The Learner’s Voice: using Audio Notetaker for speaking and listening at Key Stage 3
Carol Weale, Dane Court Grammar School, Broadstairs, Kent
Introduction and aims
One of the most overlooked areas in the English curriculum is speaking and listening. From my experience, it is the Cinderella of the classroom as we jump through reading and writing assessment hoops. Cognitive stretch is usually aimed at written work and there are fewer resources for oracy. It is worth 20% of the GCSE Language grade so it is an area for making significant progress. Many students panic when their oracy skills are formally assessed. The reason? Fragile teenage egos prevent them from performing as openly as they do on paper. Why is this? Over and over again, the same message is voiced: their great fear of failure and of peer group scorn. I’ve never really cracked this perennial hard nut. With GCSE Oral assessments in long-term view, I wanted to improve their ability to write and deliver a presentation, as well as focus their effective listening skills. Sonocent’s Audio Notetaker has the potential for seeing real progress.
What is it? Think of how Wordle highlights the key messages in texts and then think of a similar version in audio. Apart from playing back hours of mp3 files, it is difficult to annotate audio text. That’s where Audio Notetaker comes in. It shows you the audio file in coloured bars side by side with spaces to represent pauses – a bit like Morse code. A quick glance can show whether key oracy skills are being demonstrated and annotation is easy either within the notes pane at the side of the audio or highlighting key audio bars to represent the skills that are being assessed. What equipment do you need? Apart from the software, the basics require access to a recording device which can be a laptop with a built-in microphone, or a microphone headset, their own mobile phone or voice recorder. Audio can be imported later from the various devices or they can record directly into Audio Notetaker and annotate the file in real time.
I teach several lively classes and although my school, a mixed grammar, is not typical of most, it is in an area of social and economic deprivation. My Key Stage 3 mixed ability classes are filled with the usual blend of extrovert learners (think out aloud, sometimes very loud!) and the quiet ones who may have written talent but for various reasons find they are unable to shine. These are the students whose reports point out that they are quiet in class and should try harder to take part. How do they learn those skills? How can the ones who dominate, and sometimes verbally intimidate others, learn how to tone down and adapt their oral enthusiasm in group work? I set out to see if ICT could provide an alternative approach.
My Year 8 class needed to improve the quality of their listening skills in group/class discussion. Most of the opportunities this term have seen them shouting down their opponents and rarely discussing; or ignoring the nice, quiet ones. This situation needed to change. I targeted their listening skills deliberately with an aim of improvement and outing those who felt that a lower grade was more acceptable than peer scorn.
The second group was from Year 9 who needed to improve their use of rhetorical devices in written work as well as improve their delivery. Too many of them hide behind their paper and read their speeches. Some are too afraid to speak publicly, even in the classroom, and I wanted to liberate them.
Method and description
I started by asking Year 9 to write a short speech which I recorded later and, while they were writing, I went round asking them what they find difficult when speaking or writing a speech. They did have a basic knowledge of rhetorical devices and initially my aim was to use Audio Notetaker to spot the devices being used in famous speeches which we could stream from YouTube. Very soon, it was obvious that the traditional worksheet method of annotating texts was still a suitable alternative but the real issue at stake was their delivery. Monotonous, uninspired speeches were being given and I felt that Audio Notetaker software could really make a difference here.
My aim was to capture how well they usually presented a speech as well as their quality of language. We brainstormed an initial Key Skills success criteria sheet and they performed their speeches to their friends who peer assessed them on a scale of 0-5. They were quite generous with their marks – especially the boys who typically over-estimate their abilities. Then I showed them Severn Suzuki’s famous speech on YouTube and quietly streamed it into Audio Notetaker. They were asked to peer-assess her using the same sheet. She scored top marks; they subsequently moderated their own marks downwards! Apart from the obvious visual oracy skills, they were very aware that it was the quality of her voice that set her apart from their performances and were keen to analyse why. I revealed Audio Notetaker’s version of her speech on the interactive whiteboard and modelled how to use the software. Suddenly it was visually obvious that she used dramatic pauses, didn’t race through her speech and spoke with conviction. We annotated the rhetorical devices in her speech on paper and purely focused on her delivery skills in the note taking pane on Audio Notetaker. It was a golden opportunity to look at other acclaimed speakers so I streamed in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech and finally Rudyard Kipling’s appeal to the young men in the ‘My Boy Jack’ film to see if there were similarities to use as our template which finally culminated in our ‘Skill Bank for Delivering a Speech Effectively’. As an extension activity, I asked them to scour YouTube for good/bad examples of delivery, record them into Audio Notetaker and see if the results were replicated. So now they had a visual template to work towards when recording their own speeches.
With a framework for success, they were asked to write a speech where they had to imagine they too were able to speak to world/local leaders, which they would record in Audio Notetaker and annotate with the Skill Bank to hand. It was a superb opportunity for independent, enquiry-based learning where they could form their own conclusions, try out new skills and benefit from peer assessment. I have access to a small bank of laptops so each group had access to the program for recording or annotating. They found the software easy to use and explored the new interface. Immediately, they started comparing their speech patterns to the success template, adjusting their delivery and expression accordingly, becoming more efficient and focused in the task. In particular, after playback, there was a noticeable shift from their usual lack of concern to being more motivated to gain as many skill stars as possible. They were keen to re-record and have another go. One girl in particular was very critical of her poor enunciation which she thought might be too off-putting to an audience and she set about making changes to improve it. Audio Notetaker, in effect, becomes their personal voice-coach, where they can see changes on the screen. They can highlight audio phrases and colour-code them to represent rhetorical devices or particular voice skills as well as make key notes about their performance and set targets in the Note pane.
