Saturday, 22 February 2014

Vocaroo and MailVu: a simpler way to promote speaking practice outside the classroom?

In an earlier post, I argued that MyBrainshark has a claim to being the best of all ICT tools in terms of its getting students to practise speaking and presenting outside of the classroom, and it provoked quite an interesting discussion afterwards!

Slightly further on in my reflective journey as an MA student, I guess I still regard MyBrainshark as a fantastic tool to have in one's armoury, but I'd suggest other, possibly simpler tools may be preferable for more day-to-day purposes. So with this in mind, I propose to review two free podcasting/vodcasting tools, Vocaroo and MailVu in today's post.

Relevance and Rationale
In an earlier post from 2010, Russell Stannard argues that in EFL contexts teachers are often confronted with a situation where students have little or no opportunity to practise speaking English outside of class. One might also add that exposure to spoken English is greatly lessened in countries where TV and films are routinely dubbed. 

Anything ICT can do to ameliorate the situation is thus clearly to be welcomed, and here Russell suggests podcasting/vodcasting can do much to help: for homework, learners can be asked to record themselves repeating speaking activities rehearsed, or else prepared for, in class earlier. The podcasts or videos can afterwards be e-mailed to the teacher for feedback on accuracy of language use, pronunciation etc. 

Meanwhile, the sheer ease with which the tools can be used should mean even the relatively technophobic can make use of them! Russell Stannard provides a brief and very accessible introduction to Vocaroo and MailVu at

Propensity to foster language learning
Russell's "Connected Classroom" approach certainly seems to have the potential to motivate learners. A classroom conversation may be quite ephemeral, but setting speaking as homework arguably usefully rebalances homework away from what may otherwise be an enormous "homework bias" (in skills development terms) towards reading and writing. 

Furthermore, many students will want to impress their teachers and so will try harder second time around. This "press" on the students' linguistic resources may "push" output from the learners and lead to enhanced language acquisition, rather as Merrill Swain's "output hypothesis" would suggest.

I wouldn't mind consulting SLA studies in this area, but would be prepared to hypothesize that this is a good approach in the hands of a teacher the students like and want to impress. Above all, exam candidates might consider this a particularly good way to practise for high-stakes speaking tests.

Key to this approach succeeding is surely laying the right foundations during the classroom lesson preceding the homework. Introducing language, providing opportunities for personalized pair work, and responding to students in class should give students a structure to work from when it's their turn to either repeat an activity or do something new to build upon what happened in class.

Given the right preparatory work, the students should only stand to gain! However, teachers may find giving feedback to numerous students all doing an identical activity may impose a significant feedback overhead and not be as interesting as if students have chosen to do quite different things from each other. If time is a significant constraint, peer evaluation may not always be a good enough alternative.

Nevertheless, as I see it, both tools are easy to use and potentially quite powerful. And they're both free! I'd happily use them. How about you?

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