5 Strategies for Teaching the Interpersonal Mode

Source: informedmag.com license
Conversation is the number one skill my students want to improve, and always tops their lists of "most challenging" (and "most enjoyable") tasks. I consider it the most complex of the three communicative modes: you have to listen carefully and respond spontaneously, and you have to access in your mind all kinds of language and cultural referents, at speed, in order to have a successful conversation. I've been focusing a lot this term on helping my students increase their conversational skills, and I have found five simple and effective strategies that help them do just that.

My school's language lab has been instrumental in this process. If you don't have one in your school, you can still replicate these activities; see this post about how to simulate a lab-like setting in your classroom.

Strategy #1: Transcription and reflection

I had my students in both levels 100 (Novice) and 300 (Intermediate-Mid reaching for Intermediate-High) record a practice conversation in the lab, and then listen to it and transcribe just what they said, errors included. Especially for my intermediate-level students, this was an incredibly valuable activity. It allowed them to really focus on what they said, both the good and the not-so-good. I had them write brief reflections in English about what they did well and what they needed to work on. This allowed them to identify elements of conversation (such as transition words, asking precise questions, saying "umm" in Spanish) that they needed to produce higher-quality communication. 

Strategy #2: Debrief

After I read through the reflections, I identified common growth areas. Novice-level speakers needed to feel more comfortable speaking in complete sentences and asking questions beyond "¿Y tú?", while intermediate-level speakers wanted to work on integrating different time frames, creating more complex sentences, asking more specific questions, and speaking with greater fluency generally. I went back the the ACTFL Proficiency Scale to remind me of what I should be expecting of my learners at each level. Then I created a presentation to share with my students: what were their insights, what should be easy at their level and what should feel difficult, as well as next steps. I did this in English, which I justify because this meta-language discussion was beyond their skill level and also provided an opportunity to discuss the topic with more ease and openness. Every class I teach, with almost no exceptions, is 100% in Spanish, so I think this was an appropriate use of L1.

Strategy #3: Teach specific conversational skills

This seems so obvious, and yet it has taken me fifteen years of teaching Spanish to really get here. For level 300--the intermediate-mid level students that I am trying to help achieve an intermediate-high level of speaking proficiency--I focused on key aspects of advanced-level language that my students needed to move up the proficiency scale. One fun thing was learning how to use filler words ("umm") in Spanish: pues, bueno, o sea, este. To practice, they had a conversation with their partner using just those words, which generated a lot of laughter. These students already knew advanced transition words such as "por lo tanto", "además" etc. and were able to use them in writing, but they needed the explicit instruction to practice using them in conversation. To develop their ability to manipulate past, present and future time frames as advanced-level speakers would, we practiced with specific prompts using a variety of time frames, such as "What will happen to the main character?" "If you could talk to one character, who would you talk to and what would you say?" I also had them practice narrating in the past time frames in both written and oral activities, using screenshots from the film we were studying. In level 100, I used similar strategies, but focused on sequencing words like primero, luego, después etc. We also practiced contrasting simple present and past tenses in context: What are three things you did yesterday? What are three things you typically do on a school night? Finally, we discussed three types of questions: return questions (¿y tú? ¿sí? etc.), yes/no questions, and open-ended questions. At the novice level, they really only have command of return questions, but to move up to intermediate, they need to push themselves to ask more precise and unique questions.

Strategy #4: Scaffold the higher-level tasks

Again, another obvious one, but once I had identified the specific skills the students needed to develop, I knew exactly what language structures to provide them with, and which ones I could expect them to produce on their own. On the final conversation prompt for the term, I gave my students the assistance they needed. For level 300, the prompt included advanced transition words and filler words, as well as a "notes" area to write down two questions for their partner and two points they wanted to make in the conversation (I gave them 90 seconds of prep time for a 5 minute conversation). I didn't give them verb tense charts because... ugh. But also, that would be too much to process. More importantly, I know that, as intermediate speakers, their accuracy is going to break down a lot in different time frames, so I did not set the bar high for grammar accuracy on the rubric. For level 100, I gave students the sequencing words, as well as a chart for the three types of questions discussed in strategy #3. I gave them an example of an open-ended question, so that they could imitate the structure.

Strategy #5: Don't ask them to do what they can't do... yet

One of my biggest epiphanies had to do with my intermediate-level speakers. They do really well with predictable situations and familiar contexts; it's not until they reach the advanced level that they can handle a situation with a complication. Well, when there were an odd number of students in the class, I would just have one group of three and hold that group to the same standard as all the other groups of two. But this was a situation with a complication! We rarely practice three-way conversations in class, and in a lab setting, they can't actually see who is in their group, so sometimes they wouldn't even know that they were in a triplet until the conversation was already under way. So now I know that I can't just make a group of three and call it a day, because that's asking intermediate speakers to deal with an advanced-level task, and we rarely practice three-way conversations in class. 

At the end of the term, I got really positive feedback from my students about these strategies. Across the board, they reported that they felt more confident and capable in conversations; they performed much better on the final conversational prompt than they had on that first "baseline" prompt that they transcribed.

How do you teach the interpersonal mode? 


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