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Part I – Overview
Extempore, The Speaking Practice App, that’s us. On Extempore, flexible features can help you craft immaculate assessments and extra speaking opportunities for your students. It’s also a solution for a plethora of needs in the language class, including real-world tasks, simple end of class exit tickets, as well as graded summative assessments. But its uses don’t stop there. Take a step back and you’ll see that Extempore can be a canvas for any method of classroom engagement. Next time you use Extempore, try having students reflect on what they learned and review your class as a way to elicit candid feedback. Encourage students to illustrate comprehension not by answering questions, but by reading a text out loud. Challenge students’ listening, typing, and memory skills with a basic dictation. Finally, get insight to your students’ true language skills using a freewrite or freetalk.
In this blog post, I’ll briefly cover the hows and whys behind using Extempore to implement each of these four strategies into your language classes. For more in-depth explanations of each strategies, click the link on each heading.
So simple yet often overlooked, reading out loud (‘oral reading’ in academic parlance) carries countless benefits for learners of second languages. Not only can you assess how well your students grasp the language’s phonology and cadence, but you can also assess comprehension (really!). On top of this, reading out loud is tremendously helpful for learners of languages with non-Latin scripts, like Arabic, Russian or Hebrew, or for learners of character-based languages, like Chinese or Japanese. Even for languages that are based on the Latin script, reading out loud can build learner confidence and improve language delivery. By reading out loud, learners are forced to hear themselves pronounce the language and connect symbols to sounds, while also understanding the context of the passage. Try it on this paragraph and see if you would make a good audiobook reader!
Through consistent repetition, oral reading reinforces a language’s sound-symbol pairings, slowly ingraining them in your students’ minds. As a Mandarin language teacher, I take time in all of my classes (in class and on Extempore outside of class) for this type of literacy practice. It’s an imperative skill for novice levels, where nearly every new word means a new character (or sometimes two or three). Thus, with comprehension so dependent on character recognition (and connecting characters to sounds), reading out loud is a must for my classes.
I know, I know. Dictation? Yes, dictation. Sure, our students will likely never have to write out what they are hearing in real time outside of a school setting (are there careers as bilingual courtroom stenographers?), but that doesn’t mean there’s no use for dictation in the language classroom. Among its numerous benefits, a proper dictation is a reliable challenge for students and can help develop all four modes of communication. Dictations also require focus on part of the students, and their results can provide insight into student successes and shortcomings.
Poor results from a dictation assignment can indicate a variety of teaching areas that need to be supplemented: word/character recognition, spelling (particularly with silent letters and homophones) and/or listening comprehension. On the other hand, strong results on a dictation task highlight students’ high listening levels and their ability to convert those sounds into text. Not to mention the extra typing practice that students get. Working with a new script, new alphabet, or just adding those pesky diacritics can take some adjustment, but like other pedagogical practices, repeated repetition with dictation can hone these skills even more.
If your students were dropped into the target language environment by themselves right at this second, what could they do? Could they survive with more than just primitive hand signals? “Freewrite” and “freetalk” assignments give you those answers. These tasks allow students to show what they can do in the target language with no (okay, maybe just a few) strings attached. For clarity, let’s define them below.
- Freewrite*: A task where students write about anything in the target language for a set period of time. There are no requirements in regards to grammar, vocabulary, or content. Students are encouraged to simply write what is on their mind using the language they know.
- Freetalk: Same as a freewrite, except done orally and likely for shorter amounts of time.
*Note: for the sake of brevity and unnecessary repetition, I’ll stick with talking about just “freewrites” in this article. Most of the tips for freewrites are directly applicable to “freetalks” as well, except those I mention in particular.
Now, this is not to say that all freewrites are or should be assigned by saying, “Okay class, go write for fifteen minutes in Spanish” with no other direction whatsoever. In fact, freewrites that produce the highest quality work normally have a few constraints and/or requirements, as most students do need a little push. But not too much though, or students will get caught up in the requirements and lose focus of the actual goal: spontaneous, unplanned output in the target language. To figure out how to optimize these assignments, experiment! Give your novice classes zero requirements and give your advanced classes only three, or vise-versa. For example, you could push advanced students to write without consulting any resources, while you might allow your novice-level students to consult vocabulary resources for two minutes prior to writing. Don’t be afraid to differentiate for individual students either. If Trevor is your all-star novice German speaker, challenge him to speak for a minute straight. If you’re lucky to get Denise to even raise her hand in class, give her some scaffolding like sentence starters or interjections. There’s no single way to construct a freewrite task: find out what works best for your students.
Ever want to hear your students’ thoughts on a lesson or unit without their classmates viewing it? Try using Extempore for student reflection and unit previews / reviews.
For a reflection, give students a simple prompt, reminding them of what was taught and learned in the unit as well as its main objectives. Talk about the language structures and vocabulary, as well as how this language was used during the unit. Ask open-ended but specific questions that elicit authentic responses (in either native or target language, depending on level), encourage metacognition, and facilitate introspective reflection. Such reflections will reveal valuable information to instructors on student progress, attitudes towards a course and its content, confidence levels, and the next logical steps in a course. Some questions that I use (that can be recycled for any unit) include:
- What was easy in this unit? What was difficult?
- How would you rate your overall learning of this language content?
- What can I (the instructor) do to improve this course / this unit?
- What did you like that we did in class? What would you prefer to do less often?
- How might you teach this class / unit?
The beauty of student reflections is that they allow for a variety of responses that can be as broad or specific as you want. You could even consider a two-part reflection split into a language and cultural foci.
So there you have it. Four easy—but different—ways to leverage Extempore in your language classes. Whether you are trying out “traditional” practices like dictation or oral reading from a new lens, or experimenting with freewrites and reflections, you’ll be able to see different ways to mold Extempore for your classes’ needs. As for more unique ways to use Extempore, this is not the end. It took me a few months of consistent use with Extempore to realize I could do all four of these things, and it’s only a matter of time before I find more. And when I do, I’ll be right here to share them with you.
This is part one of five total posts on unique ways to use Extempore. Click the featured links of the subheadings to access full-length blog posts on each topic.
Grant Castner joined Extempore as Community Manager in August 2020. While managing social media and creating content with Extempore, he also teaches high-school level Chinese in Minnesota. An avid user of Extempore for language assessment, he’s always on the lookout for ways to improve his teaching practice. Have a question on how to adapt Extempore for your class? Just need help teaching? Contact Grant anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.