I was very careful to introduce the idea of using Voki to my pupils so that they would be immediately engaged and enthused by the prospect of using it. I therefore decided to plan for serendipity and cheat slightly by making them think it was their idea to use Voki all along: I purposefully showed them a Voki during a lesson which had been recorded by my three year old son speaking in Spanish. I then waited until one of my pupils suggested that they could use Voki in their Spanish lesson, what a brilliant idea!
From this moment on, I deliberately tried to become a facilitator or a collaborator: a senior partner who would mentor them through the process of acquainting themselves with the new application and with the creation of their own Spanish-speaking avatar. After a quick demonstration in which I explained how to register on the website and how to obtain the necessary code to embed their finished Voki in our subject blog, we decided that it was really easy and that we should use Voki to practise the latest topic that we had been revising: My Town (Home and Local Environment).
I had, however, a main concern regarding using this method to achieve my purpose, which is encapsulated in this question: what evidence is there that using ICT would be a more effective way to achieve my aims and objectives than standard teaching practice?
Given that my objective was to increase my pupils’ confidence in speaking Spanish, in answer to the above question I surmise the following: since it is generally agreed that ICT both motivates and enthuses learners and it has been firmly established that pupils’ motivation bears tremendous influence in the process of language learning and acquisition, it follows, in my opinion, that motivation and encouragement should, per se, be an objective to be sought as a language teacher.
Introducing the use Web 2.0 tools in the form of blogs and Voki into my schemes of work is therefore justified on the grounds that it will engage my pupils to a greater extent than traditional teaching methods and it will bestow in them a wish to participate.
I set out to plan a series of three lessons, lasting forty minutes each, in which my pupils would acquire and revise the necessary vocabulary, visit the ICT centre and, finally review the outcome in class as a group. In the early planning for this series of lessons, I decided that pupils would make corrections and learn how to use Voki’s website under my supervision at school, but the bulk of their work, both written and spoken, would take place as homework, in order to capitalise on the fact that all my pupils, without exception, had a computer and internet access at home.
Lesson 1 focused on revising the appropriate vocabulary and grammatical structures using an interactive whiteboard and introducing Voki to my pupils by:
- playing memory games with the aim to consolidate key vocabulary (I used Linguascope, a fee-based subscription website);
- using Notebook (SmartBoard’s proprietary software), I placed the recently revised nouns on the interactive whiteboard together with some key verbs and conjunctions to be rearranged by pupils with the aim of forming increasingly complex sentences; and
- introducing Voki to my pupils as described above.
At the end of the lesson, I set a homework task of writing between 80 and 100 words in which they had to describe their city, town, or village so as to base their Voki speaking task upon it. They were made aware at this stage that they were to aim to increase the range and complexity of their Spanish and that the speaking task was going to be the following week’s homework.
Since my pupils have only started studying Spanish this year and have low confidence regarding their ability to write in suitably complex Spanish, I decided to take in the homework and highlight corrections before moving on to the recording stage for two reasons mainly: a) to increase my pupils’ confidence in their own work and b) to ensure that the language that is committed to recording is the best language each pupil can produce according to their ability. This would also ensure that they acquired language and grammatical structures that are as accurate as possible.
At this stage, their work was closely controlled in order to ensure that the aim of producing as rich and complex a target language as possible for each individual pupil was adhered to.
After I had reviewed their homework task and returned their books with highlighted errors and some corrections, I took my pupils to the ICT centre for lesson 2. The lesson was divided into two main parts:
- pupils were instructed to make corrections to their homework using a word processor. They were encouraged to work together, in groups of three or four, so that they could contrast among them what each other had written, while I advised and made constructive suggestions to individuals regarding the quality of their work. This took around 25 minutes.
- I then asked my pupils to open their web browser, navigate to the Voki website and register as users. I encouraged them to play around and familiarise themselves with the application for the remainder of the lesson (approximately 15 minutes). This ensured that pupils acquired the appropriate ICT skills to achieve the goal of producing a Spanish speaking avatar. They also enjoyed changing the characters’ appearance, often with a wacky and colourful outcome, and recording test utterances in the target language and hearing themselves through the avatar on the screen.
The main objectives for this lesson were therefore to produce a piece of writing on which to base their speaking task and to familiarise pupils with Voki. By setting the objective of writing in Spanish, I ensured that it was clear in pupils’ minds that there was a tangible outcome to this task and that the ensuing speaking task was also real work and not just a game.
