Academic journal article Italica

Doing It All in the First Year: Curricular Decisions for Italian Elementary Language Instruction (1)

Academic journal article Italica

Doing It All in the First Year: Curricular Decisions for Italian Elementary Language Instruction (1)

Article excerpt


The structural syllabus, or the linear presentation of grammatical structures in foreign language textbooks, is associated with the tradition of teaching Latin, which served as the model for the grammar-translation method of foreign language instruction in the early to mid twentieth century. The goals of this method, to develop translation and reading skills, were directly linked to the grammar-based curriculum. Today, most first-year textbooks in the Romance languages continue to be organized by a structural syllabus that has a more or less all-inclusive scope. However, research in second language acquisition (SLA) and foreign language instruction has moved the profession away from the traditional, grammar-based approach toward communicative language teaching, teaching for proficiency, and an emphasis on the four language skills. As a result, the goals of instruction have expanded. However, the grammatical scope of texts has changed very little. That is, while covering almost the same amount of grammar that was presented in traditional, grammar-based courses, today's first-year foreign language learners are also expected to develop spontaneous and appropriate oral production, to learn strategies for reading and writing in the target language, to develop listening skills by viewing videos and spending time outside of the classroom in the language laboratory and finally to learn about the target language culture. As Tschirner (2) points out, "[s]omething has to give. We cannot add component after component to the first-year syllabus; some component of the syllabus will eventually have to be sacrificed."

In the traditional Italian language curriculum at the university level, all or most of the grammar is presented in the first year and then reviewed in the second. However, it is becoming difficult to 'do it all' in the first year because the skills that we expect learners to develop and the amount of material covered continue to expand. This paper examines the problems with an all-inclusive, first-year grammar curriculum and, like several studies over the past twenty five years, calls for a reduction in the scope of the first-year language sequence. After a brief discussion of why instructors continue to find it necessary to teach all the grammar in the first year, the research that examines what students are actually capable of achieving after one year of language study is explored. The results show a mismatch between the amount of grammar that can be acquired and that which is actually presented in the first-year classroom. Finally, rather than selecting the features to be postponed on the basis of intuition, and classroom experience of what appears to be beyond the abilities of students in the first year, a reasoned strategy for reducing the curriculum is presented.

Why do it all in the first year?

Despite an overloaded curriculum, instructors continue to feel obligated to cover all grammar points in the first year for two primary reasons: the desire to satisfy students' expectations, and their own desire for accuracy. Students expect to cover the material presented in the text because they believe that the faster they learn all the structures, the faster they will move up the curriculum and, thus, acquire Italian. However, instructors cannot let students' perceptions of the foreign language acquisition process guide their instructional decisions. The public has an unrealistic sense of how long it takes to learn a foreign language (Schulz; Tschirner); Hammond points out that

   one of the major errors we have committed in the second or foreign
   language teaching profession is that of leading students to believe
   that they can become fluent speakers of a second language in a two
   to four year period. (412) (2)

The reality of language learning is that it takes a long time. Structures have to be integrated into complex interlanguage systems. …

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