Thursday, June 04, 2009

A speaking task where students did not interact and an interesting discussion with my students

This is a follow-up to my previous post about a speaking task I did in a university freshman English class. In the previous class the students exchanged profiles. As a follow-up, in the next lesson we did if the "World were 100 people" activity (I admit that I am using task and activity interchangeably here) which I had used various times in other classes. In this activity, students filled out a worksheet (html version - some mistakes) (pdf version-some mistakes) citing statistics about the world if it were a village of 100 people.

The worksheet looked something like this:

If the world were 100 people
there would be ____________ Asians
there would be ____________ Europeans
there would be ____________ Africans
there would be ____________ from North America
there would be ____________ from South America and the Caribbean

___________ people would have no clean, safe, water to drink
___________ own 59% of the entire wealth of the community.
___________ would be undernourished
___________ would be unable to read
____________ would be educated at a secondary level
etc... There are a lot of items.

After going over some difficult words/phrases with the students, I asked them to work in pairs and guess how many people for each item. First, students worked individually and filled in the blanks, then they compared answers. When their answers were different, I asked them to explain to each other why they gave that particular answer. For example, if one student thought that 10 people would be unable to read and her partner thought that 40 people would be unable to read, both students would try to justify their answers to each other. In this class, there seemed to be very little interaction among the students. After the class I asked students whether or not they agreed with the statement that

"I was able to use a lot of English when comparing answers with my partner for if the world were 1o0 people activity"

Of 20 students, 10 agreed and 10 disagreed. Their primary reasons for saying that they could not use English was that 1) the worksheet contained too many unknown words, 2) they did not have the vocabulary to explain their answers, 3) they answered based on intuition (which I encouraged them to do) and could not give a reason for their answers. Those who wrote that they agreed with the above statement did so because they were 1) trying to make me feel happy, 2) enjoyed explaining their thinking to their partners, or 3) enjoyed learning and using new words.

After students had compared answers, they watched a movie called Miniature Earth which presents the "If the World were 100 People" data. Students then write the correct answers and I asked them how accurate they were.

Lastly, we had an interesting discussion - in Japanese. As a surprising amount of people in the world live without poverty, clean water, etc. I expected that a group of Japanese university students would feel pretty fortunate about what they have (a roof over their head, an education, the financial flexibility to pursue their dreams, etc.). I asked them if they felt fortunate after watching this video. One student started speaking in Japanese and said that compared to other people in the world she is fortunate but inside Japan she is not fortunate so she does not consider herself to be so. I asked her why and she said because she cannot do what she wants. I asked her what she wants and she said that she wanted to buy a lot of things that she could not. She knew a lot of rich kids who got whatever they wanted. The bell rang and I felt guilty about having this discussion in Japanese. Before students left I told them that I wanted to have a discussion at the beginning of the next class. I told them to think of an answer to the following question and we would talk about it in English.

Are you currently satisfied with your life? Why or why not?

The next class we went outside to have the discussion. We made 2 circles, an outer circle of 10 students and an inner circle of 9 students and 1 teacher (one student was absent). At first, I told students to only speak in English and gave them some communication strategies (How do you say ~ in English etc.). One student in the inner circle talked to another in the outer circle. First, they had some light exchanges (Hey, how are you? How was your weekend? etc.) After the pleasantries, the content became deep: "Are you currently satisfied with your life? Why or why not?". At first, students had 3 minutes to talk with each other. After three minutes, the inner circle rotated and each student had a new partner. Then the inner circle and outer circle students talked again.

For pair work to be effective, I read that students need to push themselves to produce language that is a little beyond their level or their partners level. If the partner does not understand she should ask for a clarification. When an interlocutor (speaker) reformulates his utterance he can either correct a misunderstanding he has about a particular grammatical item or lexical phrase or the listener can learn a new piece of language (if the interlocutor said something that was correct and the listener just did not understand).
I have no idea what the quality of the students' interactions was because I had to be involved in the activity myself and could not monitor the conversation. I can say, though, that I heard A LOT of noise and I am sure that we annoyed the other classes who left their windows open. Hearing a lot of noise in an English speaking activity is usually a beautiful thing.

At the ending of the activity, I asked some students what their partners had said. Then, I told the whole class that I learned that many of us have problems. However, our problems such as a long commute to school, not being able to buy what we want are much smaller than what many people in this world face; living on one or two dollars a day, etc. Maybe I should have encouraged students to come up with their own conclusions or at least asked them what their conclusions were. I didn't.

At the ending of class I asked students whether or not they agreed with the following question and why:

"I was able to use a lot of English when discussing whether or not I was satisfied with my life"

18 of 19 students agreed with this statement. They wrote that they were able to express their ideas in English.

So, why did the first speaking activity not work so well and the second activity work well? I have learned that these students like to talk about themselves and their own lives. It is a way that they can get to know their classmates and maybe even make some friends. It is also something that they can talk about with very little preparation because (as they should) they know a lot about themselves. As college freshmen, though, they are not so knowledgeable of global issues. Therefore, some students struggled to give a reason for their estimates in "If the World were 100 People activity." Thus, next time we have a discussion about global issues I need to make sure that students have enough knowledge of the content beforehand.


Learn Japanese said...

I've found that the easiest way to get people talking is to have them talk about themselves.

Alex Case said...

Nice post. It's great to be able to follow the steps in your thinking, something that is often missed out in TEFL articles in magazines

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