Last week I had the special opportunity to attend the OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) Training at LARC on the campus of San Diego State University. This is my fourth workshop organized by the good people at LARC. As always, I left the OPI workshop with many ideas and resources to use in my classroom. There is so much to write about, it seemed best to reflect back on one area that stood out. For me that was the idea of asking questions that make us think. The focus of the training was to interview speakers to determine their proficiency level (knowing what they can do with the language, not what they know about the language) by developing a series of topics and asking them a range of questions from novice type questions to superior level questions.
Asking questions is something we do all the time, but being able to think of questions that will elicit a certain proficiency level, that takes skill . Have your ever thought about the questions we ask our students to answer in their foreign language textbook? When I begin to think more about this, it occurred to me that our textbooks actually make acquiring a second language more difficult than it should be. I’m sure publishers mean well, it’s just that they have a different set of goals. OPI Training made me rethink about the level of questions we ask our students. Often ask them to answer and ask simple questions with simple answers, some even one-word answers. But are those they types of questions that help students reach more advanced levels? Probably not. Questions that lead to advanced and superior levels are questions that ask students to compare, to elaborate, to or to give supporting evidence.
We need to ask higher level questions in order to increase critical thinking (a goal in most mission statements). That was the focus of OPI Training, asking the correct question to determine the correct level of the interviewee’s language proficiency. If the correct questions are asked, not only does the interviewee have to use critical thinking (skills), but so does the interviewer. A major part of part of OPI Training is about real critical thinking, not the type of critical thinking usually found in our lessons. Some have actually questioned the validity of critical thinking activities we ask of our students. When we want students to use critical thinking but the activity does not reflect critical thinking, that’s what some would call, “fishing in the bathtub”.
It’s good to know that there are resources such as LARC and workshops such as Oral Proficiency Training that demonstrate what critical thinking is all about. If a prerequisite of catching fish is having fish present, then we ought to go to where there are fish. You wouldn’t think that would be that difficult.