UPDATED: Speaking of….speaking (Post 1 in the “Readers Request” Series)

Recently, I decided to ask my readers what they would like me to examine, explore and/or share in my blog. I’m so glad I did. Their ideas have shaped not only the series of posts that I’m launching with this piece, but also allowed me to reflect on aspects of my own practice that could use some dusting off, tweaking and outright re-imagining.

And that brings us here: to the first post in a special “Readers’ Request” series in this blog. Multiple readers asked me to explore and share tips for facilitating and maintaining peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. Some wanted to know about strategies for novice learners and others for students at higher levels.

I love a challenge, so let’s kick things off with the novice learners. I think many educators (and other stakeholders) feel that getting novice learners to speak is just one of the most difficult aspects of language teaching. “After all,” they might say, “they’re so new at language. They can’t possibly know what to say. It’s just so hard!”

When I’m working on learning pathways for my students, I realize that I want them to speak, but I also have to be realistic about their proficiency. The hallmark of novice-level language is that students can consistently, accurately and spontaneously handle lists of known words in familiar contexts and memorized “chunks” of language in familiar contexts. So the challenge becomes to design contexts that maximize their ability to work with lists and chunks. And for the real pros (I’m not always there yet), to do so in ways that result in real language use for real purposes and real audiences beyond the classroom. Like I said…I’m not always there yet. My novices do most of their speaking (and other communicative tasks) in “simulated” real situations that lay a foundation for their work with target language speakers around the world in subsequent years, although we do an annual conversation group with French exchange students who come each spring (a true highlight of the year for many of the students) and I’m constantly on the lookout for other real speaking opportunities that are appropriate to their level.

So how do I get my novices to speak?

First and foremost, I speak French to and with my students. Thanks to reader @srstolz for asking numerous questions on the first version of this post. His questions helped me see that I had neglected to mention the cornerstone of my approach to supporting novice learners to speak. They must have quality input in order to be able to produce any output. That means I must maximize my time with them by using real, authentic, untranslated French as the language of instruction and of communication with my students. I speak French to them in and out of the classroom. I speak French to them even when I’m not technically teaching them. And of course, I speak French when I am teaching them. Doing so is not always easy, as many of you know. I must draw on cognates (for my English, Spanish and Romanian speakers, there are many), life experience of my learners, previous knowledge in French, visuals, realia, context, gestures and any other tools I can use to ensure that I am not merely throwing French words and phrases at them. Instead, I am building a context in which the students can acquire the targeted words and phrases as naturally as possible, crafting my input so the students arrive at the meanings themselves, just like they did in their first language. My goal is to NOT translate. Why? Because building translation into input lessons actually detracts from the effectiveness of the lesson. The students learn that they do not need to pay attention to the words the teacher is using, the context the teacher (hopefully) created to use the words realistically, or anything else the teacher might do to make the words comprehensible because the students know that the teacher will simply provide a translation anyway. Likewise, I don’t ask my novice learners to look at lists words and take notes on them because those lists take the words out of context and present them as isolated fragments of language that are disconnected from the whole. Lists on the board, in the book or on a worksheet cannot give the kind of contextualized input I can provide by crafting the lessons myself. In the most basic sense, vocabulary lists provided to students as a substitute for well-crafted comprehensible input will fail to produce speaking because the lists do not model spoken language.

Here are some other strategies I employ that support my learners to communicate in French.

  1. I seat them for communication. That means no rows. In fact, this past year, I got rid of desks altogether and replaced them with tables. Rows send the message that the class isn’t for communication: it’s for taking notes. It’s for listening to the teacher. That wasn’t the message I wanted to send. It’s true that by seating in tables, there is more opportunity for students to talk in general (and they are NOT always speaking in French, alas), but I felt strongly enough about the need for a more communicatively conducive physical environment that I decided to give up on desks and rows.
    Tables are flexible! Here they are pushed together for large groups. And, they are speaking with our French exchange students.

    Tables are flexible! Here they are pushed together for large groups. And, they are speaking with our French exchange students.

    In the end, I know that if my students are speaking English, it’s because of a failure on my part, not theirs. What kinds of “failures?” Perhaps they were given too much time to complete a task. Perhaps the directions weren’t clear. Or maybe they weren’t linguistically (or socially) ready for the task at all, causing them to break down into English. All of these things are in my control. Ultimately, I can prevent the use of English with outstanding learning supports (instruction and others) and by ensuring that the tasks are appropriate to the students’ interests and levels. So…I actually don’t scold them for speaking English if I can see that it is because I didn’t provide the appropriate supports for them to be successful in French.

