Thursday, 31 July 2014

How best can technology help students speak? [I always write about the same thing!]

Speaking as much as possible is the best way for students to speak better. Any materials which encourage students to speak to each other will help. I prefer students to work in pairs as that creates the most opportunities to speak. I adapt materials to maximise opportunities for students to speak in pairs.

Where does technology come in? I am lucky as I have a projector attached to a computer so it is easy to project a series of questions that half the students in the class can see but the others can't as they are sitting with their backs to the screen. If possible, when they swap roles, I have another set of questions for the second interview. The projected questions are rather like the auto-cue used on TV. This can be done without technology, by preparing posters and sticking them to the whiteboard.

In this kind of activity there is a lot of simultaneous speaking and it is sometimes hard to monitor, help or assess students. However, if students record themselves answering the questions using their mobile phones it is easier for teachers to monitor errors and or assess students' speaking. Teachers can still help during the activity

Using apps like audioboo or ipadio smartphone owners can build up a portfolio of their speaking which their teacher can follow using feedly. Students can follow each other, too. Even simple mobile phones can be used with an ipadio account for free in many countries of the world.

This is just one example of how speaking in pairs can be set up and recorded. There are many advantages in getting students to record themselves:
- Students are more likely to speak in English when they are recording themselves.
- Being able to listen to themselves makes students more aware of how well (or badly) they speak
- Building up a portfolio of their speaking showing their progress is motivating
- Teacher feedback on one minute of every recording takes about the same amount of time it takes to give feedback on written work and generates a manageable number of errors to work on
- Providing students with small amounts of regular individual feedback on their strengths, weaknesses and errors in grammar and pronunciation is more effective than brief general classroom feedback
- It is much easier for teachers to get to know their students' speaking level by listening to them regularly. Assessment is much easier as a result.

The other type of speaking activity in pairs we do in class involves creating an information gap which students have to explain. Typically it is a story or article which only half of the students listen to and/or read. They listen to it a number of times and often see the script for a moment the last time they listen. They then practise retelling it to each other before retelling it to one of the students who hasn’t listened to it. I offer help with problems I overhear when they are practising retelling and students usually only record themselves when they are retelling it for real.

These extended monologues are a real test of and opportunity for speaking and involves real communication and are ideal for assessment.

Depending on your definition of speaking you may or may not consider the following activities to be speaking as they don’t involve communication, but do involve saying words and sentences in English. My students also record themselves doing these activities:
-          repeating new vocabulary after a model (and recording both the model and their own version
-          repeating new grammatical structures in the same way to reinforce them and to work on their pronunciation
-          repeating pronunciation exercises
-          reading aloud paragraphs from the course where there is a model to compare with

These recording are also added to their portfolio of spoken English, which I listen to on my way to work and give them the words they need to look up later on howjsay.

Here is a list of the websites mentioned above:
audioboo  which my students use to record their pronunciation
ipadio  which my students use to record their real speaking
feedly  which I use to follow my students recordings
howjsay  where students can check the pronunciation of words

Edmodo where I give formal assessment in private