Russell Stannard is the creator of the award-winning ELT website www.teachertrainingvideos.com.
I taught for eleven years in Spain and two years in Greece from 1986 to 1999. One of the most frustrating realities for me during that period was the amount of exposure to English that students were receiving on a daily basis. Even more frustrating was the fact that students of English abroad had very few opportunities to speak in the target language. Fortunately, technology is beginning to change this. Over the past two years, I have focused a lot of my work on ways of harnessing technology to give my students additional opportunities to practice English and increase their oral proficiency.
Funny enough, I first experimented with technology when I was teaching Spanish. My goal was to figure out a way to facilitate at-home speaking exercises for my students. The idea was that I would set up a speaking context in class, practice it with my students and then require that they record themselves doing the activity for homework. In the beginning, students were recording themselves using the “Sound Recorder Tool” in Windows. Thanks to the evolution of technology, however, students are now able to use tools such as Vocaroo and MailVU to record themselves on the internet. This approach, which I have refined over the years, has been very successful.
Whenever I used to set homework in my classes, I have to admit, it was always an afterthought. This was often because what I was doing in the class was so different from what I could get my students to do outside of the lesson. The classroom was so active: students would be doing pair work, group work and class activities. For homework, I would ask them to complete an exercise in their books or write a composition. When new internet technologies came along, my eyes were opened. Now, for example, I can set up an activity around speaking, do the practice part in the lesson and extend that lesson outside of the classroom.
Let’s say I want my students to talk about their favourite holiday. In the lesson, I might do some work on holiday vocabulary, tell students about my own favourite holiday, and get them to ask me questions about it. I might then ask them to draw five simple pictures – literally just a few quick sketches – to represent their favourite holiday. Students would then work in pairs and tell one another about their holidays. Afterward, for homework, students would record themselves at home talking about this holiday.
To give them some guidance, I generally provide a series of questions and topics for discussion. For example: Where did you go? What did you do/see/visit? What was especially interesting about this holiday? Why would you recommend this place to others? Talk about your journey to the destination.
The provided structure is not meant to restrict students in any way. In fact, it works best if you negotiate a structure with the students in class rather than impose one on them. It is also important that the exercises you do in class are related to the structure – that they give students a good foundation for the speaking activity at home – but that they are not a simple repetition of the work to be accomplished after school.
At home, the students go to Vocaroo or MailVU (discussed below), record themselves talking about their holiday and send the resulting audio file to me. While listening to the recordings, I take notes on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation points to bring up in the next lesson.
This approach is flexible enough to work with loads of other speaking activities. For example, you can ask students to describe their house, their bedroom or a place they love. You can ask them to talk about their typical day or the most important person in their life. The list goes on. As long as sufficient in-class preparation is accomplished before students do their homework, the possibilities are endless.
Vocaroo is a great tool and can be used by anyone with a computer, microphone and internet access. Students pull up the website, hit record and work through their speaking assignment. Once they have finished, they can stop the recording and click on the send button. You can try Vocaroo for yourself by clicking below.
To date, I have done several experiments with these tools. The fact that students are now able to practice speaking for homework is a huge, important improvement. It really “connects” in-class activities with life outside of the classroom.
Of course, there are a few complications. Students need an internet connection and a microphone. This can be a big problem in some countries. Furthermore, teachers need to take the time to demonstrate the technology, though sites like Vocaroo and MailVU are extremely simple and user-friendly. Finally, the correction stage can be tedious. It is not easy to give feedback on 30 voice recordings of students talking about their “typical weekend”. Up to this point, I have tended to listen to the recordings, take notes and then give general – rather than individual – feedback. I have also played back one or two of the good examples in class and explained what I liked about them. I have to admit that the feedback stage needs more thought. Perhaps you have got some suggestions…
About the Author
Russell Stannard is a Principal Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick, where he runs the technology specialization for the MA in ELT program. His website, www.teachertrainingvideos.com, provides free screen casts to teachers who wish to use technology in their classes. Accessed by thousands of educators, the site has won several big awards, including the British Council ELTons Award for “Innovation” and the Times Higher Award for “Outstanding Initiative in ICT”.