Conversation is by nature unpredictable because spontaneous questions and real answers will send people off on tangents. Our learners will always come up against the following problems, which technology can help with: I want to say something, but I don’t know how to say it. I know this word, but I don’t know how to pronounce it. I’m not sure if I can say it like this in English.
With lots of conversations going on in the classroom at the same time, it is impossible for the teacher to listen to everyone all the time. We encourage our learners to use whatever means they can in order to keep the conversation going. However, at the same time, we ask them to have pen and paper at the ready to make a note of any language difficulties, like the ones mentioned above. Meanwhile, we circulate taking our own notes.
Learners’ own photos are a wonderful way to create conversation, especially pictures of family, holidays or simply something that caught their eye in the street. They no longer have to hunt through photo albums at home or prise pictures from frames and remember to bring them to class because nowadays they can all be found on their mobile devices. The activities? Tell us who you take after in your family, show us the most memorable place you’ve visited or compare favourite photos, to name but a few. When each learner has spoken about their image once to their partner, it is time for feedback and then they repeat the activity with a new group, the objective being an improved performance.
When it comes to feedback, we use a shared Google Drive document (1), where we write down the answers to the learners’ difficulties along with our own observations. The first time we do this, we show them how to link vocabulary to an online dictionary – great for pronunciation – and, if an image speaks a thousand words, to Google Images.
Every day we add to the document so that it becomes a record of the language that has emerged in class. We send learners a link to the document and each week one of them also receives editing rights so that the responsibility for linking to the dictionary/images is theirs.
Vocabulary and pronunciation
All of us have struggled at some point when asked how to use a particularly tricky item of vocabulary. In these cases the British National Corpus (2) can be a lifesaver, and learners are always impressed by the concept and the information it contains. It can be extremely useful to show learners what they can or cannot do with new vocabulary. What it does not do, however, is help them with sounds they are having difficulty producing.
For this we use the phonemic chart, and recommend learners to download the free app (3). In class it is a useful tool for familiarising the learners with the symbols and sounds, and outside class they can use it to check pronunciation and practise. We also encourage learners to use an online dictionary (4). The advantages over a paper dictionary are threefold: it is much quicker to look up the word, learners can listen to the pronunciation, and they do not need to carry two kilos of dictionary around with them.
Everybody has a hidden talent or is an expert in something and we make it our mission to find out what it is, but before we do that, we give a short informal talk of our own to give learners a feel for the exercise, and also because they will be more forthcoming if we share first. We then ask each of them to do the same.
They prepare at home and if they use presentation software to illustrate their talk, no reading from slides is allowed. As with all good Dogme activities, the listeners have to be active and are under strict instructions to ask lots of questions after the talk. Recent examples have included How to use Photoshop, Mixing the perfect gin and tonic (with tasting included) and Ten things you never knew about Argentina. In some cases, learners have even learnt a new skill on YouTube or Videojug, such as balloon modelling or juggling, and taught it to the rest of the class!
As the talks are happening, we make notes on the speaker’s linguistic performance, which we write up on the computer after the class. We then use a free software tool called Jing (5) to send them feedback. As long as your computer has a microphone and a camera, Jing allows you to record what is happening on the screen plus your commentary for up to five minutes. You can then send this recording as a link via email, and it becomes an individual listening comprehension exercise for the learner in question. A nice follow-up to this is to ask learners to record and send you a video message using MailVu (6) reacting to the experience in class and to your feedback.
We have been fans of conversation-driven language learning for a long time, and it forms a major part of our everyday classes. The golden rule for us when using technology is that it should serve to enhance the learning experience in that context. The tools we have mentioned are free, easy to use and have proved popular with learners.
1. You could introduce your learners to Google Docs via this video:
4. Cambridge http://dictionary.cambridge.org/
5. Russell Stannard explains Jing http://www.teachertrainingvideos.com/Jing/index.html
Steve and Tom work at the British Council in Alcalá University, Madrid, and blog at www.allatc.wordpress.com
By Steve Muir and Tom Spain