As I’ve evolved in my teaching practice, I’ve made significant changes to how I assess oral communication. Here are a few suggestions that have helped me improve my assessment of my Novice students’ interpersonal communication, resulting in increased proficiency among these early language learners.
Suggestion #1: Just do it! It seems that many of my colleagues are hesitant to assess their Novice students’ interpersonal communication. It is their belief that that because these students are entirely dependent on memorized language, no true interpersonal communication can occur. Fortunately, we’ve agreed to disagree on this point! In my opinion, a Novice speaker’s reliance on practiced or memorized language does not preclude her from true communication on an unrehearsed task. While the topics that these learners discuss will be limited to those which have been practiced, they will still be able to demonstrate interpersonal communication when given an appropriate communicative task. In fact, the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements list the following for Novice Mid Interpersonal Communication:
- I can greet and leave people in a polite way.
- I can introduce myself and others.
- I can answer a variety of simple questions.
- I can make some simple statements in a conversation
- I can ask some simple questions
- I can communicate basic information about myself and people I know
- I can communicate basic information about my everyday life
Clearly we can expect students to be able to demonstrate an ability to communicate about such basic topics as likes/dislikes, leisure activities, family members, school subjects and supplies, eating habits, etc. While appropriate questions, answers, and rejoinders may be practiced in advance with Novice learners, we can ensure that they are demonstrating actual communication in this mode by creating prompts that prevent memorization of a script. For example, by pairing a student with a classmate with whom he hasn’t yet practiced, we ensure that he is unable to memorize the exact questions he will ask and the answers or rejoinders that he will give. Consider a unit on likes and dislikes, often one of the first topics in a Level 1 curriculum. We might give an assessment prompt such as, “You are choosing a roommate for choir camp and you want to make sure you end up with someone that likes the same things you do. Discuss your likes and dislikes in order to find out what you have in common.” While these students will have practiced expressing their preferences (“I like…”) , asking questions (“Do you like…?), and replying to a partner (“Me, too.” “Not me.” “Me neither.”), they will not know in advance which questions they will be asked or which responses their partner will provide. As a result, each student must be prepared to ask a variety of questions, in order to avoid repeating those asked by his partner. Likewise, working with a new partner will require a student to comprehend his interlocutor’s response (rather than simply memorizing a script) in order to choose the appropriate rejoinder. (“Me neither” is not an appropriate response to a partner who has stated that she likes something, for example.) Furthermore, even Novice learners can make some adjustments in order to clarify meaning for an interlocutor who has demonstrated a lack of comprehension. Requests for repetition are often all that’s needed in order to understand a message, whether because the original speaker is able to correct an error that impeded comprehension or because the repetition enable the interlocutor to establish additional meaning. Clearly, even a task as simple as this one does require the negotiation of meaning which typifies interpersonal communication.
Suggestion #2: Stay out of it! I rely almost entirely on student-to-student interaction for my interpersonal assessments, even for Novice learners, for the following reasons:
- In my experience, allowing students talk to each other great increases the quality of the interaction. I have followed the suggestion of Colleen Lee (@CoLeeSensei) who said in a #langchat discussion, “I teach my [students] that your partner not understanding you is YOUR responsibility to clear up!” Nothing is more magical than hearing a level 1 student encourage a classmate by suggesting possible language chunks that would provide the necessary clarification to allow communication to occur. In an early unit this year, for example, one student negotiated meaning by asking C’est ta mère ou ta sœur? when her partner used the incorrect vocabulary word when describing his family photos. This clarification gave valuable feedback to the speaker who had made the error, as well as allowed his interlocutor to stretch beyond the rehearsed statements and questions she had anticipated using during this assessment. As a result of this negotiation, both students are likely to make progress toward proficiency that wouldn’t have been likely had the conversation occurred between a teacher and student.
- I have found that being able to talk to a peer, rather than the teacher, greatly reduces the students’ affective filter. A conversation between a teacher and student, regardless of the prompt, is a conversation between an expert/evaluator and a student, which creates a certain level of anxiety in many learners. When a student’s focus is on communicating with a peer, however, she is often able to disregard the presence of the teacher (who is most likely busily taking notes in order to provide feedback to the speakers). As a result of this decrease in anxiety, the quality of the communication is considerably greater than it would have been if the student was speaking to the teacher.
- In my opinion, the authenticity of the communication is significantly reduced when one of the speaker’s primary motivation is assessment, rather than comprehension. In a teacher-student interpersonal assessment, the student’s goal is most likely to avoid errors, and the teacher’s is to note them as part of the feedback process. As a result, the communicative content of the conversation often loses its significance.
- Lastly, assessing pairs of students saves valuable class time. While I can generally assess all 30 of my students in one class period when listening to two speakers at a time, I would not be able to do so if I were assessing each one individually.
Suggestion #3: Use a great rubric. I love the one from the Ohio Department of Education (http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Ohios-Learning-Standards/Foreign-Language/World-Languages-Model-Curriculum/World-Languages-Model-Curriculum-Framework/Instructional-Strategies/Scoring-Guidelines-for-World-Languages/3-Interpersonal-Rubric_unit_august_2015.pdf.aspx ) because it includes an interculturality component, as well as great descriptors related to the quality of the interaction. The wording in the comprehensibility section makes it clear that some errors are to be expected, even for those students rated as Strong. Knowing that the content and quality of the interaction are as important as accuracy encourages students to make more risks during interpersonal tasks. This risk-taking leads allows the learners to demonstrate greater proficiency than they would if their only goal was to avoid grammatical errors.
Suggestion #4: Don’t forget to incorporate culture. As I discussed in an earlier post, I am experimenting with using role plays in order to incorporate more culture into my novice interpersonal communication assessments. My previous prompts, in which I asked students to discuss their own personal preferences and experiences, often failed to produce adequate evidence of interculturality. On the other hand, I was pleased with the results I had during a recent holiday unit when I assigned a role to each member of the conversation pair. In this assessment, I asked one student to play the role of someone who had traveled to France for the holidays and the other to play the role of someone who had traveled to Canada. When these students discussed the pictures they had “taken” (a Google Slides presentation I prepared), they were able to demonstrate their cultural competence in a comprehensible way, in spite of their Novice proficiency level.
I’ll look forward to hearing what has worked for you when assessing impersonal communication with Novice students!