Friday, May 17, 2013

Ditch the textbook for skills classes

This isn't really applicable to K-12 language instructors, but for higher ed instructors teaching conversation or composition (or reading or listening skills, if those are offerings at your institution), this is a great way to increase student engagement.

Here's what I mean. These are the topics I'm interested in: bilingual education, language acquisition, language policy, language and technology. The second time I taught composition, I found articles in a variety of genres addressing the same topic: language policy in the Basque Country. I thought it was fascinating, but most of my students didn't read any of the articles because they didn't care about the topic, so they didn't get the point or the benefit of having models in different genres.

When I was considering what I wanted to do for my conversation class this past semester, I thought about my goals for the course: I wanted students to talk (in Spanish).  I looked into some textbooks, but I didn't think the content would be interesting to many students.  So on the first day of class, I asked students to write down what subjects they liked to talk about. I took all of their lists and put them into a spreadsheet and worked through them during the course of the semester (I also tallied the number of times a topic was suggested in order to get a sense for more popular topics). Some of them were too specific to be useful as discussion topics for the whole class, but frequently could be generalized to a broader topic (many students wanted to talk about a specific career, which was easily broadened to talking about careers in general).

What does this have to do with technology? I got all of my materials from the internet, which meant that all discussion topics were current, and since the students decided what they were going to talk about, they were more invested in talking. To localize discussion topics even more, on Mondays, each table (3-4 students) decided what topic they wanted to discuss on Wednesday. They each had to find an article in Spanish, read it, post the link to their group's discussion board on Blackboard (by Tuesday at midnight), and on Wednesday, each person summarized their article for the group. Then a group leader (different every week) summarized the content of the articles for the class. In addition to increasing student engagement, this had the added benefit of giving students informal (ungraded) presentation practice every week.

A number of students noted in their final reflections (recordings, because it was a conversation class) that they really enjoyed having the freedom to choose what they wanted to talk about, and that it made it much easier to participate because they were interested in the topic. (As a side benefit, it tends to increase instructor popularity, because students appreciate not having to buy a book for your class!)

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