Learning a new Language can be Quite Challenging. But Assessing Progress Doesn't Have to be …
Let’s face it: we live in a time of evidence-based teaching. Parents, administrators, and students alike now more than ever demand clear learning outcomes and, more importantly, hard evidence that we’re meeting these objectives. Naturally, when it comes to world languages, students want to feel like they’re making solid progress speaking the target language. Assessing student improvement in this area, though, can be notoriously difficult to pin down and identify, especially when you consider that making errors is developmentally appropriate and actually part of the process to a certain extent. It can also just be flat-out difficult to judge when you have a room full of students all speaking at the same time, or, conversely, a room full of students who clam up anytime you get near. So how can we document and then demonstrate improvement and growth in the speaking abilities of our world language students?
Fortunately, we also live in a time of nearly unlimited possibilities when it comes to classroom technology. Maybe you’ve used a digital tool to create an e-portfolio to collate student written work and track progress related to verb conjugations, noun-adjective agreement, thesis development, or usage of linking expressions. Portfolios (digital or otherwise) are awfully useful; if that’s the case, why aren’t speaking portfolios more commonplace in the world language classroom? It may be because previously the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to make it a realistic and manageable classroom tool. However, those days are long gone, as creating a digital speaking portfolio these days is now easier than ever.
What is a speaking portfolio?
Let’s back up a second, then. What is a speaking portfolio? Naturally, it’s a collection of student submissions (i.e. recordings) which offers concrete evidence of the development of speaking abilities in the target language. And because it strives to demonstrate individual improvement, it likely consists mainly of a series of monologic speaking activities, perhaps completed outside of the classroom. A typical addition to the portfolio may be a video journal entry detailing daily events; a response to an imaginary telephone survey in which one provides an opinion on a particular subject; or a voicemail message left for a friend.
Benefits of a speaking portfolio in the world language classroom
What are concrete benefits of a digital oral portfolio? Here are a few:
- Firstly, it provides a snapshot of authentic language output at various points throughout an academic term. Rather than teaching students only how to fill in blanks in a workbook, speaking assignments model real-life interactions that they would be more likely to have outside of the somewhat artificial context of the classroom.
- If these speaking activities are assigned outside of the classroom, such as for homework, our most hesitant learners will be more likely to speak up much more consistently and show us what they can really do, rather than sinking into their seats or retreating to the corner of the classroom.
- Speaking activities assigned for the e-portfolio also promote risk-taking in the target language, as students are freed from an immediate audience and may stretch their wings in a “safe space”. We can’t reduce student anxiety altogether, but this certainly helps!
- A speaking portfolio is also supremely student-centered as it forces students to reckon with their own strengths and weaknesses. The more they speak, the more our students will identify where they’re struggling (pronunciation, vocabulary choice, verb usage) and, hopefully, strive to improve in those areas, thus taking ownership of their own learning.
- Similarly, a portfolio is a great way to encourage students to self-reflect at various points throughout the year. After returning repeatedly to their own portfolio submissions, students can re-calibrate their learning goals based upon what they hear in their speech samples and work with their teacher to articulate strategies that will help them reach these goals.
Where to create and keep a speaking e-portfolio
E-portfolios of written work can easily be created in any of the most powerful LMS (Learning Management Systems) available nowadays: Blackboard, Moodle, Brightspace, Canvas, etc. Most of these systems have a way for students to submit audio assignments as well, so speaking e-portfolios could also be created in these environments.
The problem for the world language classroom, however, is that none of these systems encourages natural, spontaneous speech. In other words, when students are asked to submit an audio response, they can easily write a script of their answer first and then read it. (Granted, scripted oral responses do have a place in the world language classroom, such as the evaluation of presentational skills, for example, but students’ performance during spontaneous communication is a better indicator of their proficiency.)
Extempore: Your best bet for speaking portfolios
This is why Extempore, the Speaking Practice App is the best option for creating e-portfolios for learners of world languages. Here’s why:
- By setting Extempore’s unique timing parameters, you can solicit fully spontaneous speech from your students, thus guaranteeing that what you’re hearing from them is a true representation of their speaking abilities.
- Extempore stores and manages student recordings for you. In other words, there’s no need to save student recordings on a computer or organize them in convoluted ways. The work that your students submit is right there, easily accessible, waiting for you to assess.
- Extempore offers built-in, customizable, and easy-to-grade rubrics that allow the teacher the total flexibility to assess the portfolio contents in line with the needs of his or her students. The rubrics are easily filled out with a simple tap of a button on a mobile device and personalized feedback can be quickly relayed back to the student’s own mobile device.
Not only are speaking e-portfolios a viable classroom option, thanks to new digital tools, they’re also a pedagogically sound choice, since they facilitate a student-centered learning environment and promote self-reflection and risk-taking in the target language. However, when it comes to teaching speaking, it’s especially important to choose a tool that encourages unscripted speech, allows for individualized feedback, and lets us keep evidence of student learning.