Our students need to speak. But there’s meaningful speech, and there’s what the textbooks peddle. I prefer the former, and rotating article presentations are how I achieve it.
Years ago, when I was a TA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I used to dread telling my students – bright, capable, motivated students – to find a partner, turn to page 77 in their textbooks, and pretend that one of them was selling tickets in a train station, and that the other wanted to go to Zaragoza. It was so formulaic and boring and fake – I just couldn’t bear it. It made me think back to my time at UW as an undergrad, when I had learned German.
The activities in my German book were soul-killing. They were meant to keep things safe and simple so we wouldn’t be scared or intimidated, but they wound up keeping things so stilted and facile that it bored and embarrassed us to death. The students who were doing well sighed and slogged through them; those who were doing poorly stammered and blushed and joked, either until time ran out, or until they and their partners gave up because they couldn’t make it work. The entire time, we were listening to German – but it was the German our partners produced, and it was almost invariably just plain wrong.
I learned the systems through the textbook and the TAs, but mostly my language advancement came from two sources: Listening to my TAs – imitating the way they talked, tracking the lilt and the rhythms of their speech, and then relishing the times I got to speak directly to them – or going to Stammtisch, the weekly night of speaking German at the Memorial Union. Lots of native speakers who were studying at UW came to chat with language students. That was where I did all my meaningful talking.
No good came of the in-class partner work, I decided. I eventually vowed never to put my own students through it.
And I haven’t…but I have found that, without something to force them to talk, many of the less-confident kids never do. After seeing how poorly some students spoke who otherwise were doing fine, I decided to start requiring speech much more regularly.
But I was not about to do anything fake. What could I do?
The solution I came up with was one that killed two birds: The need for students to speak, and the need for them to become independent readers who can get real information out of real documents.
Almost every day, one person in every advanced class I teach has to present a news article for five to ten minutes, using articles that I find for them and distribute to them. The evaluation happens at the same time as the presentation, and it only comes around every two to three weeks for any individual student. While it is high-stakes and scary at first, the students eventually get very good at it, and completely lose their fear of speaking in front of the group.
Perhaps the most magical element of the exercise is that the students’ vocabulary – from all the presenting, and all the listening – just seems to expand, all by itself, as if by magic.
Here’s how it works:
These reports are done on a rotating schedule. Given a class size of around 20, we have typically been able to have each student do two, and possibly three, over the course of each quarter.
At the beginning of each class, I will hand a hard copy of a current news article from the Web site http://www.bbcmundo.com to the student who is to present the following day. The student should read the article and arrive at enough of an understanding to present a summary of around five minutes (possibly a few more, but not less) before the group the very next day.
This is really the only homework I ever give – and since it only comes up a couple of times a quarter per student, I stress very heavily that they are not to forget it, blow it off, or do it halfway.
When a student presents, the person who is scheduled to present the following day will accompany the presenter to the board and act as his or her scribe. (The presenter is not allowed to write anything for his or her self). The physical copy of the article, meanwhile, is handed to the student who is scheduled to present after the scribe. He or she will take down on the back of the article the name of the presenter, as well as whatever is written on the board during the course of the presentation. In this way, three people are involved in all presentations: the presenter, and his or her two scribes – one at the board, and one at his or her desk with the copy of the article.
In preparing for the presentation, the presenter may read anything he or she likes – including English-language articles on the same event or subject in order to better understand the Spanish-language article. However, it is their understanding of the Spanish article that will be graded – depending completely on English-language articles will not help. The English-language articles serve best as something one quickly reads before, and not instead of, reading the Spanish article. After all, the only words you will be able to use to get the gist across are Spanish ones, and the article is where you’ll find them.
When deciphering the articles, however, I strongly advise students not to look up more than five words in the dictionary. This is meant to be an exercise in mining the text for information, doing the best one can with what the student knows how to do – vocabulary limitations are not a flaw, but rather a condition a student need to work around. I encourage students to look up only the most key, essential vocabulary – a decision that is hard to make if they haven’t first tried to read the whole article without looking up anything. Words that a student doesn’t understand, but which come up five times, are far better candidates for the dictionary than words that appear in the first line and then never show up again.
Complete understanding of all the nuances of the article is not necessarily required – in fact, it is possible, if the article is especially complicated, to get a grade of 100% on a presentation that starts with the words, “Hay mucho en este artículo que yo no comprendo.” That is, so long as the following standards are met:
- The student knows the meaning of and can explain every word in the title, and understands the meaning of the title itself;
- The student presents five previously unknown cognates that he or she found in the article;
- The student presents a generally accurate summary of what the article is about, even if certain (even main) details remain murky;
- The student gives three questions that he or she still has about the article, or about the subject of the article;
- The student reaches and defends a conclusion as to whether this article relates to the overall theme of the year; and
- The student complies with the rules of presentation.
RULES OF PRESENTATION:
- No English may be spoken or written – even to explain the meaning of a word.
- Notes should be consulted during the presentation, but the presenter may not read anything longer than an occasional quote (should a quote be necessary) directly from the page.
- The presenter is expected to know the meaning of, and be able to explain in Spanish, any word that he or she says or writes. (I absolutely will ask every student to explain some vocabulary.)
The rubric for each presentation is the following:
|Nombre: _________________________ Fecha: ______________________
PresentaciónAcercamiento conversacional 1 2 3Acento 1 2 3Confianza y presencia 1 2 3
Del artículo 1 2 3
Del vocabulario 1 2 3
De las preguntas hechas 1 2 3
Cinco cognados nuevos 1 2 3
Determinación de conexión con el tema 1 2 3
Explicación de vocabulario 1 2 3
Número y calidad de preguntas 1 2 3
The total score possible on an article presentation is 30.
There are so many advantages to this system. I long ago vowed never to make my students do anything that I myself hated when I was studying languages – and I hated pair work. Pretending one of us was the ticket agent and the other had to get to Barcelona was my idea of hell. But I did find my students weren’t talking as much as I would like – so I came up with the articles system. If they don’t talk a little bit every day, then occasionally, they will have to talk a lot.
At my current school, the periods are quite short (45 minutes or so). Therefore, the news articles have gone by the wayside until I figure out how to do them more efficiently. I recognize that they won’t work in a lot of places for a lot of reasons – too many kids with accommodations that mean they can’t be held to this sort of specific standard (fair enough), too large a group in every one of the sections, too many behavioral fires to put out to be able to expect ten minutes of attention from the whole group every day. Believe me, I get it: Every room, every school, every group has its own unique set of challenges. But if you can find a way to make some version of this happen, the results can be magic.