Research project


A syllabus with performative practices in synchronous online language courses 

Picture of Dr. Mona Eikel-Pohen
Dr. Mona Eikel-Pohen 

Dr. phil., Auf­bau­stu­di­um Dar­stel­len­des Spiel, Assistant Tea­ching Pro­fes­sor of Ger­man, Syra­cu­se Uni­ver­si­ty, NY.

Picture of Mona Eikel-Pohen
Mona Eikel-Pohen 

Dr. phil., Auf­bau­stu­di­um Dar­stel­len­des Spiel, Assistant Tea­ching Pro­fes­sor of Ger­man, Syra­cu­se Uni­ver­si­ty, NY.

Der fol­gen­de Bei­trag gehört zum Digi­tal­teil der Zeit­schrift für Thea­ter­päd­ago­gik, Aus­ga­be 78. 


This rese­arch pro­ject descri­bes chal­lenges and poten­ti­als of tea­ching for­eign lan­guages online with Zoom and how per­for­ma­ti­ve prac­ti­ces (PP), sel­ec­ted from a hand­book the aut­hor com­pi­led for online lan­guage tea­ching, might over­co­me the­se by heigh­tening oral pro­fi­ci­en­cy and per­for­ma­ti­ve con­fi­dence online. The paper rela­tes Dra­gan Miladinović’s eight prin­ci­ples for per­for­ma­ti­ve lan­guage tea­ching to the online envi­ron­ment and details PP for a Ger­man IV cour­se at uni­ver­si­ty level. The cour­se syl­labus is scaf­fold­ed with incre­asing­ly more com­plex PP; data is coll­ec­ted with voice recor­dings to mea­su­re learner’s impro­ve­ment of oral pro­fi­ci­en­cy (fluency/pronunciation) and with ques­ti­on­n­aires to gage increased lear­ners’ con­fi­dence in oral production.

The pro­ject is made pos­si­ble by the Inno­va­ti­ve tea­ching initia­ti­ve award the aut­hor recei­ved along with Cathe­ri­ne Nock, Syra­cu­se Uni­ver­si­ty: Using per­for­mance-based methods to rein­force oral skills. A holi­stic metho­do­lo­gy based on neu­ro­sci­en­ti­fic rese­arch (2020).

Challenges and potentials of online language learning

Sin­ce COVID-19, lan­guage ins­truc­tors (LI) and lear­ners (L) in online lear­ning envi­ron­ments like Zoom get lite­ral­ly spot­ligh­ted, but only two-dimen­sio­nal­ly: in a tiny box with more or less good light­ing. Per­for­ma­ti­ve com­pe­tence thus, defi­ned as “bund­le of com­pe­ten­ci­es an indi­vi­du­al has to under­stand in the enact­ment of all social inter­ac­tion, to initia­te and con­duct social inter­ac­tions as well as to reflect on one’s role the­r­ein” (Hal­let 2015, quo­ted in Mila­di­no­vić 2019: 9, trans­la­ti­on Mona Eikel-Pohen) has beco­me even more rele­vant sin­ce the COVID-indu­ced switch to online pedago­gy. An obser­va­ti­on of my syn­chro­no­us online Ger­man beg­in­ners class attests to that: L, asked to iden­ti­fy the under­ly­ing emo­ti­on other L cho­sen from a list for rea­ding out a dia­lo­gue, were often unable to name what see­med clear to the per­for­mers. The two-dimen­sio­na­li­ty of the screen did absorb but not radia­te back the non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on. Though the L tried to per­form well, they appeared mono­to­no­us, flat, unau­then­tic, boring.

Non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on is pre­va­lent in human com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, but in online cour­ses, lar­ge parts of it is redu­ced by the two-dimen­sio­na­li­ty of the screen. LIs the­r­e­fo­re need to edu­ca­te them­sel­ves and their L how to estab­lish a com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ve, trust­wor­t­hy syn­chro­no­us class­rooms cul­tu­re (so L wil­lingly open their came­ras in Zoom) and show how online lear­ning offers dif­fe­rent dimen­si­ons than the phy­si­cal class­room, like chat-func­tions for ton­gue-tied and intro­vert L, 1‑mi­nu­te-brea­kout-rooms for each L to men­tal­ly prepa­re a com­plex ans­wer, or uplif­ting music on their return from the breakout-rooms.

