Janae Campbell and Faculty Mentor: Stephen J. Moody, Department of Asian and Near Eastern Studies
Learning a second language is difficult. While learning, writing and speaking are treated as though they are two totally separate things. It is evident that people do not speak the same way they write, but that does not mean that speaking and writing should be divided. What if it was possible to create written assignments that would help increase the oral fluency of the learner? This would make home-work assignments more efficient by optimizing how students use their time studying at home. It would take away the pressure of having to learn all verbal communications within the confines of the class. The student would be able to practice, cement, learn, and preform natural oral communication while at home as well as in the classroom. That is what was attempted in this project.
This project was based on a set of students in Japan who were at an English immersion school. Following a standard experimental design, a teaching intervention was added that was given to an experimental group and then compared to a control group. Written assignments were created to see if they would be able to help the experimental group increase their oral proficiency. To determine the proficiency of a second language learner, there is a test called the ACTFL OPI test. It is a scale that puts the person tested into one of three categories: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. The qualifications are as follows: beginner – answering with words, intermediate – answering with sentences, advanced – answering with interconnected sentences. At the beginning of the semester, all students spoke to Professor Moody over skype and were recorded in a pre-test interview in the style of an OPI. The interview focused on questions that were similar to the topics on the homework assignments created. The goal was to get them to talk as much about those topics as they could, to see how complex their speech was. After four weeks of receiving the written assignments, the students were again given a post-test interview and recorded by the same professor.
To determine whether there were any changes, recordings were listened to of each student’s pre- and post- test, and the data were coded according to the type of oral speech the students produced. Each of their responses in the interviews was categorized as words, formulas, sentences, or paragraphs. A word response is “Yes,” “No,” etc. A formula is something unoriginal that is given to respond in certain situations such as “Nice to meet you,” “I’m good,” or “My name is…” Sentences are more original thoughts, such as, “We have one cat and she is cute.” A paragraph would be a string of ideas together such as telling a story about what happened to that cat. Once each of the responses were recorded, statistics were used to see if there were any significant changes in the experimental group as opposed to the control group.
We then calculated the average number of responses in each of the four categories on the pre- and post-tests for both the experiment and control groups. Then, we used what is called a “repeated measures t-test” to look for statistically significant differences on the pre- and post-test for each group, and a “standard t-test” to look for statistically significant differences between the groups.
What was seen in the data was truly interesting. The only significant difference happened in the use of sentences between the groups. Both groups decreased in use of words and formulas as answers to questions, and both groups increased in use of paragraph level responses. It is believed that the general teaching of the school itself influenced these changes. The one difference was that the control group majorly decreased in the use of sentences as answers, and the experimental group didn’t decrease. There was not a significant increase in the use of sentences within the experimental group, but they did not decrease either. This was an interesting development because the assignments that were given were based on moving from word level to sentence level, and if possible, to paragraph level speech. When speaking on a regular basis, however, it is more natural to respond in a sentence than in a paragraph. It is possible to conclude, then, that the assignments given, were able to help the speaker respond in a more natural way, based on sentences as well as paragraphs.
There were several inconsistencies during the process such as the length of time of each interview, the questions asked, and who performed the interviews. At the end, Professor Moody asked his colleague to help, and while his friend merely asked the questions on the paper, Professor Moody tried to illicit more thoughtful and longer responses from the students. As a result, this affected their responses leaning them towards either sentences or paragraphs. It was also interesting to note the students themselves. After getting to know them, it was fascinating to see that some of the most shy and unsocial students were the ones who responded the most freely while being tested. This shows that social interaction is another very important factor to take note of when teaching a language. Due to social pressures, the true ability of a student may not be apparent because they do not respond in the same way they would in a one on one situation. I was also not aware of the level of the students before meeting them. If I could do the experiment again, I would have created the assignments after knowing their abilities.
All in all, it is hard to measure changes linguistically. There are so many variables that are hard to account for. What is a sentence? What counts as a formula? Is this the actual level of the student, or are there social factors blocking their responsiveness? Questions like these are hard to answer, and even harder to quantify, but they are important none-the-less. Learning a second language is difficult, and it is even harder to cram that learning into a one hour period every other day. I believe it is possible to open the world of communication through carefully crafted written assignments. Individual practice and written reinforcement can help students to communicate naturally and effectively with those around them. Let’s unite the world one sentence at a time.