NOTE: This report is part of a larger article, Action Research: Reseeing Learning and Rethinking Practice in the LOTE Classroom, published by the LOTE Center for Educator Development. Please access the main page for full text and copyright information.

Getting Middle-Schoolers to Talk... in Spanish!

Pat Kahn, Round Rock ISD

Purpose of the Study

Middle school kids talk all the time, except when you want them to. Every time I have gone to conferences, the other teachers praise their classes on the wonderful job they do on the 2-minute mini-conversations in the book or the situation scenarios that accompany the text. Mine talk during the mini-dialogues, all right—about what they ate for lunch, what they are going to wear tomorrow, who’s hot, who’s not, etc. They converse very nicely, in English, on every subject but the one at hand. They also moan and groan about the situation scenarios, saying they are “boring.” Consequently, I sit tight-lipped and listen to all the other foreign language teachers gloat.

The speaking component is one of the five goal areas set by national and state standards, Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Languages Other than English. So my interest in getting my students to talk is not only to save face or get the students ready for high school. This is one of the steps that I must cover in my area of curriculum. So, my action research project involved getting the students to carry on some sort of dialogue in Spanish on a topic that would interest them.

Research Questions

The question I wanted answered was: How can I find ways to motivate reluctant or resistant students in interpersonal conversation? In other words, with the limited vocabulary and grammar skills a Spanish I student has, how do I get them to speak in Spanish?

Data Collection and Findings

The first step in my study was to develop a student survey to see what topics of interest students had. The survey had three questions on it: What topics would be interesting for you to help draw out conversation in Spanish? What are your goals as far as speaking Spanish is concerned? What is keeping you from reaching the goals set in question #2? In other words, what can I do to help? Of the 96 surveys distributed I received 60 back. Games, sports, food, music, and movies were the topics of greatest interest. Students most wanted to be able to speak without hesitation, and they felt reaching their goals would be facilitated through games, more “practice,” self-motivation, and hearing the teacher speak more Spanish.

My next step was to design lessons based on students’ interest that would provide an opportunity for conversation in Spanish. One involved a telephone conversation. First, I introduced the new and exciting vocabulary, including slang phrases along with key phrases for answering the telephone and having a conversation in general. I generated the vocabulary list using a slang phrase book and the text book. The grammar needed was the conditional tense and the verbs tener, venir, pensar, querer, preferir and empezar in the present tense. Students had studied these structures and were now to combine them in context. The kids were able to choose their own partner this time, and two full class periods were devoted to the creation of conversations and the editing process. The phone calls were to be for the purpose of issuing and responding to an invitation. Participants could decline and give an excuse or negotiate something else to do, a better time or day, etc. The process could take more than one phone call and could be humorous. Students were encouraged to use their imagination.

The weekend was left to practice so that they could respond naturally to their partner in the conversations. On Monday, ten minutes were allotted as additional practice time. I provided the cell phones, and the conversations were excellent. I have never before had 100% of the students prepared and anxious to volunteer to share. A post-activity survey showed students had fun, felt they were able to use the vocabulary, and that the conversation was more helpful than a test.

The second attempt at “conversation” was through a puppet show. I felt using a different format would encourage a different type of creativity and help the few shyer ones not be so self-conscious in front of the class. Students worked in groups of three to write a short script for a puppet show that they were to practice and present to the class. First, of course, students were to make their own puppets using materials, lace, beads, buttons, etc. Actually making the puppets was more work than I had anticipated! We were not quite where I wanted to be when parent volunteers I had recruited showed up to help with the sewing. It was not that complicated, but many 8th graders are not very adept at following directions or using fine motor skills.

The script students were to write was to focus around their chosen topic of food. They were required to use both the present and preterit tenses, direct and indirect object pronouns, and slang phrases that had been previously introduced. Each character was to speak a minimum of three times, not including things like “Hola!” and “Cómo estás?” Again, they were to practice their scripts so that they could speak naturally. I provided a stage, but they supplied props and a backdrop (scenery).

I was expecting even better performances than before since the topic was something they had suggested. However, fewer students were prepared with their script. A lot of attention was given to the puppets, props, scenery, etc. instead of the speaking roles or well-developed plays. Little time was spent on the academic portion. The kids decided that since they had a cover to hide behind, I would never know if the script was being read or not. However, I had told them prior to the due date that I would be sitting so that I could see them. I guess they just did not believe me. (Imagine that from 8th graders!)

I also conducted a post-activity evaluation in which I learned that the kids felt that the puppet show activity was a lot of “fun” but wanted more time to practice their scripts. Doing so outside of school was too difficult. Furthermore, they did not make the same connection as they had done with the phone conversations and, with both scenarios, they mentioned that memorizing was too hard. Apparently, even though I repeatedly ask them how often they walk around school with scripted conversations in their binders so that they can carry on conversations with others (elicited laughter), they still felt the need to memorize word for word.

Finally, I was fortunate to have my principal and assistant principal interview students in several classrooms to see if learners were making the connection that I was hoping for, but few did. The administrators asked questions such as: Why are you doing this activity? What do you think you are learning? and How will this activity help you feel comfortable using Spanish? Unfortunately, I did not have administrators come in during the phone conversations, only the puppet shows. In that activity, for the most part, students all thought that they were learning how to sew! There were a few positive responses to the questions, however. As to why they were doing the puppet show, students also said, “to learn how to speak Spanish” and “to help us be creative in our Spanish.” Some felt they were learning “to be more creative with the basics of Spanish” and “learning Spanish words for food better.” They felt they would be more comfortable using Spanish because they would “know how to order food” and “because you get to have fun making stuff and learning Spanish.”

Plan of Action

I do plan on trying to do one more conversation before the end of the year. Next year I will ask my 8th graders what topics interest them and try to get in more conversations to their liking beginning in August. As for doing another puppet show, I am not sure just yet how to convince the students that it is important to have a fluid conversation without reading from a script—even if they are behind a table! The puppet show was another avenue to explore and get them comfortable in front of an audience or listening and responding to someone else.

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