Miladinović’s eight principles for performative foreign language teaching

Lan­guage cour­ses hold such an immense poten­ti­al for com­bi­ning lin­gu­i­stic and cul­tu­ral com­pe­tence with PP that aspi­ring LI now recei­ve rese­arch-based trai­ning in PP (Mages 2020: 24). Dra­gan Mila­di­no­vić descri­bes eight prin­ci­ples for per­for­ma­ti­ve for­eign lan­guage tea­ching (Mila­di­no­vic 2019: 17–20) that also app­ly online: (1) PP are no panacea but post-metho­di­cal­ly embrace various approa­ches and focus on holi­stic methods (cf. Sam­ba­nis 2013:118f.). They do not replace but com­bi­ne methods and pro­mo­te project/product ori­en­ted lear­ning. Many PP, e.g. cir­cle exer­ci­s­es, can be adopted for online lear­ning (Ls put a num­ber befo­re their names), and Zoom spot­light­ing deli­vers the stage. (2) PP are based on real-life con­tents and meaningful inter­ac­tions while gran­ting a safe space for rehe­ar­sing real-life sce­na­ri­os, e.g. in online brea­kout groups or when L prac­ti­ce pro­nun­cia­ti­on on mute or, out loud cho­ric. (3) PP aim at an awa­re­ness for the inter­play of intellec­tu­al, aes­the­tic, and phy­si­cal com­pon­ents of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on in any envi­ron­ment, e.g. in tableaus and espe­ci­al­ly through reflec­tions built into syl­la­bi, les­son plans, and dai­ly Goog­le exit tickets. (4+5) Input-based and out­put-ori­en­ted, PP allow L to learn in a ligh­the­ar­ted way, e.g. if online L crea­te an addi­tio­nal cour­se mem­ber through the impro­vi­sa­ti­on acti­vi­ty Yes, and, and in rela­ti­on to that fic­tion­al cour­se mem­ber, ava­tars for them­sel­ves, so they can choo­se to do PP as eit­her them­sel­ves or their ava­tar throug­hout a cour­se. (6) PP demand both per­cep­ti­ve (rea­ding, lis­tening) and pro­duc­ti­ve lan­guage skills (spea­king, wri­ting), and working online, when alig­ning Zoom with Goog­le docu­ments, covers tho­se four skills in each dai­ly les­son almost bet­ter than in the class­room. (7) As inte­gral part of the lear­ning expe­ri­ence, PP, when scaf­fold­ed to pro­mo­te L’ con­fi­dence, fur­ther com­pe­ten­ci­es like pre­sen­ting in front of groups (Eikel-Pohen 2017:27), respon­ding to other L’ con­tri­bu­ti­ons, or lear­ning to accept fail­ure as chan­ce for lear­ning and growth (Ala­na 2020). To date, most LI and L are still online lear­ning beg­in­ners, and PP can help fos­ter this new cul­tu­re with its more playful for­mats. (8) PP reach bey­ond goal mea­su­re­ment and stan­dar­diza­ti­on through holi­stic and aes­the­tic approa­ches. L expe­ri­ence that online lear­ning holds non-mea­sura­ble Eure­ka moments that anchor new know­ledge in the long-term memo­ry (Howard 2014: 661; Sam­ba­nis & Wal­ter 2019:34). As online lear­ning requi­res dif­fe­rent com­pe­ten­ci­es (focus, tech know­ledge), PP unite LI and L in an new envi­ron­ment and thus might sup­port buil­ding dyna­mic lear­ning communities.

