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Oral Activities for Novice Language Learners

 

Kristi Hislope, North Georgia College & State University, GA

 

Hislope, Ph.D., is associate professor of Spanish and TESOL endorsement coordinator.

 

Abstract

Engaging novice language learners in classroom conversation is essential but difficult because of hesitancy to speak in front of a large group of peers and class time constraints.  This paper presents technological and traditional activities that are completed outside the classroom to give students additional speaking practice in less stressful environments. Activities include dialogs using video conferencing, video storytelling, and informal face-to-face conversations.  Professor observations and student perceptions of these activities are discussed.  Both professor and students found these activities beneficial in supporting oral production.

 

Introduction

Speaking in a foreign language is a complex process involving heavy cognitive demand, anxiety, and self-confidence issues (Castañeda & Rodríquez-González, 2011, p. 483).  These three factors are important for foreign language instructors to consider when working with beginning-level adult language learners who are articulate in their native language but are reduced to basic language structures when communicating in their second language.  Engaging students in target language conversation at this level can be challenging but rewarding when students’ oral proficiency improves.   To develop oral proficiency Hinkle (2006) supports using specific tasks in communicative practice.  She claims that rehearsal or repetition provides an opportunity for learners to “accommodate the competing cognitive demands of fluency, accuracy, and linguistic complexity.”   These rehearsals “lead to substantial improvements in the amount of spoken discourse and in grammatical, lexical, and articulatory accuracy” (p. 115). 

 

The purpose of this article is to describe different oral-production activities performed over one semester in beginning Spanish courses and offer the instructor’s and students’ views on those exercises.   In this article, five out-of-classroom activities which promote oral production are presented.  These activities are (1) a visit to the professor’s office in which students have to converse briefly in Spanish, (2) two audio recordings of dialogs students have created together, (3) a SKYPE call to their professor which is conducted in Spanish, (4) an individual video recording in the target language, and (5) participation in two informal conversation hours in Spanish.   Next, the researcher discusses her observations, recommendations, and suggestions on each of the five activities.  Finally, she presents results from eighty-seven surveys which highlight students’ reactions to the activities and their perceptions related to improvement in their speaking abilities, fluency, and confidence levels.  Other activities to promote oral production are also suggested. 

 

Review of the Literature

Speaking anxiety can be especially debilitating for adults at lower proficiency levels.  Ballman (2006) discussed several classroom practices which may discourage students from speaking in class.  These include asking more display versus referential questions.  An example is, “What color is that?” versus “What’s your favorite color” (p. 366)?  The latter represents more authentic conversation.  Other discouraging practices are insisting that students answer in complete sentences when in normal conversation a sentence fragment would be used and correcting students in the middle of their utterance (Ballman, 2006, p. 366).  Phillips (1991) claimed that, in reference to classroom anxiety, “… the oral skill appears the most problematic due to its potentially negative effect on the students' self-image” (p. 4).   Saint Leger (2009) points out that self-confidence and anxiety are conceptually related but in different directions.  To reduce language learning anxiety instructors must help their students build greater self-confidence (p. 160).  Teaching our students conversational strategies may increase self-confidence levels and help alleviate classroom anxiety.  The instructor should encourage a friendly learning environment,  stress learning and improvement over perfect performance, present herself as helpful and concerned with their learning versus that as an authoritative evaluator, and offer help then follow through (Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002, p. 568). 

 

Preparing our students by teaching conversational strategies may encourage them to initiate or participate in more conversations with higher-proficiency learners or with native speakers.  Strategies assist novice speakers with ways to negotiate meaning such as asking for clarification or restating what was said, with fillers to buy themselves time in the conversation to formulate their utterances, and, among others, with connector words and expressions to make their speech flow more fluently.   Weyers (2010) claims that it is possible to increase intermediate-level students to advanced-level proficiency in one semester by incorporating activities which require students to use speaking strategies (p. 385).  These strategies can be beneficial for novice-level students as well. 

 

Nakatani (2010, p. 127-128) stresses the importance of organizing specific conversational strategy training for low-proficiency students.  She also suggests providing them with ample opportunities to practice the target language in small groups to improve their confidence and practice oral communication strategies.  She cautions that simply providing opportunity for practice may not control anxiety for some students, thus low-proficiency students also need strategy training (p. 128).   Ceo-DiFrancesco (2003, p. 128-129) suggests allowing extra wait time for beginners to have time to formulate their thoughts and discussing the strategies they have used after completing an activity.  She also iterates that for structures to become more automatic they must be practiced, thus she calls for an increase in oral production activities (p. 129). 

