New Age Language Labs and Time Management Concerns in ESL Teaching
Today language labs are often criticized and even called the "dinosaurs of teaching". Language labs are considered old-fashioned, archaic and even ineffective. The same critics say students will be bored sitting at their stations working alone. They claim class enthusiasm will diminish, if students are forced to do exercises on their own in language labs. Finally, some teachers say we must call them "resource centers" and make them available for all classes, not just language classes.
A way to implement effective time management
These arguments make me smile—because my entire 35-year career has proved the exact opposite. Language labs not only provide individual training in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension and spontaneous speech but can also shape a new form of "effective time management" for foreign language classes, where students can even benefit from one-to-on sessions with the teacher. So for me a language lab is a dream come true for the teacher.
Converting our students into into active speakers
All right, I agree—the term "language lab" may not be a very appealing. So why not change it to SPARC—pronounced "spark"? A SPARC is a "Speech Practice and Acquisition Resource Center" . It differs from a "Language Resource Center" simply because the technology in certain cases may be simpler and thus more user-friendly for the teacher. As I will explain later it is much less costly than the current multi-media labs and far better adapted to language learning. My claim is that a SPARC may add just the sort of dimension that will convert passive learners into active speakers, confident of their capabilities in foreign tongues.
Calculating Student Speaking Time
In most of my lectures and workshops with teachers I have insisted on the limited Student Speaking Time we are giving our students. We may have great resources at our disposal and equipment such as video projectors and electronic whiteboards; but if we tally the actual time the average student spends “speaking”, i.e., producing sounds or even listening very intensively with an active task at hand, we will reach a figure of approximately one minute per hour—or even less if the class has more than fifteen students. This is because the class is “teacher-centered” with the latter showing slides and films or manipulating the whiteboard. The teacher normally proceeds by asking questions and the students answer one after another when called upon by the teacher. Now you can retort that the teacher can invite students to come up in front of the class and manipulate the video projector or the whiteboard themselves, but then again only very few students will be “active” speakers. What you need is a way to get all the students speaking or listening very intensively for 75% of all class time.
Changing the dynamics of teaching
A SPARC can change the dynamics of the classroom. Imagine a class where all the students have voice amplifying headsets and are manipulating a sound-producing device they can stop, rewind or go fast forward with. Every student will then be actively listening and speaking according to the instructions given in the program. Every student will be able to work at his own pace and go over a particular section of the program until he understands it perfectly. Moreover, students will be independent. They will not need to be supervised. They won’t need a teacher to ask questions, rectify incorrect answers or make comments. Of course, the language program has to be interesting, self-explanatory and challenging enough to make all the students work conscientiously until the end of the SPARC session. But such a program is not difficult to set up with all the resources available to today’s teachers.
The advantages of a SPARC
Now let’s look at all the advantages of working in a lab as opposed to sitting in a traditional class. If a SPARC program is used to introduce or prepare for work in a regular classroom, students can do a listening comprehension exercise to prepare for the discussion of an audio recording or listen to the soundtrack of a video intended for a speaking task after viewing the video. Moreover, they can work on grammar by listening to patterns and then using these same patterns themselves following oral stimuli. This is a way to learn grammar through self-discovery—a very effective method. Students can work on vocabulary, both in oral exercises or with a worksheet in a booklet. Pronunciation exercises on stress are particular useful. And I can assure you that even the student with the worst possible foreign accent can get rid of it simply by repeating after native voices—provided of course they can do so in private, i.e., through their headsets. Songs can easily be used with a SPARC setup. Students are often reluctant to sing in class in front of classmates. But in a lab or SPARC and they will all be singing and will often ask you at the end of the session if they can’t all sing together through the loudspeakers in the room.
The biggest advantage of all—tutorials
Now I come to the biggest advantage of a lab or SPARC: Students become autonomous! If students know what to do, they can work on their own for up to sixty minutes with a program designed to last an hour. The teacher is thus free to do something really worthwhile with the students. I mean the teacher can work in one-to-one sessions giving individual attention to each student. Imagine you have fifteen students. You can do tutorials during the lab hour with one or two students at a time. Your relationship with these students will change completely. They will open up to you. The “shy” ones will tell you about their passions. The “weak” ones will make extreme efforts that will pay off, because they will be relaxed with you whereas they are often embarrassed in front of their peers. The “very best” will excel for all of fifteen minutes and be happy they have been able to shine. Those who needed to be corrected will get personalized advice. Those who speak well will have an opportunity to carry on a really conversation. The “pre-intermediates” who have never ever strung together three or four sentences to explain something, will find they able to do so.
And you the teacher will have “authentic” conversations with your students. You will be pleasantly surprised by their inventiveness. You will learn new things through your students instead of simply hearing responses to questions whose answers you know by heart. Students will be speaking well, because they will have practiced—rehearsed—at length before “their performances”. The top British universities have been using tutorials for centuries. It is time to make this one-on-one opportunity a reality for all students.
What to do with thirty students
You may say, “I have twenty or thirty students. I can’t do this!” I will reply that you can have tutorials with teams of two. Thus you can listen to three teams of two each hour. Over five weeks thirty students will all have had a tutorial. And with two students at a time you can ask them to alternate speaking and ask each other questions to make the presentation even livelier. Or they can debate an issue or interview each other as though they were on television. Our students often wrote little “plays” and would perform with props or even disguises. And the most wonderful thing was seeing how students would change their attitude after a tutorial. They would suddenly dare to speak up in class. They would blossom!
A SPARC system at a reasonable price
So the only problem is to see how you can set up a SPARC system at a fairly reasonable price. If your school already has a computer center you can use it with either multi-media exercises or even with just an audio program adapted to your learners. Today it seems that everything must be video because we live in a visual age. But sound—pure sound without any picture—is wonderful too. Our students listen to MP3 players all the time, so why can’t they take advantage of the audio revolution too? Another possibility is to have an audio lab installed. It is far less costly than multi-media equipment. Sanako-Tandberg is an excellent make. Finally, you could consider buying 16 or more MP3 players that you lend out to the students. Synchronizing them to a program is neither difficult nor time consuming. Students who have their own iPods or MP3 players could download the program for a particular class and come to class ready to practice during the SPARC time of the lesson.
Fostering creativity in our new technological age
The most important thing is to see how you can increase individual student speaking time and how you can foster creativity among your students. The latter like to choose the topics they wish to talk about, and tutorials give them this opportunity. So having a language lab or a SPARC is not old-fashioned and antiquated. In fact, it is a facilitator in what I call today’s “desire to let one’s voice be heard”. Devices designed for speech practice and acquisition will help students find their voices and then use them to convey their thoughts and feelings. This is a far cry from the age of the dinosaurs!
For more information and tips and examples of materials to use in a lab, read about my ideas in QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book Version.