Vander Tavares, York University
By using voice-recording mobile apps, instructors can invite students to complete their oral assignments and practice speaking individually, and later submit their recordings to their instructors directly from their phones. This allows for students to receive more individualized feedback from the instructor and for the instructor to dedicate more in-class time to instruction.
Teaching speakers of English as a second language (ESL) or as a foreign language (EFL) involves paying particular attention to each student’s language-related questions as well as ensuring that the student is given the clearest explanation possible. Given today’s classes’ linguistic and cultural diversity it is difficult to attend to each student’s need individually while attempting to follow an ambitious lesson plan.
For anyone learning a second language, the desire to practice speaking is often the greatest of all because, understandably, being able to effectively interact socially, in the target language, is a necessity. In order to provide my students with enough time to practice, I have shifted my speaking activities to include the use of voice-recording apps. The one I have utilized the most is called ClearRecord. It’s a simple mobile application that allows the students to record their own speaking, according to the expectations of the assignments I devise, and then e-mail them to me directly from their phones. While I have also experimented with Apple’s popular Voice Memos, the reason I have instead favored the use of ClearRecord is because, as instructors, we should be mindful that students may not all have access to the same technology given their socioeconomic status and individual preferences; consequently, finding an application that works on all students’ gadgets should be a priority so barriers to learning are not created in the classroom.
The first image above provides a screenshot of the app’s interface. Pushing the blue circle with the microphone icon in it instantly begins the recording. If a student is recording in a busy environment, such as a coffee shop, the app offers the technology of reducing ambient noise so that the voice remains clear even when background noise is loud. Once the recording is in progress, student-users have the option to pause the recording and resume it later. The app also allows students to take one picture directly through the app and attach it to the recording. Once the recording is complete, the app organizes them chronologically, and the app presents the option to share the recording, by e-mail or DropBox, by tapping the ellipsis on each of the recorded files.
The speaking assignments can focus students’ practice on a variety of aspects of English linguistics. The instructor should identify the area with which students may be having most difficulty and design the assignment accordingly. For instance, I observed that the students in my most recent class were having challenges pronouncing the voiceless dental fricative phoneme (“th” as in thing). With that in mind, their assignment entailed recording their reading of a short passage from the textbook in which I only marked their pronunciation of words with that phoneme in them. A previous assignment required students to record themselves speaking in response to “tell me about yourself” as we were discussing careers and interviews in class. The speaking assignments can reflect the topics covered in class or language items students need more practice in.
The most pedagogically useful aspect of this approach is being able to provide each student with more individualized constructive feedback. The audio files end up being small in size, and so they do not take much virtual space. I can listen to each student’s recording as many times as necessary and identify more carefully – without interruptions that normally occur in the classroom – what particular linguistic aspects require most practice on the part of the student(s). With one speaking-focused short assignment every week, I save each recording in the student’s specific folder and track whether there has been improvement over time.
My approach to giving students individualized feedback works like this: in a Word document, I have a copy of the passage students are expected to record themselves speaking. An example would be the passage below, which I retrieved from a local newspaper online. In this particular assignment, I want to evaluate students’ pronunciation accuracy, so I insert a table into the Word document and place each word of the passage in one single cell. After playing and listening to a student’s audio recording as many times as needed, I highlight the word(s) which that individual student had most trouble with. Finally, I make a constructive comment below the table, save the document with that student’s name and send it back to them as an attachment.
“Feedback: When words end in –ing, you do not pronounce the “g” separately, the “ng” compound is pronounced as one single nasal sound. The “g” in –ing does not have the same sound/pronunciation as the “g” in beg. See me in class next week if you have any questions.”
Another beneficial aspect of shifting the modality of speaking practice activities to be voice-recorded is that it affords instructors more in-class time to be spent on instruction. This approach favors more question-and-answer time and can eliminate the feeling of rush to cover all of the planned material before the time is up. This approach to practicing second-language speaking is helpful for those students who feel particularly nervous and anxious about speaking in front of their peers, fearing they would make mistakes and consequently sound stupid in front of others. Recording themselves allows the students to practice as many times as needed prior to submitting their recording and also allows them to complete the task in a space that feels safe and quiet to them. Oral assignments are conceptualized as semi-structured interviews. That means I provide students with broad questions and students’ answers will vary in content and duration.
The major drawback of this approach is that the practice is not naturalistic. Speaking practice that takes place in the classroom is usually dialogical and invites students to also practice their listening skills as they concentrate on listening and understanding their peers before responding. When students are recording themselves speak at home, for instance, they have the opportunity to practice and rehearse as many times as they wish before they are satisfied with the final product, which is not how oral interactions unfold in the real world. For this reason, it is important to make use of this approach to supplement speaking practice but not substitute the speaking component of instruction completely.
Re-designing assignments to meet the modality of how students interact with friends these days – through mobile applications – can make the learning experience feel more relatable and interesting for the students. Additionally, instructors and students can work together to identify the most appropriate mobile applications that can facilitate learning and promote a more engaging experience in which students and instructors have an equal say about the effectiveness of specific technologies in the classroom. Students often bring with them into the classroom diverse knowledge of language-learning applications and technology-based strategies that help them learn, which instructors are not always aware of. Because I favor students’ having a say on how they wish to be evaluated, I tend to find that students will naturally suggest the use of technology to complete assignments, and sometimes… I end up being the student in the class. I invite others to comment on how technology plays a role in their teaching of second and foreign languages in the classroom.