 

Naughton (2006) claims, “… [S]mall group oral interaction does not necessarily yield language-learning opportunities or encourage their exploitation “ (p. 171).  However, she continues by stating that we should provide these opportunities but must construct an environment which encourages language development through interaction (p. 171).   She explains that students of a common first language may not feel motivated to solve communication problems in their second language since they can be resolved by reversion to their native language (p. 178).   However, “[I]f [students] can visualize the learning potential implicit in communicative tasks, they may be more willing to exploit them” (p. 179).

 

If students foresee that the activities they are completing relate to real world performance they may be more apt to participate fully in the activity.  Conversational activities using voice chat, recorded dialog, and video are useful activities when practicing the second language.  Muge Satar and Ozdener (2011) conducted a study with beginning language learners using text chat and voice chat.  They found that both are effective for developing speaking skills when students are guided with tasks (p. 606).  Such tasks are beneficial for providing extra out-of-class practice and are also an “important tool to help learners gain confidence by providing them with a safe environment in which to practice and evaluate themselves” (p. 607-8).  One of the benefits of recorded dialogs and videos is retrospective self- evaluation.   Castañeda and Rodríquez-González (2011) highlight the use of video for drawing students’ awareness to their speech production by viewing and reviewing their performance.  Video and audio afford students the opportunity to define their strengths and weakness so they know what to focus on in the future.  In an in-depth analysis of video digital recording, all nine participants found the activity to improve their speaking abilities (p. 492).  

 

Current Study

Students at the researcher’s university spend two hours and fifty minutes a week in class. With approximately twenty-five students in each class, this is not enough time for adequate oral practice. Students in small groups usually plan what they will say using English and later translate to the target language. This is also a serious limitation to practice time.  Shy or reluctant students do not volunteer answers and must be called on.  Instructors want their students to enjoy the language, not feel apprehensive about it.  The current study was conducted over one semester with ninety-two first-semester Spanish students.   Thirty-one of these students were true beginners. 

 

Students completed several oral activities outside of class.  Extensive changes to course requirements were made from previous semesters.  The number of written homework activities which required discrete-item answers was reduced while activities with longer written discourse were retained.  Recorded lab monologues were reorganized into interactive dialog-driven or creative activities.  In addition to technological exercises face-to-face outside-of-the-classroom opportunities for conversation were implemented.    Below, each activity and professor observations on that activity are discussed.  Student opinion based on an in-class survey is also reported.

 

Oral Production Activities

During the first two weeks of class students were required to visit the professor during office hours which were held six hours weekly.  During this visit students were required to answer three predetermined questions in full Spanish sentences.  Students were also encouraged to ask questions they had about the class.  These short discussions ranged from three to five minutes.  Some students came in pairs.  The purposes of this visit were three-fold;  to persuade students to visit the professor’s office since many would  be hesitant to go of their own volition; to meet the professor outside the classroom and see that she is approachable and help alleviate some anxiety; and to increase their time speaking Spanish. 

 

During the sixth and ninth weeks of the semester pairs of students were asked to record two dialogs on their time in our language lab using our lab’s software.  The week-six assignment required students to write a dialog about an exchange-student roommate coming home with them.  In the conversation they exchange questions and comments about what their families are like and what they do together.  The week-nine dialog required students to describe the personalities and appearances of two famous people.  Dialogs were short and related to topics just covered in class.

 

During the two-week period between these recorded dialogs students called the professor individually on SKYPE and conversed.  They were instructed to review the paraphrastic future construction “ir a + infinitive” (to be going to do something) and to study the vocabulary we had just completed.   Students signed up in five-minute increments available at various times during the day and evening.  The professor requested the use of webcams so that students could use the instructor’s body language, facial expressions and other gestures to assist their comprehension.

 

In week ten, students had to submit a one-to-five-minute video production they had written in Spanish.  There were no specifications on video-editing programs.  For this assignment students had to use themselves or a friend, animal, stuffed toy, doll, etc. and describe the person’s or object’s daily routine.  The professor stressed that she was more concerned with their language usage rather than the production quality of the film.  Students were required to have at least fifteen sentences using some reflexive verbs.  Most videos lasted from two to four minutes.   Students uploaded their work to youtube, vimeo, ustream, etc.  and emailed the link to the instructor.

