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Online Chat with Purpose

Chita Espino-Bravo offers advice on teaching and assessing conversation in a Spanish virtual course

Teaching any virtual conversation class is full of challenges, especially in assessing the conversations and debate sections students prepare virtually.
In spring 2018, I created a virtual course on Blackboard called Spanish Conversational Skills for intermediate/advanced students of Spanish. This course had been taught on campus, but our Spanish program was going online, so I was asked to create the virtual version. The campus course develops the students’ oral and listening skills in Spanish at the low-advanced level, in order to produce more spontaneous and natural conversations in the target language, using sugested topics presented in the textbook. Each chapter covers a main topic with some related vocabulary, topics for discussion with a short reading in Spanish, video tasks to target both content and discourse features in order to develop listening and oral skills, some grammatical points to review and use in conversations, some Spanish phonetic sounds to practice, and a final reading to provide important cultural perspectives and stimulate discussion and argumentation.

The goals of this course were:

  • Learn and use new vocabulary in Spanish and acquire precision when using this vocabulary
  • Acquire, use, and practice specific vocabulary related to the topic being studied in the lesson
  • Dominate complex grammatical Spanish structures
  • Debate about topics presented in each lesson
  • Produce short oral presentations (three to five minutes) in Spanish related to the topic of the lesson at the low-advanced level (in groups of three) to practice Spanish oral skills
  • Increase auditory comprehension and improve Spanish pronunciation through some phonetics and practice of specific Spanish sounds

Produce a longer oral presentation (ten to 15 minutes) in Spanish related to a topic of the Hispanic world at the low-advanced level (in groups of three) to practice Spanish oral skills

I wanted to give virtual students the same opportunities campus students had with this course and also wanted them to make presentations in groups, so we set a maximum of 15 students per class, to better accommodate their needs and dedicate more time to the grading of their presentations. We chose the same coursebook used on campus: Mir, Montserrat and Ángela Bailey de las Heras. ¡Qué me dices! A Task-Based Approach to Spanish Conversation. NJ: Prentice Hall (Pearson), 2015. Students can rent this book or buy a virtual access kit with e-book. I did not use the activities in the online kit but created my own grammar and vocabulary activities on Blackboard for review and tested students on grammar points, vocabulary, and readings.

The book has interesting topics in each chapter for students at the intermediate/advanced level of Spanish, like study abroad, Hispanic folklore, world news, and famous Hispanics.

The learning outcomes for this course were:

  • Be able to use new vocabulary in Spanish and have precision when using this vocabulary
  • Use specific vocabulary related to the topic being studied in the lesson
  • Dominate complex grammatical Spanish structures
  • Debate about topics presented in each lesson
  • Produce short oral presentations in Spanish related to any topic at the low-advanced level to practice Spanish oral skills
  • Increase auditory comprehension and improve Spanish pronunciation through some phonetics and practice of specific Spanish sounds
  • Be able to produce longer oral presentations in Spanish related to a topic of the Hispanic world at the low-advanced level

For the virtual presentations and debates, students had to create recordings of themselves speaking in Spanish and upload it on VoiceThread, a learning tool for enhancing student engagement and online presence. With VoiceThread, instructors and/or students can create, share, and comment on images, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, videos, audio files, documents, and PDFs, using microphone, webcam, text, phone, and audio-file upload. Students can see each other give their recorded presentations, and they can also see the instructor of the course give instructions or feedback on the presentations and debates. I used VoiceThread to create the instructions in Spanish for the presentations and to allow the students to see me, so they actually know who I am and hear me speak in the target language. Students can access it through the Blackboard platform, and it gives virtual students a feeling of being connected to the class they are taking, so they have a sense of belonging to the conversation group.

