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 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.
I’ve written an in-depth description of how my news article system works – what the rules are, what the requirements are, how the evaluation works, what the rubric looks like. You can find it on my Teachers Pay Teachers page.