07 August 2007

Telephone as language teaching tool

One teacher said, "I am particularly interested in SPEAKING activities for the students, and welcome ideas in this regard. Many of our Foreign language courses are very small (one teacher and one/two students), and so there would be a lot of opportunity for the student to speak."

I think podcasting may be the wrong tool for this job. I would suggest telephoning.

I've been assigning telephone homework for a couple years now. I usually ask my students to read or listen to something first and then call me and tell me about it. Very low level students will usually be able to only read it aloud. Mid-level students will be able to retell the story by paraphrasing the story they read. Advanced-level students will be able to reapply the story to their own situation. "What would YOU do if it happened to you?" "Is that situation the same in YOUR country?"

Their source material may be a copy of the English newspaper, a book they are reading or an MP3 podcast from www.podcast.com www.unsv.com

Requiring them to digest some English material first, rather than 'free talk', exposes them to some new English, grammar patterns and vocabulary, and forces them to use it as they talk to me. It also puts the talking burden on them rather than them simply asking me questions like, "What are you going to do for the summer?", "Do you like Chinese food?"

I am aware of the research and views against correcting students' spoken English but I have found correction to definitely be effective with my students with some students acquiring and maintaining correct vocabulary or pronunciation in one lesson.

In a podcast David Nunan made with Peter Neu (soon to be released), Nunan said that instant feedback is more effective than delayed feedback. That is one of the advantages of using the telephone. Additionally, making MP3's will be very cumbersome compared to a phone call. With MP3's the student has to sit down with his recording device, probably waiting for a 'good time' in a quiet room, start the program, record, edit?, convert to MP3, attach to an Email program, Email it. The teacher will need to receive it, may not listen to it right away but wait for a good time, listen, make some notes on corrections, then give the student feedback a day or a week later by Email or in the next lesson.

Using English by phone is a necessary skill that all people need. Many listening exercises in books have samples of phone calls but why not just do them ourselves? It is more difficult to talk by phone than face-to-face but this is something students just have to learn to do.

I like to teach by phone when I'm doing something else at the same time, often when commuting to or from work by bus or taxi or while walking. I will send a text message to my student, "Talk?" If my student is free they will call me or they will send a message back when they are free.

I have a cell phone running Windows Mobile. I may record the call so that my student can listen to it and my corrections again later. I will also open a text document on my phone that I keep on each student with new vocabulary. This way I can recycle the student's old vocabulary and add new vocabulary. Also, when I'm doing a face-to-face lesson with my student, I will often have this document open with the phone in my hand and whenever a new word comes up I will add it to the list. There are some words that my student knows but has trouble pronouncing. In this case I will write the work with a "p" next to it, for example: colleague-p.

Of course, if you are writing in your phone at the same time you are talking with your student then you need to use your phone with earphones or some sort of hands-free gear. I like the earphones with wires as the sound quality is just great and better than even using the phone without earphones.

I talk to my one-on-one students every day of the week. My small group students of 5-10 people, usually managers or department heads, have speaking homework to do once a week. I am unable to do talk to all of my 400 college students but I do invite some of my top college students to do it as a way to help them above the classroom "lesson ceiling".

I also have some special guest teachers to talk to my students. Some teachers have come to me for help with various teaching problems and have even offered to pay me something for the couple hours I helped them. I ask the teacher for a couple hours of their time to talk to my students. Sometimes your students get very comfortable with you. This is good in a way but it is not a realistic for some of the speaking challenges the student will have in speaking with strangers. So I like to have some other teachers for them to talk to, especially teachers with different accents.

Teaching in this way adds a considerable "wow" factor to your teaching and the students feel more like they are being "coached" than just "taught at". It is less trouble than messing around with MP3's and podcasts. It saves time and enables you to use some of your gap time or lost time in an effective way. It is instant. It puts the technology around us to good use. It promotes your business. My students are sometimes with other potential students when they receive my "Talk?" message and they tell these people what I'm doing.

Try it. You'll like it!

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