Thursday, 14 May 2009

Towards more authenticity in EFL classes

We had our second Skype session with the students in Venice today. This time our Italian friends managed to set up their webcam, too, after some initial glitches, so we could see each other. We projected the laptop screen to the whole class, as we still only had my laptop and one Skype account to use.

It was alright, though, as these are early days and we are only slowly learning and finding out how the system might work best. Towards the end of the session we ended up having both groups of students together behind the one laptop so everybody could be seen on the screen.

Quite a lot of lively negotiations went on in both languages about what to ask and how to answer. Students also taught each other some basic everyday phrases in their own languages. Most of my language teacher colleagues in Finland would probably write this type of activity off as much ado about nothing. Their reasoning would be that they wouldn't waste time on such improvised, trivial small talk, which, in their opinion, doesn't improve the students' grammar or vocabulary. But, to me, having fun is an essential part of language classes, not to mention the unique opportunity for some students to use English in a real, or at least semi-authentic, situation for the first time ever.

But how to start developing these activities for next year, when we will hopefully have more webcams, microphones and student Skype accounts? Understandably, the novelty of English chit chat will soon wear off and students will start finding these activities just as forced chores as most other school-related activities. The challenge is to design motivating and plausible tasks that require true collaboration between students. They will need a real purpose for their call, not just talking about the weather or asking simple questions about how old somebody is, or whether they like music. What many people seem to be doing is to interview partner school students about an aspect of their country or culture that is part of their syllabus in a class at the time. I am slightly hesitant about this, since it easily reduces the partners into mere informants, and makes the conversation a one-sided question and answer session. But what would make strangers want to truly engage in a conversation in a foreign language on the Internet, is the million-dollar question. It will always be more or less staged, because that's what most school activities are, despite all the efforts of teachers to facilitate real life problem solving. What I am aiming at, little by little, is tasks requiring more holistic student participation than the traditional purely cognitive and totally out of any real context gap fill exercises to practice and build up students' EFL vocabulary, for example.

When students have to immerse their whole selves in a situation, as ours did during the Skype calls, I think we have taken a small step towards the right direction. I must say, I was surprised, and very positively so, that our students voluntarily wanted to stay at school for an extra hour and a quarter to keep on talking with the Italian students. Quite an achievement, since after any ordinary afternoon class all students can't seem to rush out of the classroom, and then the school building, fast enough at the first ring of the school bell.

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