Just for the Record

This article was originally published in English Teaching Matters, the now-defunct journal for English Language Teachers in Germany

Historical note: Mention in the article is made to archeological curiosities dating back to the latter part of the 20th century – experts are divided over whether cassettes were latter-day counterparts to MP3 files, or whether tape recorders were the iPod of their day.  Let the reader decide.

Just for the Record:

recording students, enhancing feedback and developing learner independence

Tape
A Blast from the Past…

In this article I would like to propose a far greater role in the classroom for an activity that most teachers have attempted at one time or another, sadly often followed by the oath never again!. I am talking about bringing a microphone into the classroom and recording students during speaking activities. This simple act has massive potential not only for improving your students’ language knowledge and skills, but also for allowing them a greater degree of independence and control over how their performance is assessed.

In the school where I work, we often make recordings in the classroom as a fixed feature of our intensive course programme. I was struck recently with the realization that, although my colleagues consider these lessons to be among the most worthwhile on the course programme, almost none of them actually employs similar strategies in their evening groups or in-company classes. One colleague of mine is a notable exception to this rule, and it is to her that I owe a debt of thanks for arousing my interest in this subject.

Tool kit

For most of what I will propose, only the most basic tools are necessary: a reasonable quality tape recorder (preferably with a counter and speed control – and of course a microphone jack), a microphone (as good quality as possible, with a long cable) and a few blank cassettes. More possibilities offer themselves if you have access to multiple sets of this equipment. Those who have access to a camcorder can add a non-verbal focus to their planning. The extra minutes it takes to set this equipment up is repaid many times over by the work it enables you to do with the students later.

Who needs it?

Several groups of student obviously benefit from the closer evaluation of their oral performance which tape or video recording affords as well as from the chance to take more control of that evaluative work: journalists, those who regularly give presentations or training, actors, and telesales or call centre operators. This is not to suggest that only these groups have something to gain: the opportunitiy to engage directly with their own oral performance has advantages for all students.

Getting more out of traditional activities

The main benefits of recording students can be illustrated by looking at how value can be added to a common classroom activity. Later I will outline how other common activites lend themselves well to being taped.

Alibi

Everyone knows Alibi. A break-in at the language school (or any other provocative misdemeanour) and the police interviews which ensue provide the pretext for masses of past simple practice and work on contrastive stress. Many teachers go to great lengths to build this activity up, providing rolecards, prep time and other scaffolding to ensure success.  But what happens to all this productive output after it has been uttered? Under normal circumstances it either evaporates into thin air or, if the teacher is conscientious enough, it gets captured in note form and is returned to the students in the form of prompts for self-correction on the board.

What a waste! Set up a tape recorder and a microphone and look at the benefits:

1.The interview stage is charged with authentic pressure. The police must maintain a professional approach (the courts might hear this!) and the suspects must be extra careful (anything they say is literally being taken down and may be used in evidence against them later). This prompts the participants to “raise their game” in a way similar to the public performance stage in a TBL lesson.

2.The entire activity can be accessed later for analysis. With the event on tape, the output has been captured and can provide masses of useful data for language focus, either immediately afterwards, during the next lesson or even months later. This means that the teacher can take more time to select truly worthwhile examples and create feedback tasks that the students can complete themselves independently of the teacher (see also point 4).

3.The learners themselves can attend to what they have said. During the activity, the learners will (hopefully) have been too focused on the task to monitor their language to any great extent. The chance to listen in on their own performance and evaluate it after the event is very engaging and can help them to notice areas of strength and weakness which they can improve later.

4.The learners can control feedback. Hand over the tape to the police for five minutes and let them track down the moments when the suspects make their slip-ups (providing intensive listening practice). Later, set them listening tasks as a whole class which focus their attention on areas that can be improved, for example, “listen to the tape and write down three of the questions word-for-word as you hear them. Compare with a partner. Are they grammatically correct? If not, correct them” or if you want a focus on pronunciation, try “listen to the questions from counter 034 to 065: does the voice lift at the end of the question or not?” This leads to a much more student-centred language focus and feedback session, as they are uncovering areas to work on with limited guidance from the teacher, which can aid their learning independence.

