I’ve set up a tumblr for my advanced oral communication class; two weeks in, what am I thinking? My main purpose was to share videos and links, something tumblr is well suited for. Our class is themed and we cover about five themes in a fourteen week semester. Last year, I used a lot of newspaper articles and youtube videos in class but a) photocopying / dvd conversion was a pain in the arse and b) giving the students a chance to absorb the material and react to it later was very difficult. I gave out tinyurls, but very few students seemed to be checking up (or if they were, I rarely knew about it. Tumblr gets over these issues by putting everything in one place, tagged and searchable. In addition, I really wanted the students to add their own material. They can do this in two ways; comments or posts. For the first weekend I asked the students to look at the content I had posted (articles, music videos, movie clips), choose one and make a comment. About fifty percent did so, which I am satisfied with. This week the students have formed small groups to prepare their first presentations (on the topic of family). Each group “leader” sent their group’s title to the blog by email, from their mobile phone, at the end of Wednesday’s class. Then this weekend the students have been posting research via the comments section under their group’s title. I’ve been watching them drop in, and watching the nacsent interaction between students. One group member has suggested changing their title, and a small discussion has opened up. For a first year class in their first month of study things are going well. I had far more difficulty getting students to share research last year, perhaps because they were isolated between classes. This gives them both an opportunity and a responsibility. I also note that all the research has been in English - or at least, that which has been posted. Last year, a lot of students were bringing in prinouts of Japanese websites which they then translated to present. We got out of the habit after a bit of pushing. Perhaps somehow the teacher’s presence on the web is keeping them focused… One mistake was to post too much early on. Partly because it got buried and no one saw some of the stuff. And partly because the students need to find more themselves. A case in point - one of the students mentioned the famous 13 year old dad Alfie Patten in class, and my initial thought was to find a link to the story in The Sun and post it up on the blog. I resisted, and sure enough the student has found the exact link herself and posted it this weekend. I am also ambivelent about a few other things. There are eight classes in this programme, shared between four teachers. I had initially been encouraging other teachers to promote the blog amongst their classes, but in retrospect it might have been better to separate them. I had hoped that cross-class collaboration would occur, but the volume of material generated by 160+ students might get out of hand. I am still thinking, too, about how to encourage the students to use the blog without making it obligatory. So far, it’s not a major issue. Most of them can at least view the main posts with thier mobile phone browsers, and make their own, although I have discovered that we can neither make nor view comments with a mobile. Considering the importance of mobile technology in Jpan in particular, this is a little disappointing. But so far, I’m very happy ; )
I teach a number of oral communications classes, and I’m fortunate enough to have freedom to set my own assessments (to a well thought out set of class aims). So what to do?
With higher level classes, which tend to hang around themes, we do presentations. I like the fact they have to go off and research (and we work hard on finding alternatives to wikipedia and analysing the sources). I favour the test / teach approach; I like to let them try first then help them get better, rather than just telling them what to do. Because of that, students usually start out terrified; locked to a script, voice barely above a whisper…. but end up feeling great and knocking ten minute presentations out of the park with barely a note card. I like that feeling too - I don’t think you can underestimate confidence. I also have peer and self-assessment activities and here, too, I can see the students grow in their understanding of what they are doing and how they can improve.
Misgivings? Well, how often do people give presentations? (EFL geeks aside ; P). The vocabulary they learn, the critical thinking skills they hone… all great. But we spend a lot of time working towards these assesments of an oral communication skill which, actually, they probably don’t need. One might argue (and I do) that not everything learnt in the classroom needs to be vocational. Nonetheless….
In other classes, I’ve been doing a lot more of these conversation transcription activities. The students record a conversation, take it home and listen to it, transcribe it, correct mistakes and assess performance. Duane Kindt has an excellent template for transcription here (in fact, have a look around his whole site). What I like about this, apart from the reflective element and the multiple learning styles recycling, is the fact that the students are assessed on “real” communication. Throughout the semester, we focus on backchannel, interjections and the other little conversational gambits we use to keep the shuttlecock in the air. In fact, I took to giving them a check list of “really“‘s and “so I said“‘s to tot up from class to class. One danger is that the students over rehearse and end up scripting the whole tranaction, missing , and the point. It is important to get across that the assessment is not (just) of the conversation itself, but of their own assessment of the conversation.
Aside from this, I’ve had some success with role plays. We looked at poverty in one class, but it was only when the students really had to play a role as a homeless person, telling their story from research, that I think the seriousness of the day to day difficulties of the very poor became real. Again, aside from the language benefits I liked the social element.
What I would really like to do is some kind of interview assessment, but with classes of about thirty that looks challenging.
How do you assess speaking? Is fluency, accuracy, “communicative commpetence”, pronunciation, content, or something else the most important element?