 

In addition to utilization of digital media, a chat called “hora de cafe” (coffee hour) was implemented where students met with the professor and other students outside the classroom to practice speaking informally.  Students were required to attend two of fourteen sessions which were offered at different times and in various socially-relaxed environments around or near campus such as the cafeteria, library, and Mexican restaurants.  In small groups they simply spoke informally about topics such as their classes, families, sports, vacations, and jobs.  When many students attended they were organized into smaller groups, introduced themselves, and spoke informally.  They were given a topic such as, “You are on your favorite vacation.  Where are you, and what are you doing right now?” to practice the present progressive. 

 

Professor Observations

As a result of the required office visit, more students visited during office hours later in the term.  Although students only had to answer three questions in Spanish during the required visit, many left with more confidence because the professor was patient and helped them when needed.  She noted better rapport with students who stayed longer and shared personal information which she took notes on and incorporated into future course discussions. 

 

One consideration when doing these office visits is the time involved.   Two weeks of office hours were devoted for this assignment plus time for accommodating students with conflicting schedules.  However, grading was minimal since students who attempted to speak in Spanish received a perfect score. 

 

Recording the two dialogs gave students ample time to prepare and to record several times until they were happy with their product.  Multiple recordings were practice for students in the target language, and the atmosphere was less anxiety-provoking than performing the dialog in class.  Most students wrote the dialogs and tried to sound natural reading them.  Although this was not spontaneous speech, it still provided oral production practice for which the professor could provide more detailed feedback than in a classroom setting.  Time required for listening and feedback can be excessive.  Recording in pairs reduces the dialogs one has to listen to compared to student monologues.  Many times it was difficult to determine which student was speaking to provide individual feedback.  In the future students will be asked to address each other by name on the recording.  Students should also ensure they are audible.  To save time the professor graded holistically on the following items:  followed directions, sounded natural, content, pronunciation, grammar, and length.   Grading was a checkmark system and general comments, if needed, such as “check conjugations”. 

 

Students who have never used Skype before should practice before calling their professor.  Technicalities such as answering, “Can you see and hear me?”  consumed some of the five-minute time limit.  Also students need more wait time between questions and to formulate their utterances.  Skype interviews should be scheduled at least ten-minutes apart for these reasons.  The most frequently occurring technological issues involved sound with five students.  They need a built-in or external microphone.  Calls were graded holistically on the following items:  punctuality, if they understood the questions, logical answers, pronunciation, and grammar.   Prepared questions were used to keep the conversations consistent among students, but topics were changed slightly.  For example, to get them to produce the periphrastic future they were asked, “What are you going to do tonight/during spring break /when you graduate /on your next vacation, etc?”  One advantage of this activity is that it could occur in the comfort of home.  The professor suggests a strict policy of no make-ups if a student misses her time to call. 

 

The video activity allowed students to be creative.  Although the importance of oral language production over elaborate video techniques was stressed, many students accomplished both; adequate oral skills and creative well-thought-out videos.  Some projects were simply students sitting in front of the camera and talking.  The instructor noticed many of their videos posted on Facebook with positive comments from friends.  In some cases the professor experienced problems downloading videos.   In these instances students showed her the video on their phones or their laptops in her office.  In the future they will upload them to a private youtube channel.  The most frequent complaint was not knowing how to download the video from their phone into youtube;  most figured it out.  The students found ways to solve many of their own technological issues.  Again, videos were graded holistically as they were very time consuming.  In the future students will be grouped to create the video which will reduce grading time and received emails. 

 

The horas de cafe were a wonderful way to build rapport with the students and to encourage them to speak more Spanish spontaneously.  These activities were time consuming as well and were fraught with scheduling complications to accommodate student schedules.  Each hora de cafe was thirty minutes to one hour long.  The professor conducted fourteen of them throughout the semester.   One management issue is that end-of-the-semester cafes were more popular, and the earlier cafes were sparsely attended.   In the future the first hora de cafe will be due before midterm and the second after midterm.   Some students were wary about attending the cafes at Mexican restaurants because they did not want to purchase a meal.  The professor assured them that it was acceptable, and she made arrangements with the management in advance.   Despite the campus being small, some students complained about having to walk ten minutes to some of the locations.  The professor wanted this to be a more casual experience and not classroom-oriented so she chose locations which were not in the language building. 

