First Year Spanish, Seton Hill University
This project involves students from two Introductory Spanish courses at Seton Hill University (SP105). The current course curriculum involves a communicative, task-based approach to language learning. It employs many authentic instructional resources including music, films, websites, dances, conversational tables, and authentic cultural events. Due to curricular decisions at the University level, students must meet objectives that involve oral proficiency outcomes as well as vocabulary and grammatical goals related to Chapters 1-10 of the course textbook.
The curriculum requires a strong oral proficiency component, including conversational questions linking course topics (vocabularly and gramatical issues) with topics for everyday conversation. Conversational topics for the first unit (Ch. 5), for example, include the following:
- Introduce oneself and describe oneself
- Describe how one is feeling
- Describe friends and family
- Describe one’s hometown, where one is from originally, and where the family or extended family lives now.
- Talk about the city where the college is located and compare it to the hometown of the student.
- Describe weather, seasons, and activities at different times of year in home country / city of origin
- State birthday and favorite activities to do related to that celebration
- Describe a typical day in ones life at the University, including what one is doing at various times of day.
- Talk about high school and college and compare differences between the two schools
Students complete initial written assignments responding to oral conversational prompts related to topics likes those list above during each unit. They then participate in oral conversation with peers – they practice asking and answering questions in class with various partners. As homework, students respond to Voicethread prompts related to the Conversational Topics and using their homework assignments and in-class practice. They complete Voicethread recordings, listen to their own and peer recordings, and analyze their recordings in class. Strengths of the current program include a focus on oral production, but weaknesses involve a lack of access to native speaking partners as well as a lack of a pre-test for oral proficiency goals in each unit and lack of written reflection from students regarding their oral performance and motivation for moving towards greater proficiency gains.
TalkAbroad modifies the course structure in four important ways. First, students are required to complete an oral recording pretest prior to each unit in order to set a baseline for oral proficiency. Voicethread is utilized for this pretest employing the exact same topics that students will encounter in chapter activities, partner conversations, Voicethread recordings, and TalkAbroad interactions. The pretest will help set a baseline for student performance prior to any instruction.
The second change occurs after regular unit instruction and after students have already practiced oral conversational topics in writing and via oral production with peers and voicerecording on Voicethread. This second change requires students to schedule a one-on-one conversation with a native Spanish speaker on TalkAbroad. The native speaker is provided with a list of course conversational topics, but the conversation will now be authentic, spontaneous, and real-world.
The third modification involves analysis of the TalkAbroad recordings. Students now not only listen to and analyze their Voicethread recordings, but they will also listen to and critique their TalkAbroad conversations, paying attention to input from native speakers that they missed on the first try, pronunciation errors in their speech that inhibited communication, and opportunities for expanding responses that they might address in future conversations.
Finally, the fourth change involves written survey feedback from students regarding the use of TalkAbroad and oral proficiency gains. Students will be asked to complete a written self-evaluation reflecting on the experience as a whole, as well as a survey about each conversational experience and its impact on motivation, future language study, cultural competency, affective response, and support for learning outcomes.
The goal of the project is to increase student motivation, to provide more authentic speaking opportunities for students, and to increase oral proficiency through targeted language production in real-world contexts. Data from the experience will help to determine how targeted native-speaker conversational practice impacts motivation and oral proficiency, and will also serve to help Seton Hill and other universities understand the impact of investments in opportunities for oral production likes those offered via TalkAbroad.
After implementing the above curricular changes and analyzing student work product and survey data, several initial findings can be delineated:
- The initial plan was overly ambitious for this language level (5 TalkAbroad individual sessions of 30 minutes each, one after each unit). I modified the plan prior to implementation, including only two 30-minute sessions after units 2 and 4. This made the project much more manageable, but students at this level still found the activity highly anxiety producing. Since one key to language learning is lowering the affective filter, I recommend for the future the following modifications:
- Give students the option of completing the conversational exchanges in pairs (many students felt much more confident in pairs in my classes)
- Allow students to progress along a time continuum, beginning with a 10 minute conversation, followed by a 15 minute conversation, and ending with 20 minutes for this level.
- Emphasize (to the StudyAbroad native speaking partners) the importance of using some of the pre-determined questions in order to help students feel more comfortable initially with the conversation.
- Student feedback was overall surprisingly positive, despite the overly ambitious nature of my initial plan. For example, while 67% of students reported being more nervous than excited about the first conversation, they 67% also said they either found the experience interesting if difficult to understand, or exciting and motivating. Only 19% said they did not find the experience helpful or motivating.
- Linking the TalkAbroad experience to specific learning outcomes is more challenging, since students had only two TalkAbroad experiences and there was no control group to offer comparison scores. However, the impact on motivation was significant for student effort towards preparing unit conversational questions and practicing voicethread recordings.
Employing TalkAbroad in the first-year Modern Language classroom appears to enhance motivation for a large majority of students, and it offers the potential for enhanced oral proficiency outcomes. I plan to continue to employ TalkAbroad in introductory and advanced language courses, but I will modify the quantity, length, and format of the conversations for beginners, decreasing quantity and length, and exploring the possibility of a conversational/cultural exchange via TalkAbroad.
Dr. Debra Faszer-McMahon, Seton Hill University