  2. I design tasks that maximize those memorized chunks! When students have learned to talk about themselves a bit, we imagine we have been accepted on an international exchange. All the international students will be coming to France (hence, French becomes the common language for the whole group). The host organization has prepared a get-together to allow the students to begin to get to know each other. Even with just name, age and where they live, students can begin to participate in short conversations. They participate in the “mixer” asking each others’ names, ages and home cities. And they get extensive practice with those particular chunks. If a group needs even more structure to be successful, I put them in two concentric circles. The inner circle asks the questions and the outer circle responds and then rotates to the next student. After a few rotations, the students switch circles so that all students get practice asking and answering questions. For this particular example, among students in the inner circle who are asking the questions, approximately ⅓ has the question “what’s your name?” while the remainder of the students in the inner circle are either asking “how old are you?” or “where do you live?” In this way, all students know that they could be asked any of the three questions, but they don’t know for sure which question is coming next. In addition, the students asking the questions get very comfortable with not only their question but with what a “correct” response should sound like. I train them early in the year to use this accumulated experience and knowledge to help students who struggle to answer their question by saying, “Par exemple, Je m’appelle Nicole” (“For example, my name is Nicole”) thus using their own personal response to their question as a model that may help the responding student remember how to answer that question. This empowers all students to be support providers to each other and also makes it easier for me to be more effective when monitoring responses of the whole class (I typically stand in the center of the circle so I can easily “lean in” on various pairs and listen to the conversations).
  3. As the students acquire more language (even though they remain novice-level speakers), it is easy to adapt the above activity. One adaptation I like to do is for them to add follow-up questions (such as “with whom,” “where,” “when,” etc.) as soon as they have enough language to at least provide a simple response to those questions. This begins to introduce slightly more spontaneity (they don’t know what follow-up questions they will be asked next) and it also builds additional listening skills. Furthermore, it increases the amount of the time the students spend asking questions. Given that they will likely be asking quite a few questions when they finally get the chance to travel where the language is spoken, it is imperative that teachers ensure students aren’t always merely responding to questions: they need practice spontaneously asking questions as well. Even more importantly, these short, semi-spontaneous conversations allow students to get to know each other even better and contribute to our sense of community in the classes. I do NOT insist on complete sentence responses. We don’t insist on that in “real” life, and I don’t want my students feeling like what goes on in our class is “fake” language use that doesn’t represent what happens in the real world. Real-world language use is full of single-word answers and partial phrases. That’s OK for my students as well.
  4. I use random participation techniques.This sounds like a small point, but it’s really quite important. At least to me. During the oral guided practice phase of instruction on a new aspect of the language, the students first get an opportunity to work through the task with a partner at their table. If they run into trouble, they have the other tablemates to turn to before asking me (I’m constantly circulating). After they have attempted the activity with their partners, I randomly select two students to complete each mini situation for the class (these are typically question-answer activities that hone in on a specific vocabulary theme or language structure). I used to use index cards to select students, but now I use the iPhone app called “ClassCards.” I use the app on my iPad rather than on my iPhone, but it works great because I can “shake to shuffle” the list of students, I can see the next five students to be selected (crucial since I will be selecting two students at a time), I can mark students absent when they come up in the list so they don’t come up again during that school day and I can allow a student to “pass.” That said, the app was free when I got it and it is no longer free. There are other randomizers available. I encourage you to check them out. Although these initial interactions are not always 100% realistic, guided practice is a critical language learning phase that our learners need in order to eventually be able to speak confidently and spontaneously and by randomizing participation, I am able to help maintain an environment in which all students are ready to speak–in French–at any time.  That said, it is important to move from guided practice to more open-ended, realistic independent practice and performance as soon as teachers have data that their students are working successfully with the new material.
  5. Surveys and other information gap activities are a great way to engage novice learners in short, interpersonal exchanges on a specific topic. Students first work as a class to develop a class bank of questions on the given topic (food, exercise habits, favorite activities, etc.) that they practice at their tables or in inner-outer circles. Then specific questions are assigned to individual students (or selected by students) who will conduct a survey on their assigned question, collect data from the class based on their answers and then create a visual representation of the responses (chart/bar graph/etc.) as well as a one-sentence summary. This task therefore involves speaking and listening and then also reading of their responses and writing (to generate the visual and the summary). And yet, it remains well within the realm of lists and memorized chunks with which they are comfortable.
  6. As students gain more contexts about which they can speak, conversation cards can be a productive peer-to-peer interaction activity, but for novice learners, they may need sentence frames (or rather, question frames) provided in order to get the conversations going. Typically, this would have to occur towards the end of their first year of language study at the earliest, because they won’t have enough different contexts as retrievable language with which to do the activity otherwise, but once they arrive at this point, conversation cards can serve as a great way to recycle earlier material and build-in more recently acquired expressions for their conversations. The cards might prompt them with questions they can ask about their partner’s family, favorite foods, weekend activities, how they would like to decorate their dorm room, where they like to go in town/in the region, etc.

Here are some videos that show both how I use French as the language of instruction and how my students use unscripted, unedited and unrehearsed French to practice and build communication. These students were in French 1 in the 2013-2014 school year.

French 1 end of fall semester: 

French 1 end of spring semester:

  • Part 1: 
  • Part 2: 
  • Part 3: 

These are just some ways I ensure my novice-level students are engaged in and supported during peer-to-peer interactions in the target language. What are your favorite strategies? Continue the conversation and continue the learning by sharing in the comments.


2 thoughts on “UPDATED: Speaking of….speaking (Post 1 in the “Readers Request” Series)

  1. Pingback: Brillante Viernes: July 10, 2015 | Maris Hawkins

  2. Nicole, this is fabulous! Thank you for sharing so many video examples from your classroom. I spent more time than I’d like to admit having this conversation today with a teacher who believed that teaching in the target language would be too difficult for her novice students. This is a great resource for teaching teachers.


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