Interpersonal Speaking: Activities and assessments

So #langchat tonight was crazy. We celebrated “Throwback Thursday” by using the old “free-for-all” format in which a topic is given at the beginning, but the conversation is not moderated. #langchat has grown significantly, and while I prefer the free-for-all format to the moderator Q – participant A format, it was clear tonight that there are just too many participants for a free-for-all to be successful.

As I was making dinner and trying to get my brain to un-clench from the stress of trying to keep up with the conversations, I realized why tonight’s topic was truly the perfect topic to address in the old format. You see, tonight we discussed interpersonal speaking assessment. And what is interpersonal speaking but spontaneous communication between two or more parties? It can get messy: we miss pieces of the conversation, we misinterpret other things, we don’t express ourselves well, we are misinterpreted…oh yeah and sometimes we communicate successfully! Story of tonight. The “new” #langchat format, where the moderators ask questions and the participants respond, is not interpersonal communication. At times it tends in that direction, but by and large it ends up being two ongoing presentations that happen to be related. What I loved about tonight is that I felt like for the first #langchat in a long time, the participants really had a conversation going! We were trying to work through the intricacies of interpersonal communication together, and it felt like collaboration; not presentation. The Q/A format tends to create an atmosphere of show and tell–which is great because the participants have so many great ideas–but it’s not the same as what happened tonight.

So what were we trying to work through? Well, the conversation ended up centering on Assessment of Interpersonal Speaking at the Novice level: should novices be assessed (formally–graded) on their Interpersonal Speaking ability, and, if so, how? My takeaway from tonight was that I needed to spend some time looking at proficiency guidelines and to grill Scott Benedict when I see him this weekend at AFLA about his take on the subject, since he’s my favorite Proficiency Based Assessment guru 🙂 Well, a few hours have passed, and I’ve got some initial findings and conclusions to share with you. (And, at the bottom of the post, I’ll share links to some Interpersonal Speaking activities because let’s face it–you need stuff to use in class, not just stuff to make your brain hurt!).

My first and favorite new find on Interpersonal communication—and specifically for novices—is this guide from the Ohio Department of Education. I actually cannot believe that a state DOE would ever spend so much time and effort to create such a specific guide, but there it is! They show the three dimensions of Interpersonal communication: comprehensibility, quality of communication, and interculturality.

Copyright © 2015 Ohio Department of Education
Copyright © 2015 Ohio Department of Education “Guide to Novice Interpersonal Rubrics” Page 3

What I care about here is the fact that Interpersonal speaking is spontaneous by both parties by definition! Knowing that communication must be spontaneous makes me think that Novices (at least Novice Lows and Novice Mids) are incapable of true interpersonal communication (oh my, I am gasping at my own self for thinking that!). I mean, let’s look at ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines for Novice Low speakers:

Speakers at the Novice Low sublevel have no real functional ability and, because of their pronunciation, may be unintelligible. Given adequate time and familiar cues, they may be able to exchange greetings, give their identity, and name a number of familiar objects from their immediate environment. They are unable to perform functions or handle topics pertaining to the Intermediate level, and cannot therefore participate in a true conversational exchange. – Page 8, ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, Copyright © 2012 by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Alexandria, VA

Well, shoot! Did you catch it?? You have it right there, straight from the source! Novice Lows… “cannot […] participate in a true conversational exchange”. So I’m not crazy! Which begs the question, why in the world are we holding them accountable–grading them–on something that they shouldn’t technically unable to do?? While the guidelines do not explicitly state that Novice Mid and Novice High speakers cannot participate in true conversational exchanges, they are very clear that Novice speakers at all sub-levels are very difficult to understand and only able to produce short, memorized chunks of speech. For more details, we can look to ACTFL’s Performance Descriptors. And while we are examining ACTFL’s publications (since they should be our go-to when determining how to assess our students), let’s see how they describe Interpersonal Communication:

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.29.45 PM
“ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners” Page 7 © 2012 The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Alexandria, VA

Again, we see this idea of “active negotiation of meaning”, which disqualifies any kind of conversation in which one or both sides is predetermined. And since Novices can only function with memorized (predetermined) chunks, I am further convinced that we should not be grade Novices on their Interpersonal Speaking performance.

