Ten things I learned from my ORAL PROFICIENCY TRAINING . . .

OPI Top Ten.png.jpg10. If I can understand the message, pronunciation isn't all that important.
9. Know the "floor" for my students. Know what they can do consistently well. Start conversing at their floor and move up.
8. Know their "ceiling" - where does their language breakdown? When they hit the ceiling, they're frustrated. Go back to their comfort zone -- then try again.
7. Start with personal topics - then work outward toward less familiar topics. Start with me - family/friends - community/school...
6. Alway seek out elaboration. "Tell me more."
5. Let pauses and lulls happen. They may need to process. If I talk less, they'll talk more. If I'm talking, they're not!
4. Listen carefully. How do students handle a lack of vocabulary or grammar. What strategies do they use to cope/problem solve?
3. Insist on circumlocution. If they don't know the word, don't supply it. Ask them to define or describe it.
2. Practice ASKING and answering questions. For the L2 learner coping in the real world, asking questions may be more useful than answering them. EX: ¿Dónde está el baño?
1. Communication can happen without grammar - but is stymied without vocabulary. TEACH VOCABULARY! Here are some crazy ideas....
  • NO ONE on the streets of Paris, Munich or Madrid will ask them to conjugate verbs
  • Adjectives add interest even when they don't agree with the noun they modify
  • Infinitives communicate
  • "I'm going to + infinitive" counts as the future
  • Using double object pronouns correctly is at the advanced proficiency level (NCATE asks that pre-service teachers test at "Advanced Low" to student teach.)
  • Knowing how to use past tense (preterit/imperfect) is also an Advanced proficiency skill. (Did you know "Intermediate High" is a 5 on the AP Exam - that means the student uses past tense but w/breakdown.) Are we expecting them to be able to do it as Novice High / Intermediate Low second-year students??
  • Perfect grammar might be impressive, but it may also just be a well-memorized phrase. ¡Hola! Me llamo Linda. Soy de Frankfort. ¿y tú? ¿De dónde eres?
  • Don't do vocabulary lists, matching, games or activities with isolated words - vocabulary should always be in a relevant, meaningful context. The doctor will never ask you to name your body parts. He'll ask "What hurts?" The hotel receptionist will never ask you to name the furniture in your room, but you may need to ask for an extra towel or say that the toilet doesn't flush.

To sum it up . . . I realized that, like toddlers, my students need to "marinate" in the language long enough to acquire it. If, in their first and second years, they're expected to do perfectly, what, developmentally, they're not prepared to do, they do what you and I would do; Quit. I needed to redefine success in foreign language learning - it wasn't about what "grammar" they could do, but what "tasks they could complete" and "how well, how thoroughly" they could do them. This perspective is freeing for me, and empowering for students!