Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Spoken Spanish Language Development at the High School Level: A Mixed-Methods Study

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Spoken Spanish Language Development at the High School Level: A Mixed-Methods Study

Article excerpt

The rise of communicative language learning has led to widespread acceptance of communicative competence as a primary goal of language education and, as such, central to good classroom practice (Savignon, 1997). This approach to language instruction emphasizes the ability to communicate in a second language in real]life situations both inside and beyond the classroom. Instead of measuring language learning in terms of seat time, test scores, or number of credit hours, communicative skills are demonstrated through task]based communicative activities. As a result of this emphasis on oral communication, proficiency has emerged as central to communicative language learning and teaching. However, there is a lack of research at the classroom level that reveals what students are able to do with oral language after one, two, three, and four years of language study. There is a paucity of research relating specifically to the development of spoken language at the secondary level (Tschirner & Heilenman, 1998). Although several studies have offered a glimpse of classroom-based proficiency ratings for the high school language learner (for examples, see Glisan & Foltz, 1998; Huebner & Jensen, 1992; Moeller & Reschke, 1993; Steinmeyer, 1984), the data have been strictly quantitative and have been conducted within educational systems with no consideration of related and potentially confounding factors, such as the teacher, during the exploration of oral language production.

Due to such limitations, as well as substantial differences in results, particularly at the beginning levels of language learning in secondary classrooms, this study explored students' progress toward proficiency over a period of 5 years using a combination of qualitative methods, including thematic coding and organization, to reveal overarching trends in oral spoken language, and quantitative methods, including the Standards- Based Measurement of Proficiency (STAMP) test, a teacher-independent, computer- mediated measure of oral language proficiency.1 Purposefully integrating mixed methods offers "a very powerful mix" (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 42) that develops "a complex" picture of oral language development (Greene & Caracelli, 1997, p. 7). In choosing this integrative data design, the researchers' purpose was one of complementarity, a design element used to measure overlapping, but distinct, facets of a phenomenon under investigation (Caracelli & Greene, 1993). Results from one method-in this case, qualitative data-were used to enhance, illustrate, or clarify results from the other method-in this case, quantitative data (Greene & McClintock, 1985).

Quantitative research questions for this study investigated the growth trajectory of spoken Spanish over four consecutive years of high school Spanish learning. Quantitative questions also delved into the variance in spoken production scores that was attributable to teacher differences or individual student differences. In addition, a qualitative analysis of students' speech samples was also carried out using a rubric that was developed to quantify particular aspects of the raw speech samples and thus create more detailed learner profiles and illustrate a range of language production. These data helped clarify and build upon the quantitative findings in order to establish a depth of understanding of spoken language production at specific intervals during language learning-specifically, at the end of years one, two, three, and four.

Literature Review

This overview of previous research addresses stated performance expectations, as well as contributions and limitations of existing studies investigating oral language production and proficiency. A brief overview of the value added of mixed methodology is also addressed.

Oral Language Production and Proficiency

What can students truly achieve with consecutive years of language study? According to the performance guidelines issued by ACTFL (1998), after four consecutive years of second language study, teachers should expect students to perform at the Intermediate Low level of language proficiency. …

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