Audio in the MFL classroom

Having written about the need for a languages lab in my last post, and contemplating the necessity of one on twitter,  local primary school colleagues tweeted that they had found a way to help me around the issue:

So, having had a look at the “23 Interesting Ways (and Tips) to use audio in the classroom, I thought that you might like to take a look too, so I have added the slideshare below:

What do you think? Does this go far enough toward enabling us as MFL teachers?

We already use lots of audio in the classroom, so some of these ideas sat very comfortably with me. For example, I have used musical countdowns and music to encourage an activity or calm one down since I began teaching. I have also used tunes that pupils already know but with new lyrics, in order to learn vocabulary. (Have a look at the Register Routine song or the Lateness Routine song here, or the Daily Routine Song here). I have also set words to a beat in order to help the children remember them, and tap the beat back at them in order for them to remember a word. Creating their own audio is something that can be very fulfilling in an MFL Classroom too – Audacity is a great (free) tool to record voice, and as Joe Dale demonstrated recently at MFL Show and Tell, SongSmith is also another great tool.

I guess I am still trying to find an answer to the question in my previous post. Do we really need a languages laboratory? I still think the answer is yes…….What about you?

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The Digital Languages Lab

You remember the old languages lab don’t you? The big room, with the individual booths where pupils put on their headsets and listen to the audio recorded to the cassette in the booth?

Really? You still remember them? Gosh, your memory is good.

The department of which I am head embraces using technology in the classroom, and we are part of a school that is lucky enough to have Promethean IWBs aplenty plus lots of ICT support from the UCST/ULT group that we are part of. We are proud of our use of technology, and I know that many of us love to use engaging new technology in the classroom – in fact, today, I covered an ICT lesson for a colleague and found Year 9 creating Prezi’s on the future of technology. Cool!

So, languages labs. Unfortunately, our languages lab is approximately 18 years old, and, by machine standards, it is as they say “past it”. In fact, it is far beyond that – it is dead. As a dodo. Summer 2009 was the last chance for us to be able to use cassettes for the listening part of the A Level examination, and, with the new specification course we will never have cassettes again. In fact, this summer we caused a wee bit of chaos for the examinations officer as he tried to ensure that we had sufficient ICT bookings for the required time sand days, so this term he has been kind enough to purchase mp3 players for the department. This allows the pupils to do a listening exercise in lessons and get used to the machines,  before putting them to use in the exams.

For a long time, we have been considering a new digital languages lab, but, for one reason or another, it is still not a possibility. We have the space, but the new equipment and furniture, along with the software would cost a pretty penny, so for now, I am considering other options.

Earlier, I tweeted out to my PLN a question where I asked for an estimation for how much a digital lab would cost, and in amongst the replies came plenty of other ideas to avoid the purchase of such a lab, which got me thinking. Why do we want a digital languages lab? My predecessor wrote the following a few years ago:

  • Essential replacement for worn out existing language lab.
  • Necessary for external examinations.
  • local competing schools all have new ‘labs’, giving them a facilities edge
  • Software permits transfer of all analogue audio to digital format: this can then be made available to pupils via the new Learning Platform as well as be accessed directly by staff in each classroom (equipped with speakers) – this makes the cumbersome cassette players obsolete and vastly improves sound quality and ease of use for staff.
  • Pupils can work individually with downloaded video clips, web-based exercises and interactive multi-media tasks – this is particularly beneficial for VI form students, for whom exercises involving the latest news clips can easily be created.
  • The suite fully complements the new Learning Platform, since it encourages pupils to use their own area as a digital resource bank, accessible from anywhere.
  • Pupils will be able far more easily to chat online (in Target Language) and video conference with link schools regionally and abroad.
  • Pupils would be able to create their own audio files, recording their own answers to departmental questions and be able to upload them to use in a variety of ways.
  • Nationally ‘mfl’ is at the vanguard of the educational digital revolution, since the subject’s very content matter must reflect contemporary society and be authentic (the latter especially has been placed in a whole new sphere by the Internet age) – our mfl department is a digital department and has often been the first to implement new ICT technologies (interactive boards, data projectors, network based internal management, audio files on the shared area…), yet we are now stalling since we are unable to take the next step to integrate multi media resources and expand pupil and staff access without the new software and a specific ICT suite.
  • Given the current staff in the department, we are ideally placed to progress with this.
  • The ICT suite would be available for other departments, again complementing the whole school ICT development plan

So – as you can see, plenty of reasons for the provision of such a lab. But maybe we are being narrow minded by enclosing our learning space in a room? In fact, are ICT rooms becoming obsolete? Should we be considering the use of netbooks or laptops for each pupil? Or at least to have class sets available for regular use in each department? I know this is something that some schools do, but when considering my school and the layout of my department I over two floors wonder if this is a valid option?

@tomsale suggested the use of iPods with iTalks, all of which can be put online and on the school VLE. In fact an iPod Touch or iPhone, combined with internet access could provide many of the things we need, however, I worry that there would still be times where we would like to have access to a full size screen and keyboard, for example, when doing a piece of writing. I think there would be other issues with having a class set of iPods, such as, how to add things quickly and effectively, adding new apps in order to take advantage of tools such as voice recording etc. I have often thought it is a shame to ‘waste’ the technology most pupils have sitting in their pockets. They tend to have the latest phones, or at least have the ability with their phone not only to voice or video record, but to access the internet. Unfortunately, by pupils using their own technology they can often be tempted to use the tool for other, non-educational uses – such as texting their friends – when they should be doing a piece of work, so for now, I think this idea is not feasible.

