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English Language Learners Find Their Voices Using VoiceThread

Written by Grace Raffaele
July 22, 2011

A VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide show created with online software that holds images, documents and videos and allows people to  leave comments using text, audio, or video. You can share  VoiceThreads with friends, students, and groups of people for them to record comments too.It is a creative multi-media tool with a built in response mechanism.

In much the same way as short Twitter postings were my entré into blogging, I thought this might be my foray into audio technologies which I had so far managed to avoid. My first VoiceThread was an experiment using the “Where I’m From” poem described by Linda Christensen in her book “Reading, Writing and Rising Up”. This seemed like a fun and easy way to try this out but was also a writing activity teachers at the high school where I was working used often with their recently arrived second language learners.

Although I enjoyed playing around with my own first VoiceThread, I was even more interested in its application in the classroom. I was new to the all ELL high school where I was working as a teacher-consultant for the New York City Writing Project and was noticing how prominent and effective the use of visuals was to the all-English instruction going on here. I was sure the teachers I worked with would find ways to use the image collection aspect of the program. What I did not realize was just how powerful the audio part would be for them as well.

The history teacher who created a series of questions for students to respond to on a VoiceThread said that one student who had hardly spoken during the Fall semester worked diligently on his answers over and over again until he had a lengthy response – far more than he would have attempted in front of the class.

The English teacher who had students put their “Where I’m From” poems into VoiceThread said she thought the privacy of the process of recording and rerecording gave students an opportunity to work on their language skills in a non-threatening way while, at the same time, giving them an authentic public audience for the final product.

Through a variety of creative projects, it became clear that VoiceThread could support multiple literacies including speaking, listening, observing and composing. Please take a look at the following pages to see how these creative teachers and students made use of the program. The link below will take you to VoiceThread’s informative site where you can join on a limited basis for free and try it our yourself. Enjoy!

Observing (draft)

In the process of creating a VoiceThread, students need to carefully notice what an image says or how it works with the text. When asked to comment on a VoiceThread, students need to look and listen before they can respond. In these simple steps, students are using their observation skills.

VoiceThread also offers new opportunities for students to practice becoming careful observers. Activities may be designed to use the VoiceThread medium to share observations as Jordan did when he had students post their results from a germ experiment. With the drawing tool, students were able to point to specific areas on an image to discuss their findings. Particularly for these ELL students, this was valuable practice not only in observing details but in using language that was clear and precise to describe those

Yet another teacher used historical images to have students brainstorm observations. Comments that began with “I noticed… and “I also noticed…” were posted to a series of images depicting historical settings. As comments accumulated it became harder and harder – but students continued to push their powers of observation to go beyond what others had said before them.

Speaking (draft)

In Kevin’s Humanities class, he imported images from PowerPoint and asked students to respond to content-specific as well as open-ended personal questions. Kevin wanted these to be more casual “talk to me about what you think or know” responses. Particularly for the 9thgraders who were new to the country and, in some cases, using English for the first time in school, this was a challenge. But it was a challenge they could meet by practicing, re-recording and reviewing on their own. Since VoiceThread is an online application available wherever the internet is accessible they could even do this at home. It was in Kevin’s class that Jazi – who had spoken aloud in class very rarely – was able to complete lengthy answers to the questions on VoiceThread. If I had an image of his to post here, it would be of him sitting on the floor in the hallway recording and rerecording and the pride in his face when his group members applauded his final work.

It is to this aspect of VoiceThread that Virginia also speaks so highly – the ability to work in a private way towards a public audience. As much as her students worked on choosing appropriate vocabulary for the poems they wrote in her class, they also worked hard on pronunciation when it came time to record.

Teachers at this school recognize the use of oral presentations to help students develop their speaking skills. However, even in the encouraging environment provided here and especially early on, this can be a scary undertaking. VoiceThread provides an even safer space to work on their speaking skills as well as a way to develop as self-critics.

I know that even when I, a native English speaker, experimented with my own VoiceThread, I developed more and more confidence as I continued to record. Not until I heard from these teachers, did I realize that for English language learners this was not something that needed to be put off until later, but can be a powerful part of the English speaking acquisition process.

Listening (draft)

VoiceThread not only engages the viewer but also the listener. When teachers use the
commenting feature to have students respond to each other, they make use of a function that sets VoiceThread apart from other still or video creation programs.

Teachers such as Kevin (see Listening section) chose to engage students in commenting
only first. In this way, he familiarized them with a limited number of functions – writing text, voice comments, recording, saving and re-recording – before introducing other functions.

Jordan took this listening and commenting one step further while also holding off on
the visual creation aspect. Like Kevin, he posed questions for students to answer about a particular cancer their group had studied. Once students had posted their information, the second phase of the project involved each of them listening to a VoiceThreads about a different cancer from the one they had researched. To these they had to post comments about how that cancer was similar or different from the one they had researched themselves. In one activity students listened to both the teacher and their peers in order to complete their tasks.

Composing (draft)

In Virginia’s English class, students wrote their own image-rich ”Where I’m From” and
“I Remember” poems. These were personal accounts of memories of their native countries and the people, places, sights and sounds that represent them. But that was only the first part of the composition process.

To create a VoiceThread, they first had to plan out how much of a poem would be read over a single image. Too many images might mean jumping too fast while too few might feel slow or even confusing.

Students then had to find the images for the parts they chose to illustrate. This part
of the composing process was deepened by the expressed need to choose images carefully: not just a flower because the word flower was there, but was it the right kind of flower or, perhaps, was that not the more important or interesting word? And then the recording process began. For some students this was a speaking task that they worked on and perfected. For the more proficient speakers, this was an opportunity to use their voice expressively thus adding a layer of voice composition to the finished work.

In a few history classes students created less narrative and more informational
VoiceThreads to teach their classmates about a topic such as a part of the Cold War or the Harlem Renaissance. Even with factual information, the decisions that needed to be made in composing the sequence and timing of voices and images added a rich layer to the learning.

Community Building (draft)

Listening to each other builds community especially for language learners.

Some things I learned about organizing successful VoiceThread work in the classroom:

1. Assume the internet will not work. Create a back-up plan. The more prepared you are for the unexpected, the less likely it is to happen!

2. Aside from internet access, sound quality is the most important – and the trickiest – part of making quality VoiceThreads.

  • Try to get good headphones with microphones even though the computer speakers and mics may work fine.
  • Spread students out so their speaking does not interfere with each other.
  • Emphasize volume and clarity with the students. It is a good idea to do a demonstration of high and low sound quality so students know to listen to themselves and rerecord if necessary.
  • Be explicit about room noise such as chairs moving, doors sliding, etc. Some mics are very sensitive which can be a good thing except when residual noise overtakes the voice recording.

3. Prepare students in what it means to choose appropriate images.

4. Use this opportunity to teach them some internet and computer literacy skills such as what a URL is and does and what it means to use fair use images.

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