PP in an online syllabus with “Zoomprov”

The syl­labus I pre­sent includes weekly PP, scaf­fold­ed around a Ger­man IV cour­se (LINK). The PP sel­ec­ted stem from a cor­pus gathe­red and adopted for Zoom, tes­ted in Ger­man I and III in the Fall 2020 online and revi­sed for Ger­man IV for spring 2021 online. The PP were coll­ec­ted in a the Hoch­schu­le für Bil­den­de Küns­te, Braun­schweig Keith John­stone impro­vi­sa­ti­on cour­se, but also from Lacy Alana’s work­shop (Ala­na 2020), and the AIN Open Spaces (AIN Oct-Dec 2020). The hand­book was self-published in the first week of Janu­ary 2021 to ser­ve as an open resour­ce for lan­guage LI tea­ching at the A1 to B2 level (CERF) around the glo­be, and has 440 views as of Janu­ary 14, 2021 (LINK).

The syl­labus will be appli­ed to a Ger­man IV (B2) and two Spa­nish IV cour­ses (B2) in spring 2021. L’ voice recor­dings will be coll­ec­ted at the cour­se out­set to accu­mu­la­te data on oral lan­guage pro­duc­tion (spea­king fluen­cy, pro­nun­cia­ti­on), and ques­ti­on­n­aires gage L oral lan­guage pro­duc­tion confidence.

The syl­labus fea­tures 14 main PP: in week 1+2, L deve­lop one fic­tion­al “cour­se cha­rac­ter” based on L’ Yes, and con­tri­bu­ti­ons; in week 2, each L deve­lo­ps a cha­rac­ter in rela­ti­on to that cour­se cha­rac­ter from week 1, their ava­tar. In week 3, the text­book sug­gests a role­play. L can act it out from their per­so­nal or their avatar’s per­spec­ti­ve. This allows them to compa­re what step­ping into a role and play­ing with it feels like. Weeks 4 and 5 use the same PP Who what whe­re: L are given a set­ting in week 4 but deve­lop a col­la­bo­ra­ti­ve one in week 5 and compa­re the dif­fe­rent effects for play­ing sce­nes in them. Week 6 fea­tures the topic body awa­re­ness through the PP Ali­en trans­la­tor: L com­mu­ni­ca­te in Zoom with muted micro­pho­nes to explo­re non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, while their part­ner L inter­pret the body lan­guage. Week 12 uses the same PP, but unmu­ted, so L pay atten­ti­on to both body and tar­get lan­guage. In week 7, focu­sing urban life, L deve­lop a vir­tu­al city and per­form sce­nes in it. In week 8, L read a novel excerpt, build tableaus and per­form from the cha­rac­ters’ point of view. In week 9, the­med around nut­ri­ti­on and men­tal health, L use the basic acti­vi­ty Yes, and to rein­force basic prac­ti­ces, as the PP get more com­plex. Per­forming idi­oms as cha­ra­des in week 10 is a com­mon PP in lan­guage pedago­gy. The last four cour­se weeks hold the most com­plex PP. L app­ly what they reflec­ted about and lear­ned from the PP to making an adver­ti­se­ment for a ser­vice com­pa­ny they deve­lop (week 11), hold an Ame­ri­can dis­cus­sion (L repeat pre­vious L’ argu­ments), and con­duct final  pos­ter ses­si­ons.

Reflec­tions take place in time slots allot­ted to the 14 les­sons inclu­ding PP, exit tickets, and evaluations.

Expected outcomes

L who took Ger­man III in fall 2020 were intro­du­ced to warm-up PP, role­plays, cha­rac­ter crea­ti­ons, and cha­ra­des, and fore­see­ab­ly embrace the PP included in Ger­man IV as more enga­ging acti­vi­ties com­pared other online clas­ses (as stu­dents shared in anony­mous cour­se eva­lua­tions). Their per­for­ma­ti­ve com­pe­tence to con­scious­ly use body lan­guage with the tar­get lan­guage, awa­re­ness for tone and volu­me, and pro­fes­sio­nal online appearance should increase. Some intro­vert or L new to PP might need more time to take to the inter­ac­ti­ve, holi­stic PP or tho­se requi­ring Zoom spot­light­ing. I sur­mi­se the cour­se atmo­sphe­re forms a com­mu­ni­ty pro­vi­ding L room to expe­ri­ment and explo­re safe­ly. L’ fluen­cy and pro­nun­cia­ti­on should pro­gress gra­du­al­ly, and reflec­ti­ve dis­cus­sions about the per­so­nal growth and lear­ning impact, espe­ci­al­ly of oral lan­guage skills through PP use, might make a posi­ti­ve dif­fe­rence to online lan­guage learning.