By allowing pupils to interact and share the feedback from the written task, highlighted errors, corrections and suggestions, I gave rise to a situation in which the pupils were learning from each other. This further enabled me to act as a facilitator who could almost literally hover from group to group, offering advice and guidance, as opposed to instruction.
Already at this early stage I noticed how pupils were beginning to lose some inhibitions and, even those who were normally quieter and more reticent to participate during ordinary lessons, focused on recording themselves speaking in the target language just for fun. Some pupils later remarked that this had been the first time that they had spoken Spanish for their own amusement and without the pressure put on them by the environment in a standard classroom, where both teacher and, from their adolescent point of view, peers are listening carefully.
Finally I set my pupils the task of producing a Spanish speaking Voki for homework on the topic of My Town following these instructions:
- Create or add the final touches to your Voki.
- Speak clearly, in Spanish, into the microphone.
- Make a concerted effort to pronounce each word with your best Spanish accent.
- Remember to include a variety of vocabulary and sentence structures, including conjunctions.
Pupils were expected to complete the task outside lesson time, either at home or in the ICT centre and they were also instructed to send their finished work to me via email or via my subject forum before our next lesson the following week. In order to do this, pupils had to copy the appropriate string of code from their finished Voki and paste it into an email or a forum thread.
Once I received all the finished Vokis electronically, I was able to embed them into our subject blog, creating individual post entries for each boy’s Voki. I was then ready and to teach my third and final lesson in this sequence and I was very much looking forward to doing so: the use of blogs and Voki in this sequence of lessons had succeeded in motivating me as well as my pupils.
The boys arrived to the lesson eager to see their Voki in place in the blog, as I had promised. They were obviously excited and asked me questions such as did you see my Voki? or did you like my Voki, Sir?
I explained to my pupils that the objective of the lesson was to watch as many Vokis as possible in the given time, with the aid of the interactive whiteboard, and to evaluate each other’s work by means of taking notes and then share their findings with the other boys in English. This was the set of criteria that I asked my pupils to consider:
- Was the pronunciation accurate as far as they could tell?
- Did the Voki include a wide range of vocabulary, as studied in lesson 1?
- Was the Voki sufficiently complex? i.e. did it include conjunctions?
I had selected two Vokis to watch first, as examples: one which I deemed excellent and another one which was a little short and not so good. I kept the reason for my choice from the boys so as not to cause hurt or embarrassment to the pupils concerned.
After teacher-guided feedback for the first two Vokis, highlighting and agreeing on what had been good and not so good about them, we continued by listening to the other Vokis for the remainder of the lesson (around 25 minutes) but, this time, I only intervened occasionally, mainly as as moderator and when there was confusion as to how a word was pronounced or, in a couple of occasions, if a boy’s Voki was criticised too harshly by a fellow pupil. This was not due to malice, but rather to a lack of the necessary pedagogical skills to feed back constructively, which I found understandable given their young age and lack of experience in this type of exercise.
The lesson adopted an informal tone with frequent pupil intervention: pupils were able to give each other constructive feedback, making the sort of contributions a teacher normally makes, such as your accent was very good, you should have said “x” instead of “y” or you should have included more conjunctions. Each pupil, in effect, was allowed to take charge of the lesson: they became the teacher for a moment.
It is very important to engage pupils in activities like this, which allow them to learn from each other and from their experience in an enjoyable manner. I would add that, as all teachers know, the best way to learn something is to teach it.
As I expected, both teacher and pupils enjoyed the lesson thoroughly and five minutes before the bell rang the end of the lesson I set my pupils the final homework task: to add feedback comments on the blog (see examples below) from the notes they had taken in the lesson. These were the instructions I gave them:
- I would like you to add comments to, at least, two Vokis; and
- the comments should follow the formula two stars and a wish: two positive comments plus an area of improvement.
By the end of this sequence of three lessons (and related homework tasks) each pupil in the class had successfully created a virtual Spanish speaking avatar using Voki which, more or less successfully, adhered the criteria I had outlined at the beginning of the sequence.
They had also engaged in open epistemological discussions regarding the quality of the Spanish language they had used in their Vokis and had learnt from each other and from the result of our conversations, both in the classroom and online via the subject blog, about the use of more complex sentence structures in the target language and the importance of demonstrating knowledge of a wider range of vocabulary and structures.
In all, pupils’ motivation and disposition to speak in Spanish with greater confidence in their ability had improved by the end of this sequence of lessons.
I would very much welcome your opinion: what do you think? Is there anything that you would have done differently? Is this something that would work for you and your pupils?