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I was sitting in my office the other day with one of my students minoring in Spanish. She was concerned with her scores on our recent oral exam and frustrated at how her speaking skills seemed to lag behind her writing and reading. “That’s normal!” – I said, as a way to frame my longer response. Then I went on to explain how oral skills develop at a different pace and not only depend on the breadth and degree of automatization of our linguistic knowledge, but also on personal characteristics such our confidence to speak in public.
When my student asked about ways to improve her speaking, I responded with a question of my own: “How much do you speak in Spanish in a regular week?”: “About three hours” She answered with a confused look in her face. Three hours happen to be the amount of time that our class meets every week. She confessed that she did not speak Spanish outside of class, so when I asked her to think again about the question, taking into account the time she spent writing or reading in class, and listening to me or to other students, she realized that it was probably much less than 3 hours.
She still couldn’t come up with a rough estimate of the actual time she spent practicing her Spanish oral skills in a regular week. This is very common and not strange at all, since classroom-based speaking practice doesn’t usually result in a tangible product, like written practice does.
That’s when I suggested that she start a speaking log: a written record of the actual amount of speaking that she does in each class session. I gave her a basic template where she could chart her oral practice. I told her to log every instance in which she talked in Spanish, including who she talked to, in which context and roughly for how long. The idea was that, once she had a baseline of the actual amount of time she talked in Spanish, then she could set goals for herself to gradually increase her spoken practice.
It is often the case that students – and their teachers – have a wrong impression of the actual amount of speaking practice that is possible within the limits of instructional time. Keeping a speaking log can help students become more aware of and take control of their efforts to improve their oral skills.