This post will bore most of my readers but maybe those who teach languages will find this useful.
One activity that is often used in language courses that I hate and never conduct is an oral presentation. I see no point in having students prepare a dialogue in English, translate it in Google Translate, and read it aloud (or memorize it and recite it) in front of the classroom. For one, students only get to speak for 5 minutes at most and then have to sit there looking bored while other people deliver their pre-fab presentations. Also, this format doesn’t replicate any real situation they are likely to encounter while interacting with native speakers.
So instead, I created oral exams. This is what my oral exams are like: I prepare activities based on all of the vocabulary and grammar we covered throughout the semester. Let’s say we covered job interviews, the airport, the doctor’s office, and giving advice to a friend who has problems in his personal life.
At the beginning of the exam, students are split into pairs and receive the first activity.
1. You are interviewing for a job. Make sure you talk about your work experience (using past tenses) and plans for the future (future tenses.) If you use one word in English, your grade drops to a B, two words in English, the grade drops to a C, four words and you can go home because you have failed the exam.
2. When 15 minutes are up, students move to a new partner and get a new activity. You are at the airport and are talking to a customs officer.
3. 15 minutes later, you get a new partner and a new topic, etc.
In the meanwhile, I run around the classroom, approaching every group, listening, and taking notes. I also interrupt students with unexpected questions because 10% of the grade goes to knowing how to react to unexpected situations.
For the first 30 minutes or so, students suffer hellish torture. They pout, grunt, wave their hands, moan, and send me hateful glances.
By the end of the activity, however, every single student begins to speak. When I tell them the exam is over, it’s impossible to make them stop speaking.
Students think that the purpose of the activity is to grade them but, in reality, this is simply a method to force them to speak, break the mental barrier that makes them believe that they are not ready to speak the language.
Of course, this is harder if we are talking about Beginners’ Spanish, but I did this exam in my Spanish 101 course yesterday and it worked. The students’ suffering was intense but so was their joy at the end of the activity. One student actually cried at the beginning. At the end, though, she was hooting with laughter.
In every group, there is at least a couple of refuseniks, that is, people who are profoundly opposed to saying a single word in Spanish. They react with self-righteous indignation to any suggestion that it is impossible to learn Spanish by speaking about Spanish in English. The oral exam breaks through their resistance. There is nobody there to listen to their explanations of why they should not be using Spanish. The partners they get assigned pressure them into speaking because they know they will let down their partners if they just sit there in a sulky silence.
This is one of the most productive activities I have ever designed.