Language learning seeks depth

Students expected to think critically and interact meaningfully
By: | Issue: November, 2015
October 12, 2015

Preparing students for an increasingly global workforce means teaching them not only how to speak a second language, but how to think critically in that language and have a deep understanding of the culture and geography that are embedded in it.

Increases in rigor and depth are a focus of this year’s American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) conference, which will be held Nov. 20 to 22 in San