 

Student Survey Results

In this section the results of a student survey about the oral production activities are discussed.  The anonymous survey was conducted in class near the end of the semester but before the video activity was submitted.  Eighty-seven surveys from four courses were collected.  A few students had not completed some activities so the total numbers do not add up to eighty-seven.  This is a very small sample size to generalize the results but could indicate a trend at similar smaller higher education institutions.

 

Seventy-one students had completed the office visit.  Sixteen reported visiting the professor’s office more frequently afterwards.  All students reported the experience was positive because they felt the professor would help them and get to know them, she was friendly, the atmosphere was relaxed, they knew the office location now, they were able to answer the Spanish questions successfully, and they noticed that other students were at their level of Spanish.  Castañeda & Rodríquez-González (2011, p. 495) claim that students tend to compare their speech to that of native-speakers or highly proficient speakers, thus this experience allowed them to create a more realistic expectation of their abilities.

 

Eighty-three students had recorded a dialog.  Eleven would have preferred to do the dialog in person.  Forty-six did not want to do the dialog in person.  Fifty-six recorded the dialog several times before saving their final copy.  All but one thought that doing a recorded dialog was a good way to get beginning students to speak more in Spanish.  Some of the reasons given were because they could listen to themselves repeatedly and re-record, it gave them more practice, they learn better through interaction, it was less pressure than performing in class, they had a partner to help them, and they could complete it in their own time.

 

Seventy-eight respondents called the professor on Skype.   Thirty-six had never used Skype.  Sixty-four felt they performed successfully on the call.  Twenty-eight would prefer to have the same conversation in person with their professor.  Forty-seven had no preference for Skype versus in person.  Forty-eight reported feeling more confident about using and understanding Spanish after this experience.  Finally, to the question, “Do you think that using Skype (or a similar program) is a good way to get beginning students to speak more in Spanish?”  thirty-two replied, “yes,” forty said, “maybe,” and six responded, “no”.   Those who answered “maybe” and “yes” had similar reasons which were that it gave them practice speaking in between classes, they were more comfortable because they were in their own setting, they could read facial expressions and gestures, it was not as intimidating as face-to-face interaction with others present, and it was good for busy people because it is the technology of the future.  Some of the negative responses dealt with feeling unnerved about seeing themselves on camera, temperamental technology, and feeling intimidated by using the technology for the first time. 

 

Thirty-four students responded to questions concerning the two required horas de cafe or informal conversation times.  Thirty-two of them felt successful at the coffee hour, and thirty-three felt comfortable there.  Twenty-four reported that they felt more confident in Spanish afterwards whereas twenty-three said that they were more comfortable speaking in class afterwards.  All thirty-four felt that informal conversations were a good way for beginners to speak more Spanish.  The extra practice with a small group of students and the professor in a relaxed atmosphere gave them more confidence in speaking.  They felt capable to speak in Spanish with other students on their own level.  They were encouraged to speak without being ridiculed, and they reported they were applying what they had learned in class. 

 

The professor listed other activities to promote speaking and asked students to check those that would interest them.  The ideas ranked as follows:  a paired conversation with the professor in her office (sixty-five votes), speaking individually in person with the professor (fifty-one votes), interview native Spanish speakers with questions prepared in advance (thirty-nine votes), produce a group video (thirty-eight votes), speak to professors and students in a virtual world such as Second Life (twenty-four votes)(see Pardo Ballester, 2011, and Hislope, 2008), do an in-class presentation on a topic of their choice (seventeen votes), and make a phone call in Spanish to the professor (fourteen votes).   They were also asked for recommendations.  They suggested going to a Mexican restaurant, leaving a message on voicemail (see Kiss, 2004), recording more dialogs, student conferences, and watching a Spanish-language television show and summarizing it.  Additional possible activities include oral journals in which students converse with each other outside of class through video (Mir, 2006), and suggestions from Ballman (2006) including mimicry, role-plays,  telling anecdotes, writing song lyrics and performing, and dubbing a Spanish-language movie.  All of these activities are adaptable for in-class or out-of-class practice. 

 

Conclusion

Providing a variety of activities out of class in different, more intimate environments helped these students overcome some anxiety.  Students were generally more talkative in class and willing to risk making mistakes than those in previous classes who did not complete extra oral production activities. Utilizing new technologies enables beginning-level-language instructors to offer more personal means to practice the language.   Technology and small-group conversations appear to be effective strategies for breaking down common student hesitations which prevent many adult language learners from fully involving themselves in the learning process.  Even students who are hesitant to speak in class will be gaining practice outside of class which will build their confidence levels and improve their performance in future Spanish courses.  

 

References

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