“Getting Students to Speak” & Min/Max Partner Retells

How do we get students to speak the target language?

Provide input.

At least, that’s what no one disputes, though not every teacher does enough of it. The biggest misconception regarding how to get students speaking is based on the assumption that the goal—speaking the target language—must be part of the process. This makes sense, but we don’t have much evidence to suggest this is true, despite how intuitive it seems. In fact, if you want get all Second Language Acquisition (SLA) technical, in 1995 Merrill Swain—herself—called her own Output (i.e. speaking/writing) Hypothesis “somewhat speculative” (p. 125).

Another misconception is likely influenced by a misinterpretation of ACTFL’s recommendation of “90% target language use” in the classroom. That recommendation isn’t about time, it’s about amount. It doesn’t mean that students should be speaking 90% of class (which unfortunately my first administrator years ago tried to get me to agree to). Rather, it means that of all the language used in class (e.g. heard, read, spoken by the teacher as input-provider, etc.), 90%+ of all that language should be in the target language.

There is a common trend for administrators to look for student participation in the form of observable speaking activities. In fact, many teachers’ jobs depend on it. My recommendation is to explain very clearly that you will give what they want to see, but that it likely has a low-impact since it saps input time, and sometimes has a negative impact if students are uncomfortable speaking before they are ready (i.e. forced output), which we know will vary quite a bit from student to student given internal constraints and personalities.

Rejoinder Posters
The quickest, least-restrictive way to get students expressing themselves and contributing to class, which is observable by any adult in the room, and which does not sap input, is to hand out rejoinder posters that allow students to participate without demanding (i.e. forcing) language from them.  I used to keep ALL of these posted in the room, but I now hand out only 2, or 3 posters for students to focus on during any given class. All previously used expressions are fair game, though, and any student can call them out either when appropriate and expected, or when completely unexpected (e.g. “class, this is a dog” <student yells out> “oh no!”), because those often generate the most interesting discussions and look into students’ personalities. I saw Grant Boulanger use these with students at iFLT 2016, and it created a magical sense of camaraderie. This is what I call “compelling diversions,” and is along the same lines as Justin Slocum Bailey’s Something From Nothing. or Laurie Clarcq’s & Mira Canion’s “notice students, listen to them, react to responses, and extend discourse” from NTPRS 2017.

Min/Max Partner Retells
Yes, retells run the risk of being forced speech. You can avoid this by tweaking the retell to include students of all speaking comfort levels. Instead of “turn to a partner and retell the class story in your own words,” create an added challenge of seeing who can retell the story using the least amount of words, and who can retell the story using the most.

Your students whose affective filters might otherwise be raised in this partner speaking activity now have an “out” if they want to try for the least (e.g. “woman, car stolen, magic lamp, now has car,” or maybe even “no car, genie, car,” etc.). Oh, and those spongy students who soak up everything can show off for the most words. Make the competition part of class by projecting a Google Doc and typing up the retell in real time, or after students do the oral retell, hand them a tiny fluency write sheet to jot down what they had. The communicative purpose of any competition is entertainment. This one has the bonus of allowing students at both ends of the proficiency scale to participate and win.

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One thought on ““Getting Students to Speak” & Min/Max Partner Retells

  1. Pingback: Silent Volleyball Reading (3rd hour of Latin) | Magister P.

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