It often seems like a curious by-product of ELT ‘in action’; speaking out loud in English. Given that spoken interactions are scintillating moments of language in its most alive state, it’s remarkable how speaking (as a facet of the language learning process) is often subservient to the learning of grammar and vocabulary. As Scott Thornbury observed in his excellent 2005 article on speaking/learning; in many traditional coursebooks:

speaking activities are often simply exercises in vocalising grammar, as if this were all that were needed.

All of those ‘Speaking sections’ of lesson spreads were (traditionally) opportunities for the learners to practise putting the grammatical components together in substitution drills and exchanges. Sure, that’s saying out loud what the lesson has been designed to ‘teach’, but it’s not speaking. By ‘speaking’ I’m referring to a spontaneous, need-driven utterance that invites an interaction.

As EdTech continues to develop and impact on how and where learners are able to make contact with learning opportunities the importance of speaking in the learning process takes on a new dimension; how do you a) create opportunities for learners to speak to/at/with the tech, and b) how can you give the learner feedback on what they have just said? We’ve mentioned the potential use of SIRI as a learning tool, but there are a few applications on the EdTech market that are making some serious efforts to address this most vital conundrum. Over the course of the next few weeks I’d like to take a look at them to see how they fare and compare … starting with:

SpeakingPal English Tutor

First up is this app from SpeakingPal, an EdTech company headed up by Eyal Eshed who achieved considerable success with his first company Omnivee. SpeakingPal English Tutor is a mobile application that incorporates short interactions in which the learner is required to speak with a virtual character. The app uses the EduSpeak speech recognition software that is developed by SRI International and is able to provide the learner with feedback on their productive efforts.

During my time of playing with the app, the ‘feedback’ consisted of showing me which words I’d said ‘well’ (in green) and which ones I needed to work on (red). There doesn’t seem to be an explanation as to what in particular the problem is with my speaking, so I’m none the wiser as to how to improve. I just tried to shout it a couple of times to be sure.

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I did, in fact, get stuck saying ‘Good evening’ over and over again to the app. It became a matter of principle that I would be able to wish the app a pleasant evening and for it to be noted (if not appreciated), but there seemed to be a breakdown in communication. The absence of an actual person with whom I could establish a strategy for improving my speech was quite profound at that point; a teacher/coach/peer would be able to attempt to decode what I was saying and make concerted efforts to bridge that gap through inference. The app, however, wasn’t prepared to meet me halfway, even though I was just trying to repeat what I’d just heard. And from Cambridgeshire.

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The interactive exercises require the learners to select a response from preloaded options rather than to create their own answer. I’m guessing that would require some otherworldly amounts of processing power, to be fair. The issue is, again, that it’s not made very clear how you can improve and why you’re not being understood. Also, as is the case in real-time learning environments, a speaker can choose to rephrase what they are trying to say using alternative structures or vocabulary (Thornbury also refers to these adaptive strategies in the article mentioned earlier) whereas you’re locked into a very narrowly-defined response scenario with the in-app interactions.

The app is undoubtedly very good at what it does; amplifying the potential that EdTech has to make language learning an entirely self-directed enterprise, a well as being mobile and affordable. It goes beyond speaking and moves the learner through various reading tasks and quizzes to boot. It’s missing out on the fundamentals when it comes to speaking practice, however; the spontaneity and support that are critical in helping a learner to recognise and respond to shortfalls in their productive abilities.

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