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Improving the Communication Skills of Spanish IV-V AP Students

Miriam Thompson, Round Rock ISD

Purpose of the Study

This is my third year teaching Spanish IV-V Advanced Placement (AP). In looking over my students’ AP scores the last two years, I noticed that they did not score well on the oral portion of the exam. The purpose of my study was to investigate activities that create interpersonal communication. My goal was to provide a 10-15 minute oral activity every class period.

Research Questions

Questions I considered while incorporating these activities were the following:

Data Collection and Findings

I collected data for my study in several ways: student surveys of each type of oral activity, student self-evaluations of improvement based on two sample recordings, and a videotape of two students engaged in a practice activity. I began by asking students to evaluate activities performed in class on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being not very helpful and 4 being very helpful. The survey also asked them to indicate what was helpful about the activity and what was difficult about it. I surveyed the students each time I presented a different type of activity. Based on their responses, I repeated some activities and threw out others that were not very helpful.

One comment that kept coming up was the need for vocabulary to talk about the topic, so I began to modify the way the students actually did the activity. For example, one of the activities I had my students practice is an AP exercise. Students received a set of six pictures. I gave them two minutes to study the pictures and take notes and two minutes to tell their partner a story about the pictures. A variation of the same activity was to have the students tell the story together. One student would say something about a picture, and his/her partner would continue the story as they moved through the set of pictures. The students indicated on their surveys that they did not feel that they had enough vocabulary to tell the story, so we began to brainstorm vocabulary together as a class before the activity began. I surveyed the students again after I modified the activity, and they thought the story-telling was smoother. Students would also ask how to say things after they told the story as they had thought of a word they needed to know.

Another AP exercise that we did in class was the Direct Response Questions. I would ask students questions, and they had 20 seconds to tell their partner the answer. The students were asked to describe something, give an opinion, convince someone to do something, or say what they would do in a hypothetical situation. Sometimes I used AP questions. Sometimes I used this format to review a story we had read, to reinforce a grammar concept we were learning, to talk about a video selection we had viewed, or to review vocabulary. When we did AP-type exercises, I also had students give each other feedback using the AP rubrics.

I tried to be creative with the pictures I had, and so I came up with the idea of having a student draw a picture while his/her partner described it. In another activity, some students had the same picture and some students had a different picture. I gave them two minutes to discuss their pictures with their partner and then determine if their pictures were identical or not. The students indicated on their surveys that this activity was fun and helped them focus on vocabulary.

After 4-5 weeks of doing these activities, I videotaped a couple of students telling a story together using the six pictures. While I videotaped, I noticed that they had not brainstormed and talked about the vocabulary first and that they were having trouble telling the story. I stopped the class and we repeated the instructions. The second time around, students took the time to talk about the vocabulary and discuss things they could say about the pictures, and the story flowed without a lot of hesitation. This was very helpful to me as a teacher because activities that I had intended to be communicative I saw on the video were really not. Although I had meant for this to be an interpersonal activity, I found out that the students were not asking questions and clarifying as I had hoped they would do. Videotaping the students gave me a better idea of how they were actually communicating and how I could help them improve.

I also interviewed the two students I had videotaped. They agreed that the second time they told the story after they had brainstormed ideas and vocabulary was much better. Their speech was not as hesitant, and they had good ideas. They were able to point out areas where they had improved as well as areas where they felt like they needed more practice. In the past while practicing for the AP exam, my students have used their two minutes of preparation time to furiously write as much as they could. Of course when they started telling the story, they ran out of things to say in about 30 seconds as they had already read what they had written in their two minutes of planning. My students are now convinced that writing down vocabulary and phrases that they want to incorporate in their story is much more useful than attempting to write a story in two minutes. As I walk around and monitor my students when they do this AP activity, they are no longer writing a story but brainstorming ideas during this 2-minute preparation time. Their stories are also much better and more fluent.

When I began my study in September, I had set up tape recorders and had my students tape an AP oral practice. I had them tape themselves again in November and compare the two tapes. On a scale of 1 (no improvement) to 4 (drastic improvement), sixteen students gave themselves a 2 and nine students gave themselves a 3. I was surprised that they did not give themselves a higher score. I had thought for sure that every student would see that they had improved drastically with all the practice we had done in class. As I read the comments, I noticed that the students who had given themselves a 2 were still very concerned about their vocabulary. Some of their comments regarding improvement were these ideas:

However, areas where they felt like they needed more practice were the following:

Students who gave themselves a 3 commented that not only their vocabulary had improved but also their grammar. Some of their comments were these:

Even though some of these students were still concerned about vocabulary, most of their comments were focused on grammar.

Plan of Action

Being able to involve my students in this study has given them a sense that, as a teacher, I am concerned about their learning and am striving to match my teaching with their needs. It has helped me to really focus on an area where I felt that I needed to improve for the benefit of my students. Next year, I plan to continue with the oral communicative practice but would like to research ways to help my students learn and retain vocabulary. This subject has come up numerous times in class and on their surveys. I will also stress the importance of students using their 2-minute preparation time wisely, and I would like to videotape students more often so that I have time to review and see what is “really going on” in pair work, something that is difficult to do in the course of the class period.

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