12 November 2016

Vocabulary Blogs and Communication

Personal vocabulary blogs have allowed me some unique insights into students' approach to life so far. I especially enjoy what my little shutterbugs have shown me--even if it was only to avoid having to cite online images. Also seeing the kinds of words kiddos come up with when they're under the gun after a week (or weeks) of procrastination and how they express them is...revealing.

However, the vocabulary blogs have not been having the impact on students' expression that I had hoped for. Don't get me wrong: there have been some words that have worked their way into students' blog posts and IPAs, especially in my online Spanish III course. And sometimes when I slip a new word into conversation that someone has posted before--by chance or by design--I get exclamations of delight from those who recognize it. But still the ones who need it most don't seem to be getting much out of it.

I have a few ideas on why and what to do about it.

Purposeful Selection

I love living in the Information Age. I want to know something--anything--I click a link. One of the most important things we can do as educators is show students how to do that.

So it's well and good if students want to name a dozen marine mammals in Spanish or throw in "spooky" and "skeleton" at Halloween time. But Thomas Sauer's assertion that we have created generations of Novice Low language learners has stuck with me, so I pass it on to my students, and they do seem to get the problem with only having laundry lists at their disposal...even if they insist on just looking up the names of objects in their house or classroom at the last minute.

So I'm going to remove a little of the choice and add another step.

Now, this means I will have to lay some clear ground rules for acceptable purposes, and unfortunately "curiosity" just isn't going to cut it anymore. In fact, just using it on DuoLingo won't cut it anymore. They will have to have a communicative purpose in mind before they get to put the word on their blogs.

Of course I'm totally fine with an interpretive communicative goal--understanding Plim Plim or Gran Hotel or a random article on dinosaurs for their personal practice homework is 100% acceptable. Preparing for their upcoming marketing presentation is also a good choice. Telling our Sister Cities amigos about what's fun in our community is also a pretty purposeful communication goal.

Naming everything in your bedroom is not, mostly because no one wants to hear you do it.

So I offer the following "I can" starters to choose from for stating their purposes:

  • I can understand what's happening in [book, news article, show, music video, sports recaps]
  • I can learn more about ___ from [book, news article, show, music video, sports recaps]
  • I can discuss ___ with [name a real person you're actually going to talk to]
  • I can explain ___ for our assignment on ___.
And that's pretty much the only purposeful reasons I can see for wanting to acquire new vocabulary at the novice level. If they picked up the word from something we did in class, fine, but they have to explain what they can do  with it now that it is at their disposal. And whatever they learn from Duolingo, they learn from Duolingo, and that's separate--I still haven't found an occasion to use abacaxi.

Purposeful Reflection

I polled students on how many nouns, verbs, and adjectives they had in their first quarter of vocabulary posts. SO. MANY. NOUNS.

"And what is the ONE thing you need to make a sentence in Spanish?"

Sheepish grins as they muttered, "Verbs."

I thought it might also be fun to do a Polleverywhere survey to get a word cloud of the most popular words so they could reflect on what words a lot of them had picked (calabaza figured in a lot last month), and whether they had actually been able to use them.

One thing I've learned in 14 years is that pausing for reflection is an absolute necessity if any learning is going to stick. I mean, it's why I blog to begin with! So stopping to think about and share what is and is not working is definitely worth a little slice of our time.

The VoiceThreads for reflection haven't been working out as I had planned, though, even though there was class time to make them happen--it was just on a day that I wasn't there. I'm sure normal people understand this, but in case you're like me: NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW WHEN YOU'RE OUT. Just saying. It should be a continuation of routine if you want anything to happen--besides complaining.

I think the reflection VoiceThreads are worth salvaging, mostly if I remember this:

But there are a few specific tips I would recommend to make them more effective:

  1. Provide detailed revision. Google Docs worked a lot better than blog comments for this. Also requiring essential verbs made all of the sentences make a LOT more sense. In fact, I think I'll take the requirement to write their own personal example sentence out of the initial vocabulary collecting blog posts and save this for a step after at least 3 posts and before combining them into a VoiceThread.
  2. Make grouping terms a separate step. I was going to have students group their vocabulary and create their VoiceThreads all in one assignment. That is WAY too much brainpower for a single practice assignment. Like the reflection, if it's worth doing, it's worth taking the time in class.
  3. Close the feedback loop. Set aside time in class to fix the sentences. Set aside time to listen to the "corrected" audio comments and re-record (again--when you're there #endnotetoself). All of your suggestions are for naught if you don't show students that you value what you're asking of them enough to make time for them to respond, closing the feedback loop, as Karen Tharrington taught me.
  4. Encourage original artwork. I'm still okay with finding images for the weekly posts (especially now that we got a little clarification with this post on image citation...and pulled up a few posts where hotlinked images mysteriously disappeared). However, I think it's worth having something more memorable for the reflective coming-together piece, and something that requires some personal investment--whether it's photos they staged or quick doodles.

So, even though the vocabulary blogs are not yet doing everything I had intended, I think with a little extra reflection time and intentionality students should come out with words they can and want to use in situations where they actually want to use them.

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