Strategies for Improving Oral Fluency in ELLs
by Laura Rock and Naomi Barbour Asociacion Escuelas Lincoln, Buenos Aires
English Language Learners in high school are often shy about sharing their ideas in class and/or giving presentations because of their oral fluency skills. While class participation is not the only channel for demonstrating knowledge, in the high school setting it is imperative that ELL students gain confidence to express their ideas so they can fully engage in class activities such as Socratic Seminars, debates and presentations. Engaging through oral discourse not only gives teachers feedback on understanding, but can at times significantly improve a student’s grade. Extensive research in the field clearly shows that as oral fluency improves, reading comprehension improves. For reading comprehension to occur, it is not only necessary for students to understand the words, but it is also vital for them to possess the skills needed to read with proper tone and volume, emphasize particular phrases, and pause in the correct places. Because it is our desire for students to grasp these vital skills, the Fundamentals of English 9 class at Lincoln School in Buenos Aires, together with the ELL Support class, has employed varying classroom techniques over the year to assist students with improving oral fluency skills in non-threatening and diverse ways. We will detail a few specific and purposeful methods used that have helped students to not only meet this goal, but have also boosted their confidence in oral discourse in English.
Prior to beginning the unit on To Kill A Mockingbird in their Fundamentals of English class, students worked on a presentation about a topic of their choice. They learned stage presence and the effective use of visuals. Students gave their presentations in their ELL Support class and their grade was not based on content, per se, but rather on their presentation skills. Detailed feedback was given to each student. Once we began work on To Kill A Mockingbird, students were well-positioned to give a more formal presentation to parents, teachers and fellow students finding connections between the novel and a current human rights violation. Time was made in their ELL Support class for students to practice their presentations, receiving useful feedback from both the teacher and classmates. For the language aspect of the assignment, students practiced the use of connector words and were guided on the use of vivid adjectives.
Following on from this presentation, we wanted to find further ways for students to develop their oral fluency that were different from the standard presentation format. During a unit on Lord of the Flies, students were asked to record a video diary as one of the main characters. When they started reading the novel, they were each assigned an ‘alter ego’ and made detailed notes on the development of that character throughout their reading. We put a poster up in the classroom showing everyone’s alter egos with illustrations of the characters. Once we had read over half of the novel, they recorded their video diaries. The assignment was specifically designed for the students to spend plenty of time engaged in oral activities without the added stress of having to speak in front of others. Without this pressure that can raise their affective filters, they were able to relax and really inhabit their alter ego.
For the language aspect of the assignment, students had done preparatory work in their ELL Support class on indirect questions, vocabulary of emotions and related idiomatic expressions. They were asked to include all these elements in their video. Even though students were only required to include two indirect questions, they often included more and they were all correctly formatted. The provision of a context in which to practice the format proved very useful. Again, they used plenty of synonyms for their standard vocabulary of emotions (happy, sad, worried, etc.), for example, joyful, bewildered, whilst incorporating new idiomatic expressions, for example, down in the dumps and on cloud nine.
In preparation for a unit on Romeo and Juliet, students were asked to create the slides for a presentation providing background information on Shakespeare, the time period and the Globe Theatre. The final part of the assignment was to make a screencast, recording a voiceover to their slides. Students were directly instructed on how to make a screencast through a screencasted presentation and were guided step by step through the project. Students worked with the Media Center on research skills and were given sources that were suitable for their level of English. Extensive time was allowed in ELL Support class for the design and script of their project. The purpose of this project was to give students yet another opportunity to practice oral discourse away from a live audience. This allowed for direct instruction and practice on the part of students with their teacher on pronunciation of words, correct discourse and making interesting commentary. It also allowed them to use technology to hone their skills in this area as video and voice recording is a growing part of assignments given.
This is just a window onto some of the varying techniques we have used throughout the year in collaboration between Fundamentals of English 9 and ELL Support classes. For us as teachers it has been a positive experience to collaborate on activities that have been purposely designed and scaffolded to provide students with opportunities to improve academic oral fluency and discourse. This collaboration was highly beneficial in two ways: the activities provided have been more educationally stimulating and enriching for our students; and the experience for us as their teachers has been much richer, leading us in directions that we perhaps would not have gone in had we been working alone.