Similar benefits can be gained by approaching other common speaking activities in this way, for example:

Interviews

Tape recording interviews can add a level of authenticity which pays off in terms of student performance levels, especially if this is somehow connected to the student’s job. Many jounalists see this as a particularly apt form of practice and relish the chance to pin their interlocutor down on tape. As well as the points made for Alibi above, the tape could then be handed over to the student, who then prepares an article based on its contents for homework. Both the interview and the article can then be assessed in later lessons. Obviously, access to a camcorder opens up the possibilities here even further.

Presentations

Many teachers are now paying more attention to non-verbal communication in their student’s presentations, as they have realised that it isn’t necessarily Hartmut’s poor grasp of the present perfect that is making his presentations ineffective; more likely it is his habit of speaking at his powerpoint image on the wall instead of to his audience. How can his teacher make this obvious to Hartmut? Video him doing it and show him. Then video him giving the presentation again and see if it happens as much – chances are, it won’t. In terms of work on non-verbal communication, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Telephone skills

Many teachers utilise the learner’s office telephones when they teach in-company to make telephoning lessons “real”. When this isn’t possible, students perform roleplays with line of sight blocked, to simulate being on the phone. Set up a tape recorder during these sessions and you can return to these calls later and focus on key exchanges, which can then be refined and re-recorded. Conference calls can also be simulated, allowing practice of turn-taking and interruption strategies. All of this can also be evauated at leisure later, which is not possible when three pairs of students are working at once with one harried teacher trying to monitor them all.

Community Language Learning

Flyss MacGilchrist (ELTAB-B) wrote elequently on this topic in June 2002 for English Teaching Matters, so I will only mention it briefly here. By eliciting from learners what they want to say (in their L1), the teacher then provides a translation in the target language and drills this with the students until they can produce it to a reasonable standard. This rehearsed utterance is then recorded and responses from other group members are invited, which are then in turn translated, rehearsed and recorded. In the end, even beginners can end up with remarkably complex dialogues, which they can then use as listening material and revision at home between lessons. What could be more motivating for a beginner than to be able to listen to themselves speaking fluently in the target language on the way home from class in the car?

“But recording students doesn’t work!”

dictaphone and mic
“Whatever you say will be taken down in evidence…”

Many teachers shy away from bringing in a microphone to class for one very obvious reason: it intimidates the students. Affective filters go right up and the unsuspecting teacher is suddenly dealing with a room full of clams instead of the Coca-Cola sales and marketing team.

It does not have to be this way. The teacher can do a lot to remove any potential for performance anxiety.

First of all, do not make recording obligatory. At least initially, make recording an optional feature of your lessons, which the students can take advantage of or not. Sooner or later, someone will become brave enough to be recorded, and the useful work that the teacher can do with the recording in improving the student’s language will encourage others to follow suit. Soon you won’t be able to keep them away from the microphone.

Secondly, make sure it has a point. Recording students just for the sake of playing it back to them at the end of the lesson with no follow-up tasks is pointless and a waste of time. Experiences like these probably sit at the root of the students’ reluctance to be recorded. If you have considered how you can integrate the recording into the lesson in a way that will deepen the student’s knowledge and skills, they will accept it.

Thirdly, make it fun, or at least inobtrusive. Do not place too much emphasis on the fact that you are recording them or else you make it impossible for the students to relax and concentrate on doing whatever task you have set them.

Conclusion

Recording students, whether it be on video or cassette, has several positive effects on students’ learning: it adds a certain amount of pressure which in turn prompts more controlled and complex use of language; it allows students to engage with their output and to assess their own performance, which helps them develop their monitoring abilities; it places the student and their output at the centre of feedback stages, instead of the teacher; it provides a useful database of student language for the teacher to draw on for a variety of purposes; for certain students (notably journalists), it simulates real operating conditions under which they have to be able to function in English. With all of these advantages, “testing, testing, 1-2-3…” should become a far more regular phrase in the classroom.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this article: feel free to comment below!

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  1. Pingback: Blast from the Past! – new old article « Teacher Training Unplugged

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