I’m thinking about what I want my Spanish II students to do on our first day back. I have to give them their final exam as a pre-test for the second time this school year (silly, I know; not my choice), but I don’t want to start off with that activity. Nor do I want to start with an activity I would typically use, which would be to ask the students to tell a partner what they did over Christmas vacation. In the past, the reason I would do this activity is to give the students a situation for communicating in the preterite. Did I really care what they said to their partners as long as the verbs were conjugated correctly? Did it matter whether the students actually acquired information about each other during the conversation? After the partners talked, I would then typically ask for volunteers to tell me something their partner said, and I would ask that partner a follow up question.
I never would have questioned this type of activity were it not for a book I just started reading called Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen by James F. Lee and Bill VanPatten. On page 15 of this book, the authors are discussing the traditional open-ended discussion activity that a teacher might use the classroom, asking a question and having students answer it with a partner. They question the purpose of such an activity, saying that instructors typically view it as a way to have the students practice the target language vocabulary and structures, that “the open-ended discussion question format is not really designed for students to learn about the topic or from each other; it is simply a speaking exercise.” They go on to talk about how to structure such an activity so that is truly an exchange of ideas. They also cite research, which is what I need.
I’m still thinking about the “What did you do during Christmas break?” idea, but with a twist.
- I’m thinking of the ESP activity but making the students come up with questions to ask me and also guess how they think I will answer. I might give them a list of infinitives to get them started. I’ll also ask them to use question words as much as possible. Then they’ll ask me their questions and find out whether their predicted answers are correct.
- I’m also thinking of the Find-Someone-Who activity (also called People Bingo), except that I’ll give the students a grid of 9 or 16 squares, depending on how long I want the activity to go, and have them fill out the information. I’ll ask them to write a statement in each one, such as, “Fui a la casa de mis abuelos.” Then they ask people questions from their grid, such as “Fuiste a la casa de tus abuelos?” and have people sign their names in the box. I have an extra rule when we play this. If the person says yes, they have to ask another question, such as “Donde viven tus abuelos?” I also give them a half-sheet of rejoinders such as “Qué interesante!” to incorporate into their exchange.
- What do the students do with the find-someone-who grid when finished? Do they play names bingo? Share what they found out with a partner? I need to figure that part out.
- Another idea might be to have a contest to find out who got the most unusual gift, traveled the farthest, worked the most at their job, had the most interesting vacation, etc. First in small groups, then each group reports to the class so we can determine the winners.
I’m not sure the activities I’ve brainstormed are what Lee and VanPatten have in mind, but it’s a start for me as I work to provide opportunities for students to “interpret, express, and negotiate meaning.” (Lee and VanPatten, p. 18)