I was particularly interested to see if the software had impacted the self-confidence of a couple of really quiet students. I have included the screenshot of one painfully shy student who found her voice in the space of a few lessons, as she could ‘perform’ to a computer. The next steps will be to wean her off that interface and give her enough confidence to deliver her speech to her peers – a skill that is required in the GCSE Language syllabus.
Having seen the impact of Audio Notetaker on student performance, I decided to try it out on my Year 8 class, with the focus purely on their listening skills. They were divided into random groups of 4 or 5 students and asked to discuss a controversial topic. Each group had a recording device. One group was taken aside, briefed about the listening skills that I was monitoring and dispatched as spies to the group of their choice. They had to assess what skills were being displayed, if any. The ‘spies’ gave feedback to each group who were later informed in the plenary which skills would have earned stars. The look of shock as they realised that they had sabotaged their own scores through poor communication! I showed them the BT ‘All Talk’ videos which show poor and effective group discussions so that they could model their behaviour on that.
Next lesson, with the spies in place as coaches, they re-recorded another 5 minute discussion with a follow-up session annotating and scoring their group performance on screen. Vive la difference! Disruptive talk was highlighted in black, turn-taking in blue and going off-task in yellow. The initial test was predictably black but in the second session, it changed dramatically to mainly blue as they referred to the skill bank. Interestingly, they were very aware of asking quieter group members to join in! Some of the boys are particularly vocal and this more active form of learning appealed to their kinaesthetic learning style. Finally, I repeated the task more formally in their next lesson, but this time I divided the class into paired groups, with the first group acting as assessors, then swapping over later. This one-to-one peer assessment would have very high standards of scrutiny! They liked the game approach with its built-in assessment, targeting and monitoring. The annotation session is simple as skills are scored on paper and highlighting disruption or focused discussion ‘scored’ on screen. We were not interested at this stage as to who was speaking or annotating language, just how they were conducting the session. Later on, I showed them my colour-coded highlights of their discussions which showed who had dominated most and interestingly, who had kept quiet.
Did the learning experiment work? Yes and no. They quickly learned that using certain key phrases to demonstrate a skill would trigger a higher score. There was much debate when they had to compare the peer and self-assessments. I realised this would be a long journey as newly found skills were not transferred as they sulked or were sarcastic to their assessor in an attempt to change their opinion. Later, when they had to annotate in Audio Notetaker, which did not take very long as all they had to do was playback the file and highlight the evidence, it became harder to deny where they had been less constructive and they gradually accepted the new truths of their performance. New targets were set and these can be easily measured in future as they can import the new discussions into the software and evaluate how much real progress they have made.
So what is the difference between Audio Notetaker and standard voice recognition software which turns audio into text? Well, it depends what you are using it for and in our case, delivery is not mirrored on the page.
Educational outcomes: It is important to stress there that this software is a valuable complement alongside traditional approaches. Most students found that Audio Notetaker “made a noticeable difference” to their achievement and were really keen to support its use on a regular basis. Not one of them regarded it as a gizmo and I was surprised how the Year 9 group in particular forged ahead despite the technical issues that plagued them. In the evaluation afterwards, they said they would like to have access to an app for their mobile phones which would allow them to visually record their delivery and view assessed recordings. From a teacher point-of-view, I found that it is a superb tool for assessing oracy as the annotations are easy to copy and paste into GCSE Oral Assessment forms later. More importantly, I was delighted to see the change in the quieter students who through the ‘voice-coaching’ approach found their voice and emerged into the limelight with the gradual erosion of the psychological barriers that afflict our teenager speakers.
Technical issues: While the educational outcomes were excellent, there were some drawbacks which are hard to overcome in the classroom situation. Most students found it difficult to cope with background noise generated by other students recording or discussing ideas. I moved to a plaza (wide open space) with more success. To overcome the background noise which ordinary laptops pick up, I gave them headsets which did give a feeling of privacy but to some became a distraction. However, the main issue that beset us was the equipment. For those in a non-ICT managed school, it is easy to load the software onto laptops and off you go. In my environment, I had to wait for over a month for it to be approved, then loaded onto laptops which frequently lost power or were not working.
Alternative recording devices are in the hands of most students (their mobile phones) and if this is permissible in your school, then they are a lifesaver. However, they may need access to file conversion software if their mobile phones use the AMR format for speech recordings (MP3, WAV, WMA and M4A files are currently supported).
All in all, once the initial technical issues have been ironed out and the teacher and students are familiar with the software, it is difficult to envisage going back to the old methods of recording/playback/pausing or making quick notes on individual student performance in the register. It is the simplicity of the visual representation which communicates progress, the easy sharing of assessed files with moderators or other stakeholders and finally, a kinaesthetic method of providing the cognitive stretch in a long-neglected area of the English curriculum. I suppose the greater test would be if my laptop’s hard drive was cleaned: would I put Audio Notetaker on my list of ‘must-have’ software? The answer is a resounding “Yes – and be quick about it!”