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The Common Sense Approach
How One Teacher Organized A Speaking Course
For 200 Chinese Graduate Students
Steve Schackne
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A Common Sense Approach--Groupings

In an oral skills class, manageable size is essential if the class is to advance beyond an audio-lingual stage. Using a common sense approach, students are divided into 10 groups (A-J), 5 students per group. Class meetings can either be whole group (50) for 100 minutes; split groups A-E (25) for 50 minutes followed by groups F-J (25) for 50 minutes; or each individual group (A through J) separately for approximately 10 minutes.

The whole class grouping is used to outline class guidelines; give directions; discuss meta-language issues; pre-teach and clarify discrete language elements, such as grammar points, lexical items, pronunciation, collocation, and usage; and make special announcements. These classes are most often found at the beginning of a semester when students must hone listening abilities and, adjust to the pace and speaking style of the instructor [see Krashen; Krashen and Terrell].

The split groups rotation is used for both discovery queries and, especially, problem solving queries, with groups spending 50 minutes in in-group discussion, trying to solve a problem or make a choice. The teacher occasionally circulates to check progress, answer student/group questions or otherwise facilitate.

Individual group rotation is most often used for presentation, when students, through both in-class and out-of-class discussion, have solved a problem, reached a decision, or made a choice.

Whole class sessions tend to emphasize listening skills more than speaking skills. Split groups depend both on listening and speaking, with students taking turns, often paraphrasing and code-switching, trying to hash out a solution. Individual group work emphasizes one-to-one, teacher-student interaction with students presenting solutions and choices. This is an intense, English-only 10 minute session which stresses both fluency and accuracy.

A Common Sense Approach--Evaluation

A common sense approach here would be to simply interview the students, one-to-one or in pairs, and grade them on a set of sub skills, e.g., pronunciation, vocabulary, usage, structure…. The larger the set of sub skills chosen, however, the longer the interviews would have to run for objective evaluation. With 200 students, this could run to over 40 hours of evaluation. I have used both individual and pair interviews and, while I find them practical for rating oral skills, large numbers of students render the process inconvenient for busy teachers.

An alternative would be to have students write and perform a role play. While not as authentic as face-to-face communication, the role play has its own set of pluses.

It is a group project offering a pleasurable social activity for the students. Furthermore, by assuming a different persona and performing a set piece, students generally experience less anxiety than they would in a spontaneous, personal interview with the teacher [see Appendix B].

I present 7 scenarios, all describing a problem or conflict that must be resolved. The scenarios incorporate personalization/localization [see Harmer, p. 102], so the students have either experienced the situations described or know someone who has experienced them. Students can choose partners within their group or outside of their group. They are given a week to write a dialogue for the role play. The class, of course, does not cover writing, but some skill integration is more common than not in general esl-efl courses today. Once the dialogue is completed, I will go over it and correct it, explaining commonly occurring errors. After corrections are made, the students have a grammatically correct, colloquial dialogue which they can practice for a week and present in the final class. For evaluation, I chose to emphasize pronunciation and general comprehension (pronunciation being the weakest sub skill), but also factored usage, stress and intonation, and general creativity. Teachers, however, have the option to focus on different sub skills.

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