Turning the tables on speaking assessments

We have a great setup for speaking assessments at Webb. It’s by far one of my favorite parts of the job. Walk down the halls of the Big Room, and you’ll see cozy café tables and chairs backed by scenes of Parisian cafés. This is where teachers and students sit down for one-on-one speaking assessments every few weeks or so while classmates complete written tasks back in the classroom.

I couldn’t ask for a better setting for speaking assessments, but I have come to want more from them. After a few years, I’ve realized that the speaking assessments were always about me. I’m the one starting the conversation. I’m the one asking for more detail and moving from one topic to the next.

I like to think my students will one day reach a level where they might actually sit down with a native French speaker who’s asking them all about their lives, what they want to do over the weekend, what their classes are like, and so on. Some of my students will go on to that experience when they travel to France with me. But the truth is, that reality is far away for most of my students who are in beginning-level courses. How many questions will the hotel clerk really ask them? Will a waiter sit down and ask about their weekend?

There’s so much more talking that my students need to be able to do if they want to navigate their way successfully around France. And in all those situations, it’s much more likely that they will be the ones who truly initiate the conversation. They’re the ones who will be asking how much something costs, calling to make a reservation, jotting down directions around town, and so on.

With that reality in mind, I decided to switch up the format of my speaking assessments this semester. The student receives the prompts. The student asks the questions and makes notes. All I have is a list of details or information to refer to in answering the student.

I was leery about making this huge change with little warning. Honestly, looking back at the lessons from the first semester, I’m not sure I was really preparing students to take the active role in a conversation. It all turned out in the end, though. And after a few rounds of these assessments, I’m starting to get a very good answer to the question “Are my students ready to go to France?”

I’ve also noticed some really cool and unexpected side effects of putting students in the driver’s seat on speaking assessments. In particular:

  • Students take in-class speaking tasks more seriously. They know they really need to practice whatever model I’ve offered because they’ll be doing that same kind of thing on a speaking assessment. There are fewer students who sit around and wait for partners or who coast through tasks like mindless robots.
  • Students are really thinking about communication strategies like circumlocution. The stakes are so much higher for vocabulary recall now, and they’ve come to understand that every word and expression is a tool in the toolbox that may help them work through the moments when they’ve forgotten something else. I’m willing to continue with the task as long as they’re using French. I’ll play dumb if they try to use the English word “boat”, but if they say something like “it’s like a car but goes on water”, I’ll play along and try to figure out what they mean.
  • It’s fun to see students get creative with the language and strategize by approaching prompts from different angles. One student might ask “Where did you eat dinner?” Another student, who has forgotten the word for “where”, might give me choices instead. Again, they know I’ll continue working through the task with them as long as they’re speaking French.
  • The shy parrots are beginning to take flight. It’s no longer enough for them to answer my questions with a “yes” or “no” or a tiny variation on the question I asked. They have to find the skills and courage to be in control of the communicative situation, and it’s very rewarding to see them embrace those inner strengths.

Perhaps the best part of it all is the challenge on my end. These kinds of speaking assessments require a lot of backwards planning, beginning with the question “How might my students actually use this content in real life?” The answer needs to produce brief, clear and logical prompts. These assessments are timed, and I don’t want students to waste time trying to figure out the nuances of a stilted scenario. If content doesn’t fit that framework, what’s the point of teaching it? The answers to those questions provide a lot of inspiration for meaningful classwork.

There’s a place for the traditional interview-style speaking assessment. I don’t want to overwhelm complete beginners with expectations that stretch far beyond typical production for their level, and I wouldn’t want higher-level students to spend years asking when things are going to happen and how much things cost when they’re ready to talk about possibilities, contingencies and opinions. However, I do think the student-driven speaking assessment is right for most of the levels I teach. It’s done a lot to foster the transition between absolute beginners and confident speakers, and that’s exactly what I want my students to achieve.

DIY FVR Library

Free voluntary reading can be a great way for students to get the variety of comprehensible input they need to succeed. It’s also a great way to get students reading in the target language, period, so those long passages at higher levels seem much less intimidating.

However, building a FVR library is a huge task. You need a book for every student. You need a variety of books for them to pick from. You need books that are 100% comprehensible at your students’ current level. That’s a tough checklist that can cost tons of time and money.

There’s an easier way, though! It still takes time, but it’s time well spent. It comes at a fraction of the cost compared to buying pre-published readers, and gives you the opportunity to ensure that your library contains stories that your students actually want to read. The DIY FVR library is an idea that I’ve seen tossed around online, and here’s my take on it.Read More »

Conjuguno

My new teaching position has introduced me to a lot of new challenges in finding harmony between CI-based methodology and a textbook-based pacing guide. Our French 2 textbook is especially heavy on irregular verbs, and although my students are working their hardest — engaging actively in CI practice during class and completing a wide variety of practices at home — we’re still struggling to the meet the goal of mastering all these verbs forms. As usual, the textbook considers a set of verbs like dormir, partir and sortir to be one “rule” because all the verbs have similar irregularities. The reality is that acquiring all the present- and past-tense forms of these three verbs solidly enough for confident production is far beyond the scope of one week’s learning, and that doesn’t even take into account the twenty or more additional lexical items to be covered in the week. It’s also far more than can be sensibly addressed totally through CI activities.

Enter Conjuguno. I developed this activity to give students some kind of purpose for using all these verb forms that’s hopefully enjoyable enough to at least trigger a few good neurochemicals and boost their retention.Read More »

Tapout!

Tapout is a quick and easy way to keep extended TPR commands from getting too tedious. I’ve been there plenty of times: you get caught up in the process of challenging students with extended commands like Walk to the table, pick up the book, and hit the door three times with the book — and suddenly you realize it’s a snooze fest. Even the goofiest commands can lose their appeal if you’re trying to work with a large group of students.

I like Tapout because it contains two important elements: it keeps students watching, and it encourages novelty in vocabulary. Here’s the way it works. First, you give a set of extended or chain commands to Student A, who then goes through all the actions and freezes at the last moment. Then you’ll call on Student B and give him or her a new set of commands that begin where Student A left off. Touching your head might become scratching your head. Hitting the door with your foot might become touching the door with your hand. The game requires students to pay attention because they need to jump right into place when you call on them. It encourages novelty in vocabulary because the tapout moment will require a variation on the same command.

For an extra challenge, let students take over the commands. When Student A taps out, he or she sits down and gives commands to Student B, who has taken his or her place. I like this variation because it downplays the speaking role since students are focused on the process of tapping out and do the actions.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think!

Algeria: A First-Person Perspective

Our French program was pleased to welcome Mr. Richard Vaugier, a native of Algeria and former resident of Montréal who now operates his own construction company in Arizona. Mr. Vaugier’s visit gave us the opportunity to not only practice French with a native speaker but also discuss the culture of the Maghreb and socio-political issues that the area has faced for decades. Mr. Vaugier offered first-hand perspectives on modern and historical events in both the United States and Algeria, which is one of the focus areas of this quarter’s culture portfolios. We’re very grateful for Mr. Vaugier’s visit and enjoyed the chance to hear native viewpoints on events that, for many of our students, are familiar only through textbooks and news reports.