Speaking is scary.
This is something that’s applicable not only to English Learners (ELs), but also often native speakers. When I have to make a call, order food, or interact with someone I don’t know, I often find myself mentally rehearsing exactly what I want to say before even approaching the other person, and I know I’m not alone.
However, as educators, we often expect students to be able to speak freely and unabashedly. While this is an important skill to develop, this remains difficult or even threatening to students. They often clam up and refuse to speak beyond monosyllables, answering in yes or no, or only following a set pattern given by the teacher.
There’s a lot of other issues that come with teaching speaking as well. First and foremost, how can someone objectively grade speaking? How can learners know their speaking errors, or how to improve? What’s a fun way to get students to practice?
One of the best solutions I’ve found to all of these problems is to use an online platform called Flipgrid.
While Flipgrid wasn’t necessarily made with ELs in mind, it is certainly perfect for the EL classroom. Flipgrid is a free online learning platform (also available as an app) that allows students to record short videos. It’s reminiscent of popular apps such as TikTok or Snapchat, which makes it a breeze for young learners to adapt to. I’ve been using Flipgrid for over a year now, and am a huge fan of its interface, what it allows students to do, and how engaged students are when using it.
Flipgrid is both free and simple to sign up for. You can simply create an account, then create a group. You can add your students to it (and choose your students usernames, which is a feature I love since many students tend to get ah, creative when choosing what to call themselves), set a discussion topic, and get started.
The discussion topics can take all sorts of different forms. It’s necessary to give your topic a title (be it a chapter name, grammar point, discussion question – you name it) and a prompt. In your prompt, you can give your students specific questions to answer, a minimum speaking time, a scaffolded answer for them to read off of, and more. You can also add media resources to encourage your students. In the past, I’ve often recorded a video myself for my students and used YouTube clips for them to talk about, but the choices are various.
You can use Flipgrid for a variety of purposes, ranging from having them answer simple speaking questions to making a speaking portfolio, which I’ll talk more about later. In my own teaching practice, I’ve mainly used Flipgrid to create projects for my students. For example, I had students create how-to cooking videos in one class, instead of doing the tired old imperative-tense exercises offered by the textbook. I was blown away by student videos – they truly went all out in what they made!
In another class, students made commercials in groups. I was warned beforehand that these students were low-level and rarely spoke; however, by using Flipgrid students were able to write a script beforehand, which gave them a lower-threat environment to practice speaking. They can also do multiple takes or edit videos together, so if a mistake is made, it’s of no importance; students can simply take it out.
I’m a firm believer that students will engage more with the material when they are interested by it, and creating an experience that resembles social media can really help students shine. Shy students who barely dare to pipe up on Zoom can create wonderful videos of themselves speaking. If a student is really shy about how they look, they also have the option to not show their face (such as in the above image) or use a filter.
Another huge benefit of Flipgrid is that students can rewatch their own videos. This makes it possible for students to view their own problems. For example, I had a high-level student who often left the “s” off third person verbs (for example, she would say “the boy run to the store” instead of “the boy runs to the store”) and found it almost impossible to correct herself naturally. However, after only a few weeks of watching and listening to her own videos, the student was able to remedy this error!
Flipgrid also automatically generates closed captioning for videos. While these can sometimes be wildly incorrect – especially for students with heavier accents – it also allows these students to see a visual representation of what their pronunciation sounds like, which can be extraordinarily helpful. If the close captions guess that there is a curse word, it will automatically star it out. Don’t worry about any of this – you can go in and edit the closed captions if you so wish!
Flipgrid gives a few options for student feedback. You can either use a built in rubric, or create your own. You can also write feedback or – as I prefer to do – record feedback. I use my recorded feedback to model pronunciation or grammar errors, as well as to give students more listening practice. Remember, if all else fails they can always read the closed captioning Flipgrid automatically supplies. You can scroll through the image below to see a completed rubric.
The feedback options leads me to one of the best features about Flipgrid: it can be used to create a “speaking portfolio” of sorts for students. With language learning, speaking is often one of the hardest, most obscure things to try to objectively grade. It can also be difficult for students to see their own progress, which can sometimes make students feel discouraged. Even if the educator only created one Flipgrid video of their students speaking at the beginning of the school year, it can allow both them and the student to look back and see how much they’ve progressed.
Overall, I think that Flipgrid is a great tool that can easily be used in an ESL classroom by students of almost any age. It’s easy for students to use, provides a great opportunity for students to practice speaking in a non-threatening environment.