Going Digital for Speaking Practice: Is It Necessary?

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No one can deny that technology plays an important part in our teaching practices these days. The new generation of students, the so-called “digital natives”, usually welcome state-of-the-art lessons that integrate technology with great enthusiasm, as it is a great motivation booster. Yet, when we come to think about what makes an effective language lesson in terms of technological resources, in general, what flashes in our minds is a computer lab. 

From Computer Labs to Mobile Phones

I have been teaching foreign languages using computer labs for years now. I still remember the days when I planned my first lessons in which my teenage learners had take a “Hot Potatoes” quiz or surf the web to find the answers to complete all the items of a web-based “Scavenger Hunt”. I was panic-stricken: branching off traditional lessons would be a waste of time and, even worse, detrimental to the learning process. But I was wrong. It turned out that computer-assisted language learning (CALL) made a world of a difference not only in terms of interest but also self-confidence. As the years went by, technological advances took forth and CALL started to be outdated as new gadgets and resources appeared. Now there came the time to start using tablets and mobile phones and all the apps that came along. Even social media became part of everyday lessons. Again, the same feeling of fear gripped me. I had to change my mindset once more. What pedagogical objectives were there in using social media? And how could I put to profitable use all the foreign language learning apps? That was quite a challenge. It is here that I got to know Extempore.

Efficiently Developing Multiple Language Skills

Shy at first, I created very simple, traditional activities which followed the tradition question-and-answer technique. I was even tolerant enough to allow my students to re-record their own answers. In a flash of sheer inspiration, I realized I could come up with a multi-skill lesson very much in-keeping with the digital area. So, now my lessons started to be pretty much like a tapestry: reading comprehension was followed by a set of opinion-based questions that fostered debating, with follow ups that had listening comprehension activities to which learner had to react through a piece of writing. Finally, I had understood that I could bring about a change in my lessons, and that the language skills that traditionally were worked with separately could be dealt with interwoven. By doing that, not only was I helping my learners master the skills necessary to pass the exam, but I was giving them the necessary tools to interact outside the classroom, as now my lessons had begun drifting away from traditional teaching. 

Going Digital for Speaking Practice

I am totally aware that this looks easier said than done, but experience has proved me right: I have been training my EFL learners to pass international exams that consist of several papers, each one focusing on a different skill. In general, probably because my learners are non-native speakers of English, they tend to literally hate the speaking paper. As a matter of fact, they tend to hate speaking and so they usually try to minimize the chances of interacting orally. When I started using Extempore, I found out that going digital for speaking practice is wholly beneficial for many reasons: 

  • The learner gets the opportunity to practice speaking on a regular basis. It is sometimes difficult to allot classroom time for speaking practice in each and every lesson. And it is hard for the instructor to be able to pay attention to every single learner and give feedback to them as well. 
  • Learners work in an anxiety-free environment. When having to do impromptu speaking (whether individually, in pairs or groups), experience has it that the learner’s personality plays a crucial role in language learning. If the learner is shy, then the so-called affective filter is bound to be up and so will become a barrier that will not yield positive results. In other words, should that happen, the learner will be filled with a sense of loss, a lack of confidence and of motivation, and chances are that fluent—let alone accurate—speaking will not occur.
  • The instructor can create speaking activities that involve different interaction patterns, in this way, granting the learner the possibility of taking on individual work as well as group tasks, through a feature called Rooms. Rooms has a twofold purpose: (1) providing the learner with a chance to interact with others in an attempt to emulate real life-like conversation and (2) connecting with peers other than the ones they would regularly team up with in the classroom. 
  • The app is a virtual language lab, where learners have a place to get engaged in imitative, rehearsed or unrehearsed practice. Activities can be form or meaning focused, and range from traditional drills to extemporaneous opinion giving and problem solving and debating prompts. 
  • Extempore caters for the development of higher order thinking skills and soft skills as well. 
  • The instructor can use Extempore as a speaking portfolio to carry out formative and summative assessment and has the possibility of giving the learner timely, individual feedback, an invaluable feature of language learning, through the creation of tailor-made rubrics for each activity designed. 
  • The learner can benefit from said speaking portfolio by using it as a self-(and even peer-to-peer) assessment instrument. 

Technology Integration for a Meaningful Purpose

So, looking back at the question Is it necessary to “go digital” for speaking practice?, I would say the answer is an absolute yes. We are living in a digital area; we must change our mindset. If we want our teaching to accompany technological advances, then we need to take the plunge and go digital. And Extempore is worth using to this end. It is a pedagogical resource that is in-keeping with principles such as:

  • Teaching should be learner-driven.
  • Language learning is assisted when learners work independently,  in an anxiety-free environment.  
  • Motivation is a learning booster. 
  • Language should be used to construct meanings.

Yet, we must not forget that incorporating apps like this into our lessons means technology should be put to use for a clear-cut and meaningful purpose for the instructor and the learner—a digital native, most probably. They will surely be grateful for a 21st century type of classroom.

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This is post was created by Cristina Chiusano. Dr. Chiusano is a Department chair at Universiad de Montevideo, Uruguay, an EFL instructor at the Teacher Training Program and Translation Degrees, Unversidad de Montevideo, and a Spanish teacher of online courses at Abiline Chirsitian University. She has a MA in TEFL and Spanish as a Foreign Language as well as a PhD(c) in Linguistics.