Design Oral Interpersonal Communication Tasks

A Core Practice of World Language Teaching

Lucas Hoffman, OFLA Executive Treasurer
French/Spanish Teacher, Sylvania Southview High School

This is the sixth and final article in a series about the nationally developed core practices of world language teaching.  In 2015-2016, I started sharing some of the new nationally recognized core practices.  As a reminder, core practices are researched-informed best practices that should be mastered by any beginning teacher in world language education.  In the previous five articles regarding these core practices, I wrote about achieving 90% target language use, using research-informed techniques when giving students feedback, using the backward design model, teaching grammar as a concept and in context, and guiding learners through interpreting authentic resources. 

Core Practice: Design Oral Interpersonal Communication Tasks

What does this mean for you?
We all know that most students sign up for their world language class really hoping to learn how to speak, right?  And don’t we (as language instructors) all want our students to be functionally proficient in listening and speaking in a second language anyway? Let’s look at how we can create tasks to support these objectives.

Have you ever observed any of the following so-called “interpersonal” tasks in a language classroom?
     1. Students perform a memorized skit for the rest of the class to silently watch.
     2. Teacher asks the student to tell the date and responds to the correct answer with, “Excellent!”
     3. Students chat with each other while showing off a particular form of tener (or avoir)  three times as required by the teacher.

But are these really interpersonal tasks?  No, definitely not.

In the example of the skit, students are merely carrying out a presentational task for the rest of the class to observe.  And is it engaging for the audience?  Perhaps, but likely not.  I’ll note that interpersonal communication requires the “live” negotiation of meaning between at least two people.  

In the second example of the teacher interaction, this follows a classic IRE (initiate – respond – evaluate) interaction, where the teacher initiates an interaction, the student responds, and the teacher evaluates that response.  See this example here:

Teacher: What is the date?
Student: It’s October 1st.
Teacher: Very good.

Rather than encouraging and modeling true communication, the teacher is evaluating the vocabulary (pronunciation, accuracy, etc.) of the student’s response.  And the student knows it too.  Is this real communication?  Doesn’t the teacher already know the day of the week?  How does this make for meaningful interaction that encourages real communication?  It doesn’t.  Instead, a teacher might consider a IRF (initiate – respond – feedback) model to encourage more real-world use. Take this example below that better resembles a real-life conversation:

Teacher:  What is the date?
Student: It’s October 1st.
Teacher: Oh my!  I just remembered that I have a picnic on the 3rd.  I wonder what the weather looks like.  Can you tell me if it’s going to rain?

In the 3rd bullet listed above where students demonstrate mastery of a required verb tense, students do not have freedom to participate freely in a real conversation.  This is merely an exercise.  To move away from the less meaningful exercises and activities to the more meaningful tasks, consider developing tasks where students can interact spontaneously to exchange information, meet their own needs, or express their opinion.  

What does this mean for your students?
Students are absolutely craving opportunities to learn and use their world language in a meaningful way.  Let’s offer them meaningful classroom discourse to better support the development of this mode of communication.  

Some examples or resources to consider:
ODE’s Interpersonal Communication Strategies
ODE’s World Languages and Cultures Standards Novice (See pages 15-16.)
Leslie Grahn’s Interpersonal Communication
Enacting the Work of Language Instruction: High-Leverage Teaching Practices

What is the take-away?
While students certainly need the building blocks of language (grammar and vocabulary), we frequently need to implement tasks where they can meaningfully use language.  

Want more information about LILL (Leadership Initiative for Language Learning) or the core practices?
If you are interested in learning more about these core practices,  check out the ongoing conversation on Twitter.  Other fellow LILL participants have started the work of sharing out about the six core practices. 

More information on the LILL Institute can be found here.

References:
Glisan, Eileen W, and Richard Donato. Enacting the Work of Language Instruction: High-leverage Teaching Practices. 2016. Print.