How do you make a language lab when you don't have one?

Walter Parenteau license
I cut my baby teacher teeth in a language lab. It was a really nice setup in a public high school: 30 computers hooked up to a Sony lab system, with a full-time lab assistant to help you. A language lab has at least three modes that mimic language modes: interpretive (listening, viewing, or reading), interpersonal (speaking or writing) and presentational (speaking, most likely, in the lab). You can beam out audio or video files to all the students, pair students up for conversations, and record students' interactions. Frankly, it was awesome. But then I started teaching in independent schools that did not have labs. What then? How do you mimic the setup of a lab without a lab?

Labless Hack #1: Interpretive Mode

The beauty of the lab for the interpretive mode is that all students can view or listen to video and audio files that you designate. You can even "freeze" their computers so they can't go off task. In a labless setup, you have less control, but you still have good options. Most teachers these days have a class website, so embedding the resources in your site is an obvious solution for accessing audio and video. In a 1:1 tablet or BYOD environment, you can have students access resources using QR codes, which I've blogged about here. Students have more control over how many times they can listen to an audio recording, which can help with comprehension. But there are some disadvantages. I recently assigned a a YouTube video for a summative listening task for my Spanish 4 students, and to my dismay I realized that half the class had turned on the closed-captioning! To prevent situations like this, you could use a nifty app like Nearpod, which can allow for closer monitoring of student devices.

Labless Hack #2: Interpersonal Mode

What I liked about the lab was that the students could actually practice spontaneous conversation--not with native speakers, unfortunately, but by giving them a prompt and partnering them up randomly, they could practice communicating in real-time without depending on a dictionary or translator, or planning out what they were going to say. It wasn't a perfect way to assess conversational skills, but I think I was able to observe how students initiated conversations and responded to their peers in a way that reflected their abilities.

Without a lab, this becomes much, much more difficult. First of all, I have to teach my students the value of spontaneous communication, and I have to gain their trust that I won't deduct points for every grammar mistake they make. Many of my students come into my classes thinking that I expect perfection from them, and they have to un-learn that. Moreover, it's quite tempting for students in a labless setting to plan out a conversation with their partner, then read the dialogue they've written as they record themselves. This is, of course, not spontaneous communication. So here is what I do when I want to assess students' interpersonal skills:

  • Distribute the prompt and go over the instructions. 
  • Provide 2 minutes of preparation time. Students can write down vocab, ideas, etc. This helps lower the affective barrier without compromising too much the spontaneous nature of the task. 
  • Partner students up (I almost always assign partners myself). 
  • Give students 5 minutes to record their conversation (usually 2-3 minutes long). I monitor students closely to make sure that they are not "planning" too much, or redoing a conversation that they were dissatisfied with. Five minutes is usually enough time to address any technical problems, and for students that might take longer to finish than their peers. 
  • Make sure that each student makes a recording (I'll discuss tools below) and submits it to you according to your guidelines. This means two recordings per conversation. In case there's a problem with one recording, you have a backup. 
Lately, most of my students have been using Voice Memo on their phones to make recordings, and attaching the audio file to a submission on our Whipple Hill course page. Some students prefer the simple online voice recorder Vocaroo. Others use QuickTime on their Macs. Another option, which I know some teachers really like, is to set up a Google Voice account and have students leave you a voicemail. Some learning management systems, like Canvas, integrate video or audio recordings right in the assignment submission. Michigan State University used to have some awesome multimedia tools, but due to technical problems they had to discontinue them; they compiled a list of alternatives here, however. 

Labless Hack #3: Presentational Mode 

The presentational mode of communication is, at its most basic, communication going outwards from the speaker or writer to an audience, with no expectation of response. In a lab, that might mean single students recording a prepared speech. It's pretty easy to do presentational tasks without a lab as long as your students have access to devices. They could make a screencast, a film trailer, a memorized skit, a commercial, etc. The "rehearsed" aspect of the presentational mode gives students the opportunity to practice pronunciation and intonation. In a lab, they might make practice recordings of their speech; without a lab, you could have them use any of the tools in Hack #2 to do the same. And to show the products to the whole class, you could try a Gallery Walk with QR codes.

How do you turn your classroom into a language lab?


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