Sunday, 10 June 2012

Online Audio Tools: A Useful Platform for Language Learners

Looking for an innovative way of encouraging your language learners to practice speaking without having to get them board a plane to interact with native speakers in another continent?

Why not try an online audio tool like Voxopop?

This is one of my favourite audio tools. It was developed solely by Dean Worth in 2009 and was originally called Chinswing.

Why use an audio tool?

Language learning is about communication and language students, in my opinion, primarily want to speak. Reading and writing, although essential literacy skills, seem to be placed lower down on many students ' must have skills'  list. I find that the majority of students want to test their speaking skills after a few lessons in everyday situations. This is where an audio tool is useful. It provides a platform where they can practice and improve speaking and listening skills.

 As a private English language teacher in Switzerland, educating in a virtual environment i.e. via Skype, I need to find ways of helping my students improve their skills beyond lesson time and also expose them to other English accents. Telling them to jet over to the UK, Malta or Australia for the day is not realistic; asking them to drop into the local Starbucks, which is usually occupied by native English speakers, is a viable suggestion but it means finding a willing partner to engage in conversation with. Not an easy task and a daunting situation for lower level learners and shy people. That's where Voxopop is just brilliant. It's purely audio, so no embarrassing video moments and students can initially browse and listen before recording their own voice. This of course brings up the point of  extensive and intensive listening skills. Both can be improved through structured activities. I've listed a couple below.

A few details about Voxopop

Voxopop is an web-based audio tool used by educators for the purpose of helping their students improve their speaking skills. It's mainly dominated by English speakers, but this certainly doesn't exclude learners of other languages from starting up their own groups. There is no downloading of software, so you can access it from any PC or Mac. This means flexibility: students can practice anytime and anywhere (providing their internet connection isn't dodgy). It doesn't matter if you're a Windows or Mac user, but in saying that, Voxopop uses Java technology so you'll have to check whether you have Java installed. Unfortunately, mobile devices need a flash player when using Voxopop, so although you can enter the site you won't be able to listen or record anything. I hope this is something that will be solved in the future.The help page is worth browsing through for all the technical details and it also provides information about how to keep track of ongoing conversations. This is a useful feature as it means you don't have to waste time checking on talkgroups: you'll receive notification.

How do you get started?

Go to Voxopop and explore the newest talkgroups or start a search for a topic that interests you and see if a conversation is on the go. Click on one and start recording. That's it. If you're a teacher and would rather start your own talkgroups, public or private, then you'll need to sign on. This procedure entails supplying a username, password, email address and defining which kind of user you are e.g. teacher, student or other. (I presume 'other' means 'human', but not necessarily a participant from a teaching / learning context. Very democratic then: an open resource.) Signing in takes a few minutes and then you've got your own space and can let your creativity run free. You have the possibility to keep groups private, which is important, as you may not want all of your activities to be open to the public and some language students may dread the thought of other people listening to them speak. Once a private group is set up you can invite members to participate. They will receive a link from you and will only need to click on it to arrive at the correct talkgroup, such as this image of one of mine:

What kind of activities can you create?

How you personally use this audio tool will depend on your learners' needs and the pedagogical purpose of the activity. Here are a few examples of what I've being doing with Voxopop to date:

- Open a general discussion, such as the above, to let students voice their opinions about a certain topic. This particular discussion point, helped me learn about their digital preferences and apprehensions about using such web-based tools and other applications. 

- For exams such as First Certificate, where students must be able to compare and contrast images, I send them two pictures via mail for homework and ask them to record their answers on Voxopop. This is usually a two minute recording which I analyze for coherence structures, use of vocabulary, grammar, comparative adjectives and fluency. They will either be instructed to speak spontaneously or to reflect first and then speak. It will depend on the purpose of the exercise.

- To improve intensive listening. I will read either a short article, a few lines of a poem or song and students will have to extract specific information. This can additionally be used as a dictation exercise.

- To improve extensive listening skills. Students can find a talkgroup that interests them; listen, participate if they wish; then give me a short overview about the experience and not specific content, as an audio recording. 

- Digital storytelling. Start with one sentence or a few keywords and let students create a story. Limit each recording e.g. thirty seconds or up to one minute. Alternatively, send them  an image and a soundtrack via mail and let them be creative. (I mail AudioNote recordings, with or without a text; upload the images separately and forward them both in the same mail.)

- Debates. Find out what topics your students would like to discuss, divide them into teams, limit speaking time and number of recordings and provide a finishing date. This kind of asynchronous debate enables analysis and reflection and promotes critical thinking. 

- Interviews. Students can interview each other or you. Letting them choose their own topic will make the activity more authentic and hopefully increase motivation.

- Reading aloud. Set a text to be read or let your students choose their own. Limit speaking time. This is good for pronunciation practice. I then analyze the recording and provide feedback in the next lesson.

These are only a few brief ideas. I'm sure you'll create others. Activities will vary with each student, the pedagogical purpose and whether you are working with pairs, groups or mixed level learners. Whether I am acting as a teacher or facilitator during the given task, I always listen to the recordings, provide feedback during lesson time and if necessary adjust lesson plans according to skills that I feel require more attention.

Such a simple tool but the uses are unlimited. There are other audio tools such as audioboo, but I find Voxopop suits my professional needs. Try it for yourself and with your students. It's a great way to encourage students to practice their speaking and listening skills outside the classroom; to take responsibility for their own learning and to build on their digital literacies. 

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