Fellow world language teachers, I think you’d all agree. We’d love to have just the right activity or the perfect strategy to get every single one of our students to participate actively in class discussions. We’re always searching for the magic trick that will make our students talk non-stop and, to encourage class participation, we make it an important part of our course grade. Because active participation helps students in many ways besides building fluency, we focus our efforts on getting everybody to talk in the classroom.
Reluctance to speak up is not always a sign of disengagement, though! Maybe students are self-conscious, anxious, or just plain intimidated by the abilities of more proficient (or maybe just more outspoken?) classmates. Despite our best efforts to get shy students to talk in class, there are still those who get by with one word answers and communicate mostly with body language.
So how do we get our most hesitant students to talk more?
What if we changed the context of communication?
I’ve been assigning oral homework tasks and they’re usually well-received by the extroverts and the introverts alike. In my classes, oral homework consists of monologic (i.e. non-interactive) tasks, such as leaving voicemails for a friend or answering phone surveys.
Nope, I’m not trying to replace classroom interaction. Hardly! Rather, I’m trying to enhance what goes on in our class. The idea is to add these tasks and diversify my repertoire of teaching tools, so that I can reach my shyer students. By alternating the context for fluency building activities between classroom-based interactive tasks and homework assignments, I’m offering differentiated instruction that ideally benefits everybody.
We’re all probably familiar, at least a little bit, with written homework assigned from the world language workbook. You know, the one with the fill-in-the-blank activities. But what does oral homework look like?
So what speaking tasks are good for homework?
1. Voice mail tasks. Tell your students at the beginning of the course that they’ve been paired with a student in a country where the target language is spoken. Every week, each student needs to record one or two voicemails in response to a prompt that you create. For example, the first one may be to introduce themselves to this person and then ask questions about them. Later in the semester, you can tell your students that their partner in the target language country needs help with a project on the life of US college or high school students, for example, and has some questions for them.
2. Pre-recorded phone surveys. This is a good way to have students answer quickly to several short questions on their personal opinion. Maybe the World Languages Department in your school wants to know what students think about their program. Some of the questions can be: Why are you taking French, Japanese, Spanish, or whichever the target language is? What are two types of activities in your language classroom that you like? What are two things that you like (or don’t like) about the textbook? How do you think you will use the target language after you graduate?
3. Video journals. Like written journals, this type of self-reflective communication is easy to assign as homework. Students can create a video log of their daily activities in which they narrate anecdotes or discuss what they’re going to do over the weekend. If they’re assigned frequently enough, students can compile a speaking portfolio that tracks their progress over time.
4. Picture description activities. Using pictures as a starting point for speaking opens up all sorts of possibilities. Ask students to describe and analyze a famous work of art. Show them a picture of a street scene in a target-language country and ask them to imagine what’s happening there. Or explore a photos of a cultural practice or rite and ask them to compare and contrast it with something from their own experience.
What to look out for
Completing oral homework assignments is something that students may not be used to. After all, most homework nowadays is completed on a keyboard. So students’ lack of familiarity with the concept of oral homework creates the need to do some prep work to minimize confusion and frustration. Here are some tips:
1. Know well the technology that you choose. Be sure to use your tool of choice several times before introducing it and really get to know the possibilities that it offers. That way you can anticipate any tech problems that might pop up, which will help keep students’ anxieties at bay.
2. Create a sample assignment that you walk through with your students during class time at the beginning of the term. If you teach online, create a presentation that they can watch.
3. Take file management into account. Talk to your students about file management and file compatibility. In order for you to manage the audio files you will be receiving, you need students to help you by naming the files in unique and consistent ways and by sending you files that are compatible with your software.
4. Set clear expectations, as you would with any other homework assignment. Always explain to your students what they can expect when completing the task and let them know what learning goals you are helping them to achieve.
Naturally, our goal isn’t to turn introverts into extroverts by making them talk in situations that make them uncomfortable. Almost every world language teacher, though, has a learning objective that reads something like "students will express themselves orally in the target language". When speaking the language is the goal, let's expand the opportunities for speaking practice beyond the classroom and include homework tasks that also help the more self-conscious learners build their skills in the target language.
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