I think that it is inaccurate to say that Novices do not have interpersonal speaking ability; after all, there are descriptors for it in all of ACTFLs proficiency publications. However, the ability is extremely limited and does not appear to have yet become an ability in its own right: it is still a sum of its collective parts (the ability to comprehend and the ability to produce), but it is not yet greater than the sum of its parts! It is not “its own beast”: it is comprehension (interpretation) and production, and the negotiation–the process component–has yet to develop.

As I searched the Internet to see how other teachers are assessing Interpersonal speaking at the Novice level, I found quite a few good rubrics–but none of them gave me the “missing link” that could convince me that I should create a separate category for Interpersonal speaking in my gradebook. Here are two quick examples:

  • I love the feedback section at the bottom of this rubric—where students GLOW and where they need to GROW. What seems to be missing is a measure of their ability to understand the question being asked—as is, it looks no different than a presentational rubric, since it focuses only on production and the ability of someone else to understand what the student says.
  • In this speaking assessment for Novice Lows (available in a bunch of different languages!), we see the true expected ability of a novice speaker. Notice that everything must be memorized: the student should have memorized the questions that s/he is expected to interpret and his/her standard (or possible standard) responses for the questions. Zero creativity is involved. This assessment appears to be designed to be speaking between the teacher and the student, which was a topic of discussion in tonight’s #langchat. Since Novice learners are not expected to be able to negotiate meaning, they really do need to hear correct language in the questions, and that cannot be guaranteed in student-student interactions. But if the teacher is being strategic in the questions and speaking in a way that the student should absolutely be able to understand, then can using a pre-determined list of questions even qualify as interpersonal communication? It would seem to me that the “interpersonal” component wouldn’t come into play until follow-up questions are asked—questions that the questioner hadn’t premeditated—and then novices are not supposed to be able to understand and respond because those questions would most likely not have been memorized.

So my preliminary conclusion for tonight is that we should NOT formally assess Novice learners on their Interpersonal Speaking ability. If you were at my assessment session at iFLT this summer, you might remember that I said that when I return to the classroom one of these years, I’d break down my speaking category into “presentational speaking” and “interpersonal speaking”. Well, I have changed my mind and will keep it the way it is (at least in my beginner language courses). All that as a result of Interpersonal communication on #langchat tonight and some follow-up Interpretation of Internet resources. But please, let’s continue the conversation–nothing is set in stone here!


Of course, deciding that I won’t grade students on their Interpersonal speaking ability doesn’t mean that I won’t be giving them opportunities to practice and develop it, all the while giving them formative feedback. So first, let’s deal with formative assessment and feedback. Thomas Sauer (@tmsauer1) asked this question several times tonight:

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 9.43.12 PM

So, forgetting about summative assessment (since I am throwing it out the window for now), let’s talk about formative assessment and feedback. How can I get a pulse on my students’ developing Interpersonal Speaking ability and communicate to them what their pulse was? The best solution that I found to this dilemma (as a teacher with 175 students each year) was to use these speaking cards. Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 1.20.46 PMI’ll let you read the instructions that are included in the file, but basically I just walk around the room and make notes on the cards that belong to whichever students I happen to listen in on. If I don’t get through everyone in one day, no problem–I just pick up the stack during the next communicative activity and continue on with the remaining students. A good and accurate summative assessment should never indicate a different proficiency level than its formative counterparts, so it doesn’t really matter that I am collecting data from different activities. Students will demonstrate their true ability in informal situations. By recording data on several different instances for each student, I can identify “outliers”: instances in which students–for whatever reason–did not demonstrate their true ability.

So that’s the how; here’s the what: some different Interpersonal speaking activities that you can use in class. Remember that Interpersonal speaking requires spontaneous, two-way interaction. In many of these activities, students are working with prescribed questions, so the Interpersonal speaking doesn’t come into play until students ask follow-up questions that they come up with on-the-spot. Because Novices’ ability to create follow-up questions and respond to unrehearsed questions from their classmates is extremely limited, you are going to be examining the building blocks of that skill (listening comprehension and speaking production) more than the skill itself as you formatively assess these activities. Mostly, you’re just giving them an opportunity to develop their confidence and competency for conversational speech.

ACTIVITIES TO PRACTICE INTERPERSONAL SPEAKING:

Here are some that have been shared before:

…and here are some new ones that I shared at iFLT this past summer:

Great Assessment Database5 Great Assessment Database2Great Assessment Database9 Great Assessment Database6REMEMBER: unless spontaneous, two-way interaction (that means spontaneous on the part of each party involved) is taking place, it is not truly an interpersonal speaking activity. HOWEVER, even without that spontaneous, two-way interaction, all of these activities will build students’ confidence and competence in the building blocks of Interpersonal communication.