I apologise now if my writing has become a bit rambling, but I have begun to write what I am thinking, and the thought I have now is that actually, a computer is still the best option. It would enable me and my pupils to have access to the teaching and learning tools that we require, but why should we make these computers permanently stuck to a desk? A trolley full of computers that can be connected wirelessly to the school network and internet would allow us to do nearly everything we would also want from a languages lab, plus a whole lot more (if the network filters aren’t too strict!). The only thing left to consider is how to record all of the cassettes that are gathering dust on the shelves without it taking a very, very, very long time? In fact, do we even need any of those cassettes anymore?

What do you think?

Oral Exams & Exam Boards

It is that time of year when all of my GCSE, AS and A2 students are clamouring for any spare time I might have in order to help them out with their oral examination practice. Next week I have the joy of conducting all three levels’ oral exams, starting with AS Spanish first thing on Tuesday. I decided to write a little bit about this for two reasons: 1) new specifications are in place at AS and on their way for A2 and GCSE and 2) the technology side of things.

Previously, in my school we have done Edexcel for languages, however, after careful consideration, the department has decided to move to AQA, which means that although we are still doing Edexcel for GCSE and A2 we have been teaching AQA for AS. Seeing as I am nearing the time when most of my exam groups will go on study leave, now is an appropriate time to reflect on the new specification AS.

Personally, I have found some of the topics to be a bit more engaging, especially the more modern elements such as popular culture and media. Pupils are able to learn about things that actually interest them (social networking, fashion, cinema, music etc) and therefore are more motivated to not only continue the subject at A2 level and beyond, but also to communicate in the target language as they actually have something they want to say. Next year’s A2 will be fairly similar topic-wise to what we have taught before, and I am intrigued by the cultural topic element. With Edexcel we have always opted for the written exam, and I have taught a literature book (Sin Noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza) and a colleague has taught the other topic (Como Agua Para Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and also the region of Catalonia).

With AQA it seems as though we can continue to teach these topics, however, it is how they will be assessed that will change. Pupils must still study two topics (literature, region etc) and they will have to talk about them in their A2 oral exam (something that we have never had to do before), but they will only have to write about ONE of them. Should this influence what we teach? Should this influence what we ask pupils to produce in the classroom? Should we still encourage them to write essays on both topics? I think that the answer to this should be yes. Not only does it then give them the opportunity to have a wider choice of possible questions to answer in the examination, but it will also prepare them more thoroughly for university study. My only concern is that the questions in the exam will be so broad that it will be very difficult to know how to teach them to write effective answers. Previously, literature essays and the like have been related directly to the particular set text whereas now the question will have to be one that could be applied to any literature book! I’m wondering whether it is worth putting trusty old Gurb to one side and looking at films or something…..

The oral exam at A2 has previously been along the lines of a debate, now, it seems to me, that the AS is more pro/con orientated in the writing exam, and fairly general in the speaking, allowing for opinions where necessary. We have previously always recorded our candidates onto cassette and we are a school that has an ailing languages lab, used mainly for the A Level listening exams and practice throughout the year. As someone who enjoys using technology in the classroom I am eagerly awaiting a snazzy languages lab to replace the old one and I was very pleased to learn that we can download the exam listening material on line. Furthermore, we can now conduct our listening exams and record them digitally, sending them to AQA electronically, via their Desk Top Tool (DTT). Over the last few months I have been sorting out the technical side of things with our IT crew, in order to ensure smooth sailing for both the recording of orals and the downloading of listening materials.

Last week I was VERY disappointed to find out from a colleague that AQA have pulled the DTT, asking centres to record onto cassette rather than straight onto the DTT. On further investigation it turned out the AQA had sent a letter to examiners (like my colleague) telling them that as some centres had been having problems with sending through the orals, they thought it best to ask everyone to do the same. Now, I do appreciate that AQA were trying to help centres by letting them know that some places were having problems, however, my school never received this letter – I had to ring them and get it faxed through to see for myself. As I read through it I breathed a short sigh of relief as I realised that actually they hadn’t pulled the DTT completely – they were just letting centres know about the possible problems that seemed to be occurring within certain LEAs (something to do with bandwidth and servers I believe). If a school had begun to use the DTT and were not having any problems, then the school could continue to do so. Phew. I therefore will go ahead and use the DTT as planned on Tuesday with the Spanish AS students. With only 5 candidates, and not being part of an LEA, there should be no major issue about sending the sound files through, but, if the worst case scenario happens, then I can pull the sound files off the computer, save to a CD or memory stick and send them through that way. Double phew.

Interestingly, with the new specification GCSE, I think that a tool such as the DTT will be very beneficial. Candidates will have to submit two tasks that they have completed throughout the GCSE course and I can foresee it being fairly easy to manage pupils’ entries electronically on the school system before uploading their best two tasks (out of say, 5 ). This will also work nicely for their coursework….urm, I mean controlled writing assessment. All we need now is the school system in place for all pupils to have an area to save school work, homework and coursework to, that is easily accessible by teachers. Would this by chance be a VLE? I’ll stop holding my breathe soon, I promise.