As I alre­a­dy use PP in Ger­man I and III cour­ses and becau­se one ses­si­on at the course’s end brings all L from my cour­ses tog­e­ther, it would be pos­si­ble to hold a “best of ses­si­on” whe­re L per­form for other L. Howe­ver, such ses­si­ons only suc­ceed with L’ wil­ling agree­ment. I will let L deci­de. If suc­cessful results tran­spi­re from cour­se feed­back, exit tickets, in-class reflec­tions, voice recor­dings, and ques­ti­on­n­aires, work­shops for LI broa­de­ning the use of PP online can be offe­red at our insti­tu­ti­on, and a paper or a con­fe­rence pre­sen­ta­ti­on inter­pre­ting the com­pa­ra­ble data bet­ween Spa­nish IV and Ger­man IV can ensue.


AIN (Appli­ed Impro­vi­sa­ti­on Net­work) [Octo­ber to Decem­ber 2020]

Ala­na, Lacy (2020): Faci­li­ta­ting inter­ac­ti­ve and enga­ged lear­ning spaces in a vir­tu­al world. For trai­ners, tea­chers, faci­li­ta­tors, mee­ting lea­ders, and anyo­ne who wants to level up their vir­tu­al skills [May 2020]

Com­mon Euro­pean Frame­work of Refe­ren­ces for Lan­guages (CERF), Coun­cil of Euro­pe

Eikel-Pohen (2017): Pre­sen­ting as Per­for­mance: Pain­less Prac­ti­ces for Pre­sen­ta­ti­ons in For­eign Lan­guages, in: Sce­na­rio Vol. 2017, Iss. 1, S. 17–32.

Eikel-Pohen, Mona (2021): Zoom­prov. Impro­vi­sa­ti­on exer­ci­s­es for lan­guage lear­ning in online clas­ses with Zoom or simi­lar tech for begin­ning and inter­me­dia­te lear­ners and bey­ond, [04.01.2021]

Howard, Pier­ce J. (2014). The owner’s manu­al for the brain. The ulti­ma­te gui­de to peak men­tal per­for­mance at all ages. 4th edi­ti­on. New York: Wil­liam Morrow.

Mages, Wen­dy K. (2020): Edu­ca­tio­nal Dra­ma and Theat­re Pedago­gy: An Inte­gral Part of Trai­ning Eng­lish-as-a-For­eign-Lan­guage Tea­chers, in: Sce­na­rio, Vol. XIV, Iss. 1, 2020, 12–25.

Mila­di­no­vić, Dra­gan (2019): Prin­zi­pi­en eines per­for­ma­ti­ven Fremd­spra­chen­un­ter­richts. Eine Bestands­auf­nah­me, in: Lern­be­we­gun­gen insze­nie­ren: Per­for­ma­ti­ve Zugän­ge in der Sprach‑, Lite­ra­tur- und Kul­tur­di­dak­tik. Fest­schrift für Man­fred Sche­we zum 65. Geburts­tag. Tübin­gen: Narr Fran­cke: 2019.

Sam­ba­nis, Michae­la, Wal­ter, Maik (2019): In Moti­on. Thea­ter­im­pul­se zum Spra­chen­ler­nen. Von neu­es­ten Befun­den der Neu­ro­wis­sen­schaft zu kon­kre­ten Unter­richts­im­pul­sen. Ber­lin: Cornelsen.

Sam­ba­nis, Michae­la (2013): Fremd­spra­chen­un­ter­richt und Neu­ro­wis­sen­schaf­ten. Tübin­gen: Narr Fran­cke Attemp­to: 2013.

Erstellt: 1. Juni 2021 
Aktua­li­siert: 7. Juni 2021 









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