By Chris Tempest
English Lecturer at Sojo University, Japan
Motivating Japanese university students to speak English outside of the classroom and keeping them engaged with the language in a meaningful way can be a challenging task. This is especially the case when students perceive their efforts to have no direct effect on their grade.
The aim of this project was to provide students at a university in Japan with an opportunity to speak English outside the classroom in a convenient and easy way. In addition, the students would receive direct verbal feedback from a range of different English teachers. This is particularly important because most EFL students in Japan have little or no contact with English speakers other than their own teachers.
The project described in this case study was implemented at Sojo University in Kumamoto, where all undergraduate students take a compulsory course of English for the first two years of their undergraduate degrees. The majority of Sojo students are science majors, whose English ability falls into the A2-B1 level on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The main goal of the compulsory English course at Sojo is to improve students’ spoken and conversational communication skills.
In order to motivate students to practice their speaking skills outside of the classroom, a “30-day English Speaking Challenge” was devised. The challenge required students to respond to a variety of open-ended speaking prompts by submitting audio recordings through the ZenGengo platform. Teachers would later listen to the recordings and give verbal feedback also in the form of audio recordings.
There were no restrictions on the order of the prompts or when the recordings had to be submitted. This allowed students to freely choose which assignments to submit, and when to submit them. This freedom of choice was intended to motivate students to respond to the prompts whenever and wherever they chose.
Padlet is a “virtual corkboard” where users can upload posts that can contain various kinds of media to a shared area, and can be viewed and interacted with by other users.
ZenGengo is an online digital assignment creation tool where teachers can create a variety of language learning activities that students can easily access and submit.
The Audio Recording assignment type was used for the project, and links to the relevant assignment were posted to Padlet for the students to access.
Organization of activities on Padlet
A total of 30 audio recording assignments were created with ZenGengo. Each assignment had an image and a short speaking prompt, which encouraged the students to speak about a variety of topics.
To help overcome performance anxiety, students were permitted to record their responses as many times as they wanted before submission. Students were also able to submit the assignments on a range of different internet-connected devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
ZenGengo allows teachers to give different types of feedback, including written comments, audio recordings, and video recordings. Prior to the commencement of the project, students were asked what form of feedback they would prefer, and most indicated a preference for audio feedback, which was deemed to be more “conversational” in nature.
A team of eight teachers shared the responsibility of giving feedback on students’ recordings, and feedback consisted of verbal comments on and reactions to the information contained in the students’ recordings.
The whole process was in accordance with Communicative Language Teaching principles: students were encouraged to convey meaningful information through their recordings, rather than being required to produce strictly grammatically accurate utterances. In turn, teachers responded to the meaning of the students’ utterances rather than their form. This approach was also intended to help reduce student anxiety and encourage lower proficiency students to participate without fear of making mistakes.
Such conversational exchanges are also in accordance with an interactionist view of language learning, which suggests that learners develop their language skills by building and maintaining relationships with others within a range of different social situations. The interactionist approach to language learning can apply in both face to face communication and computer mediated communication.
After the teachers recorded their feedback, a link to the feedback was automatically sent to the student’s email addresses, and they were able to easily access their original recordings along with the teacher’s feedback by clicking on the link contained in the email.
This project aimed to provide students with a platform in which they can: quickly and simply practice speaking English; practice without time or space restrictions; receive conversational-like feedback on their submissions; practice often in small quantities for an extended period of time.
In regards to these aims, the project was deemed a success. Over 40 students participated in the project. Each student completed at least one recording and received feedback from a teacher. Approximately 20% of the students successfully completed all 30 days of the challenge. As this was a completely voluntary project a decrease of participation over time, essentially a month, was expected.
By utilising Padlet to organise the links, students were able to easily access the activities along with the speaking topic. After entering their information, students simply read the prompt, tapped to record and stop, then submitted. This allowed for students to quickly access, engage with, and complete the activity with ease and simplicity.
Due to the versatility of both Padlet and ZenGengo, students were able to practice their speaking regardless of any time or location restrictions. Students at the time had less speaking time in class due to social distancing, and half of their English classes were on demand, further reducing time allowed for speaking. This made practicing English all the more difficult. However, by allowing students to complete the task remotely and at any time countered most of those restrictions.
Students also successfully received verbal feedback from a range of teachers by email. The simple link that was sent directed them to their own submission for review and teacher feedback. Although numbers of students completing the tasks decreased over time, students who completed some, or all, of the activities were still able to practice their speaking skills in small quantities, but over perhaps a shorter period of time. As such, students took the opportunity to engage with English when they otherwise would not have. In the university context that the project was conducted in, many students were of low-proficiency and were usually unmotivated to do English outside of class.
Some positive comments from teachers include:
“…it provided an opportunity to those who wanted to practice their speaking yet could not easily do so in the conditions that existed at the time”.
“…the audio feedback was a really nice feature. It made it really easy to give feedback to the students in a timely way”.
“The topics were simple and reflected what they practice in their first year English classes at Sojo”.
As with all projects, especially first-time interactions, there can always be room for improvement. Student numbers decreased over time. To keep student participation consistent, one teacher suggested that, rather than a daily challenge, “a 30 week challenge might be more appropriate, where students are asked to make a longer, more extensive response once a week” would be preferable. This would perhaps relieve any perceived restrictive time-constraints of doing the activity daily and could allow the students to focus more on production. Another suggestion would be a narrower, more structured approach, such as a monthly 7-day challenge. This would allow short bursts of production by students over a concentrated period of time. It could also allow for “themed weeks” and where each day builds up to a more extensive production on the last day.
Although an organized system was implemented among teachers to delegate feedback, students would usually wait 2–3 days for feedback. One suggestion would be that “where the number of participants is uncertain and they are able to join at different times it would be helpful to have a heads-up when submissions come in.” By either implementing start and finish dates, or notifications for each submission made, this would help teachers get feedback to students more quickly and consistently.