Digital learning and Oral fluency in the MFL classroom – Rescuing the neglected skill through an integrated framework

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A pivotal principle of language learning which must be at the heart of any methodology one decides to implement in the MFL classroom, is that – as posited by Cognitive Skill Theory (e.g. Anderson, 2000) – the four main language skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing) are learnt exactly in the same way as any other cognitive skill, through lots of practice and formative feedback on performance. Yet, in 25 years of teaching, in the majority of lessons I have seen speaking and listening skills are practised insufficiently and definitely not to the same extent as reading and writing are. When speaking occurs, it is usually within the context of teacher-to-student  rather than student-to-student interaction.

I still recall vividly the uproar I caused amongst some colleagues when, a few years back, as Head of French, I proposed to them that every lesson should include at least 15 minutes of student-to-student oral communication (through surveys, find someone who, simulations, role plays, card games, etc.). Frankly, I was shocked by that reaction. Isn’t it why people learn languages? To be able to converse in the target language to other fellow humans? Shouldn’t it be our primary pedagogic and even ethical imperative to encourage face-to-face oral communication, especially in this age of hiding-behind-the-screen chronic digital chatting?

What is ironic is that some of those reluctant teachers have become passionate advocates of personalized learning and the ‘flipped classroom’ through the digital medium. But when students chat with each other in the target language, making up their own questions and answers, using language spontaneously and creatively – isn’t this truly personalised learning? We truly flip the classroom, when our learners carry over this learning habit to the outside world or even simply to the corridors or play areas of our schools – a possible scenario in an International school like the one I work in, for example, where people from lots of different nationalities play and work side by side. This is why I personally make sure that every single one of my lessons includes lots of learner-to-learner interaction in the target language.

Is this tendency to refrain from lots of speaking and listening practice exacerbated by teachers’ use of the Tablet or other other digital devices in the MFL classroom? The answer is, I am afraid, a resounding ‘YES’. Of the over 1,000 tweets about Apple Apps, Tech tips on various teacher networks, digital based learning activities and forum posts I have reviewed as part of a study I am carrying out on digital learning, only a dismal 2 % concerned themselves with oral fluency enhancement. In fact, it should be pointed out that most of the teaching tips that make up that 2 % were of questionable pedagogic values. Here is why.

Firstly, some of the ‘techy’ advice I reviewed related to the use of Tellagami, Chatterpix and similar Apps as oral-fluency enhancing activities. Although, there is a place for this kind of activities as catalysts for (younger) student motivation to talk by means of the visual and sound effects, their enhancing effect on fluency is not massive. Moreover, in my experience, students usually tend to read scripts when they record with these Apps as they are often use to ‘show off’ students’work or as homework to post on school blogs.

Similarly, videoing students or recording their dialogues through apps like Voice Recorder Pro (my favourite), can indeed be useful for AFL activities such as self-/peer-assessment but do they really significantly impact oral fluency?

Other tips reviewed related to using apps like ‘Explaining everything’ where teachers/students record feedback on a student/peer’s performance. Besides being very time consuming for teachers to make and students to listen to, all language learning models and research, whether nativist or cognitive, show that this kind of activities have little or no significant impact on student’s oral proficiency as they work on declarative rather than procedural knowledge and for them to really impact learning their formative content needs to be recycled constantly to be internalized effectively (I will write more on this in my next post explaining why).

Finally, using Aurasma to hear a passage being read aloud so as to model good pronunciation/intonation is great at the imitative stages to work on the prosodic levels of language production but does not really develop spontaneous speech.

Ultimately, what some language educators seem to forget or ignore, is that for language learners to acquire all the oral micro-skills, each of them needs to be automatized. In other words, the learner needs to practise each and every one of those skills along the Declarative to Procedural route; a route, that is, that goes from a slow, conscious stage where the learner needs to think about what he/she says with lots of hesitation and mistakes, to a faster, ‘automatic’ stage where the language performance is fluid and ‘spontaneous’ and accurate. This requires a sustained, constant and time-consuming effort supported by regular, well-dosed and selective (on only a few crucial issues at a time) formative feedback, lots of grammar practice, vocabulary learning and pronunciation/intonation modelling through masses of listening.

Most of the predominantly ‘techy’ lessons I have watched both on the Internet and in schools, did little of this. I have rarely seen oral or even written (of the likes that students do in the real world in chatrooms or facebook) learner-to-learner interaction and very little listening practice (surprising, considering the masses of L2-videos available on the internet). On the other hand, I have seen significant amounts of valuable learning time being wasted coping with glitches, editing and focusing on technical details such as which special effect to apply, which avatar to choose, etc. Are we teaching students to use digital apps or to speak the target language? A lot of the students I have interviewed remarked that when publishing an iMovie they learned a lot about using the Apps they were ‘smashing’ but  were so absorbed by the technological aspect of it that they ended up not learning much language in the process.

I have indeed seen colleagues, though, use computer, tablets, internets and apps judiciously, in smart doses, to support oral fluency, in the pre-communicative and post communicative stages, respectively for modelling/preparation and for consolidation/formative feedback. These colleagues use digital learning as a motivational catalyst to enthuse the students; for vocabulary building purposes; to access Internet based-resources; to personalize listening; to get them to chat in real time in virtual chatrooms. But they use it in relatively small doses, interspersed with other activities in which short and long focus are wisely alternated, where the learners move around the classroom for independent enquiry or do some sort of TPR, etc. The end goals being: (a) to prepare the students for communicative practice; (b) to consolidate learning; (c) to personalise expansion of the target material.These colleagues use recording apps mostly at the end of each learning cycle, when the students are developmentally ready for spontaneous interaction or to learn from richer formative feedback.

In conclusion, digital tools can be powerful and effective catalysts of learning, but their use must be informed by sound principled teaching and lots of cognitive and affective empathy with the learners. Oracy or social communication MUST be fostered on a day-to-day basis and developing spontaneous speakers/writers should always be our primary objective as MFL teachers.

This is the framework that I advocate for the integration of digital learning in the promotion of oral fluency in the 21st century MFL classroom. Short and long focus, oral and written performance, vocabulary and grammar building are integrated.

Phase                              Activities Example of activity including ICT opportunities
Imitation –        Modelling of target phrases-        Using target phrases in highly structured oral activities (e.g. through audio-tracks; talking mats on screen/board)(e.g. find someone who, role-plays, card games, on the spot oral translation)
Vocabulary consolidation –        Vocabulary building activities (online or worksheets)-        Listening and reading comprehension activities (e.g. the www.language-gym.com work-outs)
Expansion/Manipulation –        Students manipulate the target phrases grammatically (to make it more complex) or by adding new vocabulary to personalize their answers to a set of questions, for instance drawing on reference material and teacher (e.g. use of online dictionaries and grammar reference materials independently;  creation of a padlet or blog)
Preparation for communicative activity –        Students prepare for the oral activities by practising communicating in writing with each other in the target language online. The written medium being slower than the oral one, they have more conscious control on their output and time to self-correct (e.g. student chat – in writing- with each other on Edmodo, Facebook or using a google spreadsheet using a pre-defined set of questions or questions generated by themselves)
Practice and expansion –        Students now practise talking to each other in the context of a survey, interview, simulation, drama sketch, etc. whilst teacher monitors and facilitates. (e.g. at the end of the interviews, simulations, surveys, role plays, etc. the students record spontaneous performance on iPad)

References

Anderson, J.R. 2000. Cognitive psychology and its implications (5th edition). New York: Worth Publishing.

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