I cannot stress enough how important it is to listen to the students we teach. Sometimes what they say can really have a positive impact on how we teach them. This week, my students have been preparing for an interpersonal exam. We have been working with all kinds of practice prompts, so I felt like there was no way they couldn't be ready for the test, but Wednesday a strange thing happened. In every class several students came in all stressed out saying that they were having trouble asking questions and were really nervous about this test. I thought about this and realized that because they are novices their version of asking questions is normally questions they have memorized. It dawned on me that what my students were REALLY saying was that they were having trouble asking new and inventive questions. At that moment I decided that the test could be pushed back a bit to allow us to have a workshop on asking original questions. Rather than stop all of my instructional flow, I dedicated the "warm-up" time to question creating. Here's how I did it:
Day 1 of the Questions Workshop
I posted an interpersonal prompt on the screen and instructed my students to assume one of the roles and write 5 original (unmemorized) questions they would ask someone if the prompt was actually their test. I gave them about 5 minutes to write the questions and I tried to deflect their questions about how to say things with, "Just do your best. Let me answer those questions after the writing."
Now, I know that their test will be speaking and it usually isn't wise to train for a speaking test by writing, but what I really wanted to happen was for them to THINK about what they wanted to say and to try to communicate for themselves. My hope was that if they slow down the thinking process they will find the words they need and then I can coach them how to sequence the words in a logical, comprehensible manner. I just really need THEM to do the thinking without there being pressure on them to perform.
After they had plenty of time to write without any support from me, I asked them to volunteer the questions they were least confident about and the ones they were most sure were NOT well written. As they shared their questions I wrote them on the board as fast as I could. Once I had several on the board, I asked the "sharer" not to say anything about their question until I asked them. Then, I asked the class to read the question and decide what they thought the "sharer" meant to ask. Once the class had come to a consensus, I asked the "sharer" if that was what he/she meant and if not what they actually meant to ask. Then, I asked the whole class if the question was written correctly. If not, they could volunteer corrections to get the question into the shape it needed to be in order to be understood.
Day 2 of the Questions Workshop
During the warm up period of the class I posted another speaking prompt and again asked my students to read the prompt, assume a role and then prepare 5 questions they would ask if they were taking the test. I also asked them to avoid memorized questions and I instructed them not to ask for my or other students' help. I told them we needed the questions to be right out of their heads exactly as they come out. I gave them about five minutes to write these questions.
While they were writing, I scanned the room, counted how many students were present and identified the strongest students and told them they would be partner A in the second part of the activity. I tried to choose the strongest half of the class to serve as partner A so every student would be in a heterogeneous group of strong+weak. After they finished the writing, I instructed anyone I told was partner A to stay where they were seated, but I told everyone who was NOT chosen to stand up and grab their paper. Then I told them to find a seated partner and join them to complete the group.
When all of my students were paired, I asked the to exchange papers. Partner A was asked to read over Partner B's questions and coach them on what needed improvement and what was well done. I specifically instructed the Partners A to be sure to explain why any changes needed to be made, if necessary. I also asked the Partners B to read A's questions and make comments and critiques if necessary. I was really amazed to see the great discussions the groups were having. The A partners did a fabulous job teaching their peers things they do to create good questions in Spanish! When there was a situation in which Partner B came to the group with nothing or very few questions, I told Partner B to think up questions they would like to ask and I asked Partner A to coach them through creating those questions. I have to say this was a GREAT activity.
Day 3 of the Questions Workshop
In truth, this hasn't happened yet, but I am sitting here contemplating Monday's Question Warm-up. I want to move away from so much support and get my students to be more independent on creating questions, but I want to have a bit of an informal assessment. I think Monday we are going to call on a traditional activity to see if we are making any improvement. I will have them do some work with the white boards. I will prepare questions in English and my students will try to create the question in Spanish.
Day 4 of the Questions Workshop
Tuesday I want to get the questions back into a conversational form, so I will show them another speaking prompt, give them time to prepare 2 on two different sheets of paper, then we will have a SNOWBALL CONVERSATION. After the questions are ready, I will tell them to wad up the papers and have a snowball fight. I will give them 30 seconds to throw as many snowballs as they can, then they have to choose two and respond. Then, 30 more seconds to throw snowballs only to end with responding to two new snowball questions.
I think this time was necessary for my novices because many are at a breaking point. Many are novice-mids, but some are moving into being novice-highs, and remember that novice-highs are demonstrating intermediate tendencies. My students needed this focused workshop because in order to move up the proficiency scale they have to learn how to create with the language and they have to learn how to sustain conversations. No one can sustain a conversation without knowing how to and being confident enough to ask the questions he/she wants to ask. My students knew instinctively that a puzzle piece was missing and they couldn't move on without it.
Another benefit to this workshop was that it slowed things down for a bit each day and allowed for my students to either notice or ask about specific things related to grammar and structure. The old saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," still holds true, especially in a proficiency based classroom. In a traditional language classroom teachers get frustrated when students don't attend to grammar rules the way they would like for them to, but this is only because the grammar, or lack of it, has little to do with students' ability to communicate. They don't worry about it because in their brains it has no use yet. Students begin to attend to grammar when they realize it makes a difference, so it is at that moment that we clarify or model how the grammar should be. When we allow for this natural learning moment to occur the information sticks in a way that teaching grammar directly just never will. All that being said, my students were asking grammar and structure questions that directly led to an increase in their accuracy. I was so proud!
Happy Coaching, friends!
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