Monday, December 15, 2008

How to Improve Students' Oral Comprehension in a Spanish Community-based Learning Course

At the end of the semester our students reflect on their experiences with Spanish community service learning, my TAs reflect on teaching it, and I reflect on coordinating it.

Those different perspectives often see different things. And it's not always possible to reconcile them all. So it's helpful to me to always read what students write in their reflections (whether they are my students are not) and listen carefully to what the TAs have to say to me. And I use this blog to represent my own perspective.

One of my TAs suspects that students' listening comprehension skills need improvement. It is possible that simple misunderstandings in Spanish complicated students' in-class work,homework and community interactions. The TA suggested that mid-semester oral reports on their community work might replace one of their written auto-evaluaciones and students could evaluate each other.

I agree wholeheartedly. Students do need to improve their listening comprehension, and presentations on their community work sound great. But as an administrator of the course, these are the problems I see:
  • Listening comprehension and oral presenations are two separate issues. In fact, in practice, I don't think they are very related at all.
  • 20 students' individual oral presentations take up a whole lot of valuable classroom "real estate." That is time they could be using to work on language and cultural issues.
  • Most of our students are simply not capable of adequately evaluating each other's Spanish, even using the rubric included in their syllabus. And I don't think they really want to, either; peer pressure interferes with honest, tough, evaluations.
  • I have listened to many, many oral presentations in my teaching career. It is difficult to come up with a true communicative purpose for oral presentations, so students' eyes simply glaze over as their classmates speak into a vacuum.
  • Students do listening comprehension quizzes for Nuevos horizontes programs almost every week. They feature native speakers speaking at a normal rate on a variety of topics. This should be giving them practice. Many students don't really try to learn from these exercises; that is something to think about.
  • And just FYI, the diarios digitales/reflexiones orales were supposed to be students' "oral presentations" without all the problems of oral presentations. But we had to eliminate them because of technical problems.

So how do we teach so that our students improve their listening comprehension?

  1. We do lots of true comprehension checks (not, "?Entienden?" "?De acuerdo?") throughout the class periods.
  2. We provide more listening comprehension exercises.

I will remind TAs to do more of #1, and I'll work on creating more of #2.

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