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Numer: 5211
Dział: Języki obce

Evaluation of speaking activities used in teaching primary school and gymnasium students in the light of the new "Podstawa programowa"

The newly introduced “core curriculum” (which is supposed to mean “podstawa programowa”) expects primary school students to “participate in simple conversations and to respond understandably and adequately to the situation”, as well as “use communication strategies – for example inferring the meaning of words from the context”, and - above all - students should “have got language awareness, for example discern similarities and differences between languages”. As my experience shows, primary school students often face inhibitions which prevent them from speaking freely at the level they would be able to if their lack of self-assuredness would be overcome. The major problems faced in the classroom are stress, uncertainty and lack of self-confidence, which result in performances that are below par with the potential of a student. It would appear obvious then to give learners opportunities to try to overcome the factors that restrain them. This can be made by the choice of speaking activities used in the classroom. Bearing in mind that the major goal to be attained is self-confidence and conversational competence of students, process-oriented activities, such as awareness activities, fluency activities and feedback activities seem to be the most appropriate choice.
According to Brown and Yule, a course in spoken English production should prepare a student “(...) to express himself in the target language, to cope with basic interactive skills like exchanging greetings, thanks and apologies, and to express his needs – request for information, services etc.” (1993:27). To attain this, it is not enough to put into practice the grammar and vocabulary skills taught elsewhere in the course; it is essential that learners know what native speakers do when they have conversations (Brown and Yule; 1989:7). Nolasco and Arthur describe certain rules to be followed in interaction, some of which match the requirements of the new “core curriculum” for the second and third “stage of education”. Thus, it would seem appropriate to apply activities which promote the following:
“(...) – a feeling of what is appropriate in conversation, and the effect it is having on the listener, in order to minimize problems in interaction;
- awareness of strategies used to further conversation so that these may be consciously adopted if desired;
- awareness of the target culture” (1989:51).
Such activities are based on the principle of discovery learning mainly by observation, and use of authentic materials is worth recommending. They involve identification of communication and compensation strategies and various aspects of their use by the speakers. Nolasco and Arthur give three very interesting examples of this category: ‘Encouraging noises’ and ‘Encouragement’, where the aim is to make students sensitive to expressions which encourage the other speaker to continue or say more, and ‘Keep talking’ which focus on the way in which fillers can contribute to an impression of fluency. To develop cross-curricular awareness, the authors suggest the use of questionnaires in ‘True or false’ or ‘Similarities and differences’, involving decision-making and reaching a consensus (1989:52-55, 73-75). The ideas seem too ambitious as far as the primary school students are concerned, but quite feasible, and even recommended for the “gymnasium” students. Nonetheless, some aspects of cross-curricular awareness should be introduced in the second stage of education in accordance with the new “core curriculum”. In essence, awareness activities give practice in interactional short turns (such as expressing disagreement or expressing opinion), as well as in transactional turns, i.e. using language for transferring information, as they involve the use of some fluency activities (for example discussion or decision making), with special focus on facilitation techniques or elements of social behaviour. This focus can be achieved by applying certain teaching aids, such as observation sheets for listening, or task sheets for group work, which present issues to be discussed and analysed.
As it was stated before, students will be expected to participate in simple conversations as early, as at the second educational level. Thus, it would seem appropriate for the teacher to choose communicative activities, involving language production rather than practice, to help the students develop fluency and self-confidence in using the language. There is a whole range of fluency activities, however this number can be somewhat limited when we look at them from the point of view of the new “core curriculum”. The selection below presents activities which are should be helpful in developing speaking sub-skills outlined by the new core curriculum for the third educational level, such as expressing and justifying opinion, relating, and reacting to communicational situation. Nonetheless, some of them should be practised from the very beginning of primary school.
To start with, Harmer (cited by Bygate 1995:71) includes, among others, the following as types of communicative activities:
- reaching a consensus
- story construction.
He also mentions drama activities, the advantage of which Byrne (1991:107) explores in detail. They motivate and involve, because they offer an element of choice, call for imagination and “get the learners to behave through language, not simply talk”. Role-play and simulation can be easily adopted to particular needs, from the first educational stage on.
Once students are aware of the techniques that can facilitate their interaction and they are given opportunities to put their knowledge into practice, there are still other possibilities for the teacher to help the learners develop a certain degree of self-confidence by means of applying feedback activities. As Nolasco and Arthur claim, “There are different ways of improving performance in language learning, but consistent and reliable feedback is a vital ingredient. (...) The objective of feedback is to give students the information they need to improve on their performance.” (1989:117,118). In essence, this type of speaking activities is based on observation and evaluation of learners’ performance, previously tape-recorded; the aim may be to look closely at the language they use, or to focus on compensation techniques. They have a number of advantages, as they can be used with any fluency tasks (provided they include the samples of speech to focus on), they also meet students’ expectations, as some of them still feel that fluency activities are a waste of time because the teacher is not available to provide instant correction. Thirdly, they are a way of strengthening learners’ self-confidence by means of mild self-assessment. Then, they provide a context to use the target language and to focus on the very aspect of oral production that needs to be improved by a particular group of children.
To sum up, meeting the requirements of the new “core curriculum” involves not only teaching the language and skills, which is done from the earliest stages, but the course should also focus on developing students’ awareness of the target language, as well as their self-confidence and belief that they can use the language effectively. These conclusions are drawn on the basis of observation of and reflection on teaching primary school and “gymnasium” students. Moreover, there are ways of alleviating students’ stress while speaking in a foreign language and cheering them up, which can be made, to a certain degree, by means of the choice of activities. The evaluation included above is an attempt to provide a possible solution to these problems, and the underlying principle applied here is learner-centeredness. Hopefully, the process of popularisation of this idea will result in a gradual increase in importance attached to focusing on students’ needs.

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