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Oct 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Mobile Phone-ology: Exploring Two Different Apps which Provide Extra Speaking Practice

Nicola Turman has been working in ELT for well over 20 years, mostly as a teacher.  Her career includes a couple of years with Pearson as an ELT consultant, where her interest in digital resources was sparked.  She has taught in the UK and Turkey, but the majority of her time has been spent in Sydney, Australia.  Nicola currently teaches Academic English preparation courses at UTS: Insearch  for students on a pathway to further studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

 

Introduction

A challenge for teachers of largely mono-cultural classes can be limited student motivation for oral interaction in English, with correspondingly slow improvement in speaking skills.

I am probably not alone in missing the language laboratory of the past, which provided students with an opportunity to focus on their spoken English and practise in their own space at their own pace. With the demise of this ‘old’ technology, I have been motivated to explore whether ‘new’ technology, in the form of mobile phone apps, could fulfil the same purpose.

I would like to share with you my experiences of two different speaking apps, which I have evaluated in different settings. 

 

English Central

The first app is English Central; students are required to pay for full access to this.  I evaluated this app in an Action Research project summarised below.

My research questions were:

  • Is there an app which provides suitable speaking practice with useful feedback for students?
  • How motivated will students be to use this app?
  • Will frequent use lead to any noticeable improvement in spoken skills such as pronunciation?

My research was conducted in two cycles.  The initial cycle was spent researching and testing various apps in order to choose the one most suitable to explore further, with feedback from three teachers and one student. English Central was identified, and I was fortunate to be offered a free trial of the app for 10 weeks on 20 students at CEFR A2 progressing to B1. 

The English Central app contains a huge bank of authentic videos with written transcripts. Students listen and repeat line by line, and it is possible to slow the speech down. Sophisticated voice recognition technology provides them with feedback in the form of a rating.  If the rating is poor, they can listen to themselves, compare, and try again.  Another advantage of this app is that teachers can set up an LMS (learner management system) which monitors the participation and performance of their students.

My second cycle involved creating an English Central class LMS, setting up the students with the app to join this, encouraging regular practice outside class, and monitoring student participation and performance. Students were allowed free rein to choose any videos, at any level that interested them, based on the premise that this could be more motivating.  However, halfway through the cycle the approach was changed as I was disappointed with student participation, so I selected and added to the LMS about six course related videos per week to see if there was any improvement.

The data collection consisted of pre and post study surveys and pre and post study recordings of the students performing a short speaking task.  My rating of this task attempted to measure pronunciation at the individual word level, word and sentence stress, fluency, intonation, and grammatical accuracy.  In addition, the data from the LMS provided quantitative measurements of participation and performance. 

Student use of the app was a little disappointing.  Nevertheless, the students who used the app reported that they liked it, found it easy to use and believed it was helpful, although it should be noted that students self-reported more use of the app than was measured by the LMS.  Students also appreciated the course-related content selected by the teacher, and there was increased use following this intervention.

In terms of performance, there seemed to be an improvement among the more enthusiastic users. Three students improved their scores on the LMS. In addition, for the separate speaking task, nine students improved, most notably in fluency and intonation rather than pronunciation.  However, one of these students was a non-user of the app.

 

Flipgrid

The second app I have trialled is Flipgrid. Since a recent takeover by Microsoft, this app is now completely free. Although I have not conducted Action Research on Flipgrid, I have successfully used the app with classes at several different levels.  I recently shared my experiences with my colleagues at a professional development day. The response was very enthusiastic, and many of them are now also regular users.

Flipgrid is a video discussion platform which allows a class 'grid' to be set up where students can share short videos of themselves speaking on a given topic. Topics are chosen by teachers and so can be tailored to the course.  As the name implies, it is can be a great way to ‘flip the classroom’ and encourage students to research, consider and discuss topics in advance of the lesson.

Extra speaking practice can be provided at any level, and the app has a function for teachers to give individual, private feedback to students.  In addition, students can send recorded responses to each other and begin ‘conversations’ using the app.

A big plus is that students are given a chance show their true personalities and they can share videos about personal aspects of their lives outside the classroom.  For students, this helps the class to get to know each other better and bond.  Moreover, it is very beneficial for me as a teacher.  I love discovering, perhaps from shy students, a hidden sense of humour, a sharp intelligence or an interesting or tough backstory.  I teach Academic English and too often time or syllabus constraints do not allow for this humanising aspect despite the obvious positive impact on teaching approaches.

 

Conclusion

Mobile phones have become the bane of many teachers lives due to their tendency to distract students from their learning.  Therefore, it is very gratifying to put them to good use.  It seems that many of the current generation of students are more comfortable expressing themselves through a digital medium, and this includes speaking.  Both English Central and Flipgrid do provide students with extra speaking practice outside the classroom.  However, the role of the teacher to motivate and encourage their use is key. Production using English Central is very controlled since it involves repetition, and the feedback is generated by the voice recognition technology.  On the other hand, production is more spontaneous with Flipgrid, but the teacher is required to invest more time in giving feedback. I found both of these apps easy to use and set up, and their interfaces attractive and appealing.  Moreover, the addition of a new, modern, medium added energy and an element of fun to my classes. Finally, English Central has charges for students whereas Flipgrid comes free.

 

Please check the English Language course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the 21st Century thinking Skills course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Practical uses of Technology in the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Practical uses of Mobile Technology in the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged Major Articles 
  • Mobile Phone-ology: Exploring Two Different Apps which Provide Extra Speaking Practice
    Nicola Turman, Australia