 3 possible partners – and that means the ability to test and try out language in a more supportive setting.
Pair Work – I do a lot of work in pairs – even at the tables of 4 that I now have. I believe they are a powerful tool in class. Students in my class have a ‘partner’ for each unit and who that person is is mostly determined by me. The partner is their ‘base’ for class – students will interact and work with others, but their partner is where they will start and end each day. I work hard to find good ‘matches’ for my students so that their partner complements, and challenges, them to be involved. As I’ve written in the past – pairs are a great way to encourage risk and yet a ‘safe’ way to do so. It’s hard not to participate when you only have to deal with 1 other person. (I should note that once a semester I allow my students to choose their ‘pair’ partner – what great chaos!)
Activity Rubrics/Self Evaluation – I use activity rubrics and self-evaluation a lot in my class. What’s on the rubrics are what I consider to be great ‘attributes’ of an active language students. Students evaluate their ability to work with others, accomplish the task and maintain TL. We do go over the rubrics when we first start using them, but then as they are consistently used – they work to build an expectation in students of ‘how’ they should be participating in class. What helps to reinforce this participation is the idea to ask at least one ‘written reflection’ question prior to the activity rubric. Comments from students who complete questions such as “Today I am proud that I…” often refer back to their choice to risk and try – and that’s what participating is all about.
Encourage Risk/Ask for Speaking! I always tell me students that I will not ask them to do or try something they don’t have the tools for. This doesn’t preclude challenges but it does mean that students are confident that the activity or task is do-able. Knowing you will be able to complete something is huge in being able to step out and do that task. I also work to give chances for my students to interact – I think we often ask students to ask/answer questions of each other – and assume they know how to do that. So we practice (and support) the interaction that occurs between partners but starting a lot of classes with ‘ask your partner’ and having ‘follow up questions‘ handy to continue the conversation. Then, when we move into a larger group or class activity students are equipped with the skills to participate. Not only that – they are eager to help each other out – and if they are talking and working together – they are participating.
If the setup, the expectation and the task all require that a student participate in their learning – then participation will be the natural outcome! What are other ways you support students in participating in class?