The grade breakdown was the following:

  • Participation: 50 points (ten points per short chapter presentation)
  • Attendance: 50 points (participating, being connected, working on homework, finishing exams and homework on time)
  • Five homework assignments on Blackboard: 300 points (60 points each)
  • Exams: 130 points
  • Five short presentations in groups (Chapters 1–5): 300 points (60 points each)
  • One final presentation (ten to 15 minutes per person, Chapter 6): 250 points

Students had to work on five short presentations on specific topics related to the book chapters and upload them on VoiceThread. They also had to work on a final presentation, which was longer and about a controversial topic related to the Hispanic world. Even though they worked in groups of two or three, each student had to present for three to five minutes during the short presentations and ten to 15 minutes for the final longer presentation. All students had to participate with a critical comment on one group presentation of their choice, posting an oral comment about the content on that VoiceThread for participation points. This was done right after presentations were due. There were five short presentations in this course, which meant all students made five short critical comments on one presentation of their choice per chapter to receive participation points. Students could not use their own presentation for participation points, nor their group presentations. Each student had to mention between two and four new words they had learned for that oral; they had to define the words in Spanish before they started their presentation, and they had to use those words while they presented. They had to watch other group presentations and other students’ recordings. The critical comments were also uploaded on VoiceThread and made public to the class, so all students could listen to them. The professor of the course would check those critical comments and give detailed pronunciation and grammar feedback for each presentation and critical comment on Blackboard.

Debates or critical comments on one presentation were designed to allow virtual students to comment on a specific presentation they enjoyed and give certain critical feedback on the content of that presentation. To avoid students getting distracted by too many topic options, I created two topics to choose from for each chapter, which were related to the main topic of the chapter. Each group had to choose one topic from the two possible options and work on it, creating a PowerPoint and recording together or just a recording of them speaking about the selected topic. The group would collect each short presentation and upload them all together in one VoiceThread. When recording the presentation, students were not allowed to read it—that is, they had to present it and memorize the presentation. This exercise would allow students to use more natural language when presenting their topic and become familiar with creating more natural structures in Spanish. By not reading the presentation, students start out memorizing what they will say but end up using more natural language by the end of the semester.

The only different aspect from the campus class was that virtual students could listen to other students’ presentations as many times as they needed. The campus presentations were live and happened only once, in class.

To help students understand what was assessed in their presentations, I provided two rubrics for students to use as guides. One rubric was for the short presentations (fewer points) and the other was for the final presentation (more points). Both rubrics (uploaded to Blackboard) assessed different parts of the presentation with points that went from an A to an F. The different parts of the presentation being assessed were organization, fluency, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. For the campus class, I would give each student the rubric/assessment sheet with the points they received and with the section circled and some comments on what they needed to improve. For my virtual course, I would give more detailed feedback, including pronunciation feedback by writing what needed to be corrected. This feedback could also be recorded on camera and be on video. Each instructor could choose how to give the presentation feedback/assessment to the students on Blackboard.

Cultural knowledge was also assessed—students compared what they learned about the Hispanic world, through controversial topics, to their own culture. By doing this, they learned how to convey critical comments about the world, Hispanic culture, and their own culture. Researching for the correct and relevant information and finding relevant texts and websites was very important to make the presentation interesting and current.

Students were asked to present standing in front of the class in a formal setting to enable them to effectively combine skills in the target language and apply them in professional settings within the target lingo-cultural realm—formal presentations. Students learned strategies and tips to present orally in the target language, standing in front of an audience, engaging the audience in the presentation, enunciating correctly in the target language, and projecting voice to communicate the prepared oral presentation. Students also learned to focus on the important points of a chosen topic, the relevant material, and the relevant facts and information. With the help of visual aids, students engaged the audience and kept their attention.

Most students improved their oral skills from a C to a B or from a B to an A grade. They were able to improve their pronunciation of Spanish and the use of certain complex Spanish structures, as well as their skills speaking in front of an audience about a specific topic related to the Hispanic world. They learned to use more formal Spanish when presenting and avoided reading their notes. Student were also able to give critical comments about a controversial or specific topic related to the Hispanic world and about the content of their classmates’ presentations.

Chita Espino-Bravo, PhD ([email protected]), is assistant professor of Spanish at Fort Hays State University, Kansas. Her areas of expertise and research include 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century Peninsular literature, women’s studies, feminism, cultural studies, film studies, and creative writing.

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