I vividly remember what it was like to participate in my first university level French class. It seemed like everyone else was talking easily, having conversations and responding to the professor’s questions in French. I, on the other hand, felt totally inadequate.
Nothing in my high school French experience had prepared me for this. We had dialogues and dictées that we had memorized, and that felt pretty challenging. We conjugated verbs and answered reading comprehension questions, and I was good enough at that to receive an A in high school French. What I couldn’t do was speak. I had never had a spontaneous conversation in French before entering those courses. I could recite memorized lines, and give a short oral presentation (with a script) but that was it.
I had to sink or swim, and it was pretty rough at first. I gradually overcame my fear of interaction, and started to have conversations. I made friends with a couple of students from Québec, which helped a lot. It’s easier to talk to someone you know.
When I became a teacher, I did not have a range of strategies to use for oral interaction. All I had was what I had learned as a student, and the confusing, embarrassing experience of fumbling my way through beginning conversations. Nothing I could call a strategy, just the knowledge that somehow I was able to do it.
And so I did what many of us do when faced with the stress of being a beginning teacher – I fell back on what I knew. And the results were predictable. In my first years of teaching, I had students give oral presentations, memorize lines, and do what I had done.
Standing up in front of a group of people to speak is not a comfortable experience, and to do it in a second language is even less comfortable. I soon found myself dealing with students who were in tears, skipped classes, asked for opportunities to redo, or wanted to dispute their grades because they felt the preparation they had done wasn’t reflected in the grade they received.
Although my intention was to assess my students’ oral language proficiency, what I was seeing most was evidence of anxiety, not interaction or learning. The flip side of the problem was also to figure out how to occupy the other students in the class who were not presenting their oral work. When one or two are at the front of the room, approximately 28 are not. Engaging them in something meaningful while I was focused on assessing the work of those presenting was a challenge.
In our curriculum document for second language instruction in BC, there is nothing which says, “Student must demonstrate an ability to present information in class while being observed by their peers.” It’s not there. And yet, that’s how it happens a lot of the time.
The full document can be found here, but it outlines skills such as the idea that students are to listen with intent. They are to comprehend and retell stories. They need to demonstrate an ability to ask and answer questions, to identify, describe, compare, express preferences, talk about beliefs and opinions, discuss hopes, dreams and plans, and connect events in past, present and future timeframes. All of this has to be done through speaking, listening, reading and writing. That’s a wide range of communicative contexts, and can’t be covered by simply standing up and presenting something.
The list that follows doesn’t include different formats, such as skits, interviews, etc. – that will vary by grade level and content. I’ve tried to compile a list of strategies that can span a wide range of communication contexts, and the format can change as needed. Here’s what I’ve learned to use as alternatives to allow my students to show their learning in these areas.
- Creating videos. Most of my students have personal internet connected devices which have cameras on them capable of taking video. Using their cameras and sharing if needed, students can produce short videos of their conversations with their partners which can be handed in via a digital portfolio platform. I do have a couple of caveats with the videos – they have to be created in the classroom, and the have to show that they are not using a script or notes of any kind. These assignments are always based on conversations we have practiced multiple times in the classroom, and so are a demonstration of learning. If needed, students can redo their videos in the classroom – the first attempt does not have to be handed in.
- Oral practice stations. I have written about 5 models for using stations here. The particular model used for oral practice stations is #3. In this model, the class is divided into three groups of approximately equal size. Each student becomes a station, and as groups of their peers move through the station rotation, they have an opportunity to practice what they are going to say and receive feedback from their peers. At the end of this process, students can create a video or present their work directly to the teacher.
- Feedback as grade. One option that can be used while students are practicing their oral work in class is for the teacher to circulate and give feedback. The feedback can be discussed between the two and a mark can be assigned based on the practice the student has done in a conference between teacher and student.
- Using an app. There are a variety of apps that can be used to combine visual presentations and voice recordings. Examples include Explain Everything, VoiceThread, ShowMe, and more.
- Playing games. One option is “Gokiburi”, or the “Evolution Game”. An explanation can be found here. but essentially this creates a forum in which all students are engaged and actively practicing, and when a student reaches level 5, he or she presents what they have practiced to the teacher and can then either rejoin the game to help others or can move on to another activity.
- Use puppets. This can involve pre-made puppets, or students can make their own using whatever materials are available. I have used very simple puppets in some classes, including popsicle stick puppets and paper bag puppets, and changing backgrounds as needed. Other alternatives such as photos, Lego figures, play doh models, etc. will also work. This is often a great option for students who don’t want to show their faces on camera.