Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Effective World Language Learning and Instruction

Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Effective World Language Learning and Instruction

Article excerpt

Middle schools across the United States use a variety of models for teaching languages. The strategies range from providing brief experiences in multiple languages across the middle school grades to providing full immersion programs where all instruction and learning is done in languages other than English.

What model is most effective? Rather than identifying a single model, let's identify guiding principles based on real examples of effective language learning. Then, schools can determine what works for their students and teachers.

Guiding principle #1

Instruction must be in the world language, providing immersionlike learning experiences. Students learn a second language through communication and use the second language for communication.

From the first day of language learning, students need to be immersed in the language. Teachers should begin with the assumption that students will not understand what they hear, read, or view, then make the language understandable by filling the content, activities, and comprehension checks with meaning. As students move from highly scaffolded activities using the language to increasingly independent application of the language, they develop strategies to understand and to be understood. This rich language-learning environment, with ongoing attention to helping students make meaning, builds their language proficiency.

Lorig Topalian taught middle school Spanish in the Plano Independent School District in Texas and explains her strategy for getting students to buy into this approach:

"At the start of the year I have an honest conversation with my students about what they are about to experience. We come to the conclusion that the point of learning a language is to be able to communicate ideas with other people. Then I outline why language immersion is critical to achieving that.

"I explain my strategies to them and give them my reasons. I explain why you aren't allowed to translate for your friend if they are having trouble understanding (because then they will rely on you and not try to figure out what I'm saying). I talk about why using a Spanish-English dictionary is not encouraged in my classes (odds are good you won't remember the word later and might not even be using the correct translation for the meaning you seek. It's better to use the Spanish words you know to work around it because you'll remember it better and will be practicing things you know)."

Meghan Coates, Spanish language teacher at Highland Park Middle School in Texas, is committed to providing an immersion language learning experience from day one: "My students have to be put in situations where they are forced to use the target language. They learn to speak and ask questions because they have to. Students speak every day (and for the majority of the class period)- whether in a small group, large group, with me, or with peers. They are constantly practicing speaking [rather than writing] in the target language, as this is the one skill they're most likely to use in another country."

What does this look like in a daily lesson? Lorig Topalian describes her approach: "We don't learn how to form affirmative informal commands in my classes. Instead, we learn how to be bossy with our younger siblings by pointing at them and, with a strong and authoritative voice, shouting '¡Saca la basura!' (Take out the trash).

"After learning enough 'bossy phrases,' students look for patterns so they can create their own bossy phrases in the future. Learning a language is about communication. Given a meaningful context students will seek out ways to learn more in order to communicate their thoughts and ideas."

Guiding Principle #2

Instruction needs to lead to movement upward on the scale of proficiency; an earlier start provides students with more options to achieve greater proficiency.

This means that the curriculum is not based on teaching all the grammar rules until students are "ready" to speak, nor is it based on students learning vocabulary in isolation. …

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