Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Using the Literary Text to Engage Language Learners in a Multilingual Community

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Using the Literary Text to Engage Language Learners in a Multilingual Community

Article excerpt


This article discusses the use of Esmeralda Santiago's autobiography When I Was Puerto Rican (1994b) as the foundation for an experiential learning project that brought together two language communities: suburban college students studying intermediate Spanish and urban Puerto Rican students in an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) class. The researchers relate how the respective classes analyzed the text and its cultural framework in preparation for a cross-cultural encounter when both groups of students discussed their reaction to Santiago's story. This case study is offered as an example of how to use a literary text to achieve the objectives outlined in the Standards for Foreign Language Learning, standard 5: communities.

Key words: cross-cultural learning, ESL (English as a second language), experiential learning, literature, reading in a foreign language, Standards for Foreign Language Learning

Language: English, Spanish


Since 1996, the Standards for Foreign Language Learning (National Standards, 1996) have provided foreign language educators with a helpful set of organizing principles for curriculum design. These principles, easily remembered as the five Cs (communication, culture, connections, comparisons, and communities), are now informing the practices of language teachers across the nation. They are also improving the content and character of the foreign language classroom by providing specific demonstrable outcomes in terms of student learning. Although the first standard (communication) addresses the traditional goal of the foreign language classroom, the new framework changes the paradigm of instruction from the traditional four-skills approach (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to one that includes different modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational). The second standard (culture) transforms the customary integration of culture in the foreign language classroom from notions of culture with a capital C (e.g., literature, the arts) and with a lowercase c (e.g., traditions, folklore) to one that encourages students to take an ethnographical approach in their learning. The new principles (products, practices, and perspectives) help learners see how specific products and practices of a culture are closely related to the distinct perspectives of a people. According to Lange (1999), this definition avoids the common, overworked conflict between capital C and lowercase c by interweaving the formal and informal aspects of daily life. The other three standards expand the scope of foreign language instruction by promoting the exploration of interdisciplinary content (connections), helping students develop insights into the nature of language and culture as systems (comparisons), and seeking ways to test learners' competencies beyond the classroom (communities) (Phillips, 1999).

The most challenging of the five Cs is communities, given the logistics required in bringing students to a place of genuine interaction with the community that speaks the target language they are studying. The objective of communities in the standards is defined as providing an opportunity to "participate in multilingual communities at home and around the world." This objective is further described as:

5.1: Students use the language both within and beyond the school setting

5.2: Students show evidence of becoming lifelong learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment.

These two objectives are inherently linked because once students find they can use the target language beyond the school setting, they are more likely to achieve the second objective, which depends much more on their own motivation than on what teachers can coordinate as part of classroom outcomes.

The National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project (1996) provides a list of helpful suggestions to encourage interaction with the community. …

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