Thank you, and goodnight.

12 comments

  1. Martina,

    What a fantastic overview of the topic. So much of what you said mirrors what I believe about output at novice levels. That is, encourage it,help frame it, give opportunities, make it fun, and don’t worry about judging it (read that, grading it) or correcting all the errors. It gives kids a chance to play with the language, get the feel of it on their tongues and make them feel the success of “speaking” it.

    Thanks for the shout-out to the Ohio Department of Education. There are three incredibly dedicated professionals who really do understand what language learning is all about. They spent hours working on these rubrics. They had many focus group sessions and online feedback, as well as having a number of teachers test it in their own classrooms. What is really amazing about the team, is that they will always listen to teacher in the classroom to make changes. Ohio is a great place to be a WL teacher.

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    • This is very helpful and encouraging. Question though…would having students converse with each other, using questions presented or used in Personal Interviews (from Bryce Hedstrom) and encouraging them to incorporate other information (i.e. we are asking about “names,” and favorite colors,among other things) be considered interpersonal? They could ask about a friend not in the class or a family member, someone we haven’t already interviewed / talked about in class. They would be coming up with (creating) the solicited information. But since they are novice level, they have the stems (i.e. ¿Cómo se llama (tu maestro de matemáticas)? Se llama _________. ¿Qué es el color favorito de (tu mejor amigo)? Su color favorito es ________.) What they are supplying might be minimal but they are at the Novice level. ???

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      • If the students are given a list of questions to ask each other, then no: both people in the conversation must be speaking spontaneously for it to be considered interpersonal. If students are having an unplanned conversation and those questions come up that they have already worked with in class, then yes. For example, you could say, “have a five minute conversation in Spanish and find out everything you can about your classmate’s family members”. If students self-generate the questions and responses, then definitely it is interpersonal. And remember that just because an activity isn’t by definition interpersonal doesn’t disqualify it for being a great activity to practice comprehension and output!

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  2. And that was Walter Cronkite reporting on Interpersonal Speaking Assessment ! Wow ! You should publish that explanation because it was right on. It’s crazy how much loose information related to language learning continuously mixes in a WL teacher’s brain. My colleague and I were just discussing how to assess the first speaking activity to make it fair. Too bad so many schools require grades every week.Thank you, thank you for your timely commentary. Now, I’m sorry I missed last night’s #langchat. I will catch the sequel on Saturday, but it won’t be the same as the crazy Thursday.

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  3. One problem with tying assessment to the ACTFL levels is that we have lost sight of the difference between proficiency and achievement (or performance). In my master’s class, Dr. Judith Liskin-Gasparro, taught us that we do not assess proficiency in class–proficiency benchmarks are measures of language acquired over time and available for spontaneous use. Classroom assessments measure achievement, in other words, how well students perform on a given task.

    To clarify the difference: My Spanish I students write compositions early in the year about Miguel Hidalgo and Mexico’s Independence Day. Many students are able to retell the story in their own words, using connecting words and writing in paragraphs, which looks a lot like Intermediate Low. But if I were to ask those shining stars to write about something they had not studied, they would be reduced to phrases and a few random sentences, which would be indicative of their true proficiency level of Novice Mid. Proficiency is the language students can sustain over various topics.

    I love that we are helping students push for higher levels of mastery. I have a proficiency timeline on the wall of my classroom and refer to it often. However, I want students to understand the difference between a performance rating and proficiency, because I don’t want to mislead them. I am shifting to using the proficiency levels in my grading, but I believe it is important to make this distinction.

    So, for the topic at hand, Interpersonal Communication, it may be pointless to try to give students a proficiency rating, but we can assess whether they are able to complete tasks indicative of a particular level. And we know that output is, in large measure, about helping students gain confidence so they can use the language in the real world.

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    • Rita, I love this, and it gives me much to consider! Judith was in Alaska two years ago, and I had the chance to hear her speak. She has such wonderful insights into assessment and language learning! I am going to chew on this comment and hash it over with Scott Benedict while he is up here in AK this weekend!!

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  4. I agree that actually assessing an interpersonal activitiy and assigning a grade to a NL speaker is not only difficult but unfair. Is it fair to have students participate in interpersonal activities and offer feedback to promote growth in proficiency instead?

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