Spanish 303 is the gateway course to our upper-division Spanish classes; majors and minors must complete it before taking other upper-division courses. The purpose of the course is to fine-tune oral and writing proficiency so that students can make the shift from intermediate-level language use to advanced—a necessary foundation in order to be successful in upper-division content courses that are literary, cultural and linguistic in focus and require advanced proficiency to access materials and communicate higher level functions in the target language. Nonetheless, despite its title (Advanced Conversation and Writing), most second language learners (L2s) reach this course at an intermediate-mid status according to National Standards provided by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). This presents challenges for students who often have false perceptions of their own language proficiency (i.e. I’m in an advanced course, therefore I am advanced) and moreover for instructors who must scaffold language proficiency gains in a relatively short amount of time (i.e., 15 weeks). Google Hangouts on Air and videonot.es are two free technologies that provide opportunities for a significant increase in oral proficiency practice outside of the classroom, while also contributing to reflective and goal-making practices that are vital to success and improvement in second language development.
1.Finding the gap and Establishing clear Pedagogical Objectives as a result
ACTFL defines the bridge between intermediate-high to advanced-low as the most challenging jump on the ACTFL proficiency pyramid (http://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012). I frequently teach our Finishing Foundations, Senior Capstone course and commiserate with soon-to-be-graduates that are struggling to sustain advanced-level markers of oral proficiency even after years of classroom practice and sometimes even a semester abroad. Therefore, I was eager to develop outside classroom oral proficiency practice that could help our L2s move beyond this barrier earlier on—in 303—and to become knowledgeable about what advanced actually means. In order to do this, however, I recognized three important objectives that were needed to make the course more successful in meeting this goal:
- Self-awareness: L2s need to be aware of how they measure according to the standards. Grades can be tricky and misleading; they need practical and tangible benchmarks for characteristics of language use just beyond their level as a realistic incentive for investment in improving their language proficiency.
- Time-on-task that is appropriately scaffolded: intermediate/advanced L2s are often provided activities that are either too simplistic or far beyond their level. Fortunately, ACTFL provides specific guidelines that can help structure activities so that they challenge intermediate learners to perform at the very next level, providing a pedagogical and linguistic scaffold.
- Reflection and goal setting according to the standards: learner autonomy is highly regarded in general educational practice. It is becoming increasingly important in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) as well. L2s need to reflect upon their learning goals that are aligned to standards. This is easy to do in writing because it is automatically archived; this is not the case with oral proficiency. How could I get my L2s to reflect and make goals according to their individual language use in an efficient manner?
2.Pedagogical Objectives aligned to Technologies that are worth the Investment
In collaboration with our World Language Resource Director, Amber Hoye, we found two technologies that paired perfectly with these established pedagogical objectives: Google Hangouts on Air (GHA) and videonot.es. GHA fixed the archiving problem; my students could chat online and record every gesture and utterance in an easy manner. As soon as the chat finished, the video uploaded almost instantaneously to YouTube under an “unlisted” setting. Once this first part was finished, each student had to upload the link to videonot.es. This site, hosted within Google Drive, enables one to leave a comment that synchronizes to the exact second of any given video segment.
3. Preparing the ASSIGNMENT
Each chat session was designed according to ACTFL guidelines for advanced-level oral proficiency, in tandem with the content in the textbook. This looked something like a warm-up, floor, ceiling, floor, ceiling, cool-down simulation, whereby the floor prompt was a task they should be able to complete with confidence and the ceiling task was just beyond their level. The tasks all aligned to vocabulary, grammatical and cultural content reflected in the textbook according to the week of the semester. There were a total of eight chats in the semester with the idea that one week the students would meet in pairs to complete the chat via GHA and on the off-week, they worked individually on their reflection assessment completed in videonot.es. Chat sessions were uploaded to Blackboard as a test so that students could only view the prompt once, thereby ensuring that their chats simulated real-life communication and weren’t rehearsed or written down ahead of time.
4. Assessing the Assignment
Part of the assignment was to reflect on established markers of advanced oral proficiency, thus it incorporated self-assessment. In addition, I created a rubric that explicitly delineated expectations and point values according to three main categories: 1) interaction with one’s partner, 2) participation and effort to communicate, and 3) quality of the reflections. The rubric included a description of advancedness according to ACTFL, as well as reflection questions that I created to help lead to two of the main pedagogical objectives: self-awareness and reflection and goal setting. Error-correction is a controversial subject in SLA; it still isn’t established whether or not L2s benefit from explicit error correction. Rather, holistic feedback in tandem with heightened time on task (i.e. more opportunities to use the target language) is favored. Thus, when assessing the first two categories, I chose a five minute segment at random and provided general comments accordingly, although this was not revealed to the students. I felt it best to leave this open to interpretation; by all means any instructor could watch every minute of the chat. For me, the overarching value of this assignment was more aligned to the learner’s individual assessment and completion of the task than my detailed input (they got this elsewhere).
BENEFITS AND IMPACT
What are the advantages?
My preliminary research suggests that L2s using GHA and videnot.es spend four times the amount of time communicating when compared to other sections of 303 that completed the assignment in class. In a focus group, students commented that it was the first time they had heard themselves speak in Spanish and that it greatly impacted their confidence as a language learner. Student evaluations also reflected high regard for the assignment. Lastly, these videos are now part of the students’ learning repertoire. They will have them to look back upon in future semesters and can reflect upon their learning outcomes longitudinally.
Like any new technology, the investment is steep at the beginning. I recommend having a lab director or your Instructional Design Consultant help assist you by holding an orientation in a lab so that student are successfully introduced to Google Hangouts on Air, videonot.es, and the assignment objectives and expectations. I offered an extra-credit practice chat to encourage students to engage with these tools outside of class in a low-risk manner the first time. This helped ensure the first graded chat was implemented successfully and smoothly. Additionally, you can’t control the pairing of the groups. In one case, I had a student that failed to meet with his partner on a regular basis and had to rotate and shift two groups due to this issue and a mid-semester drop. Some flexibility and finessing is required when it comes to group assignments. Lastly, we are fortunate to have a language lab with a myriad of computers and iPads for student use, thus I never had to worry about access to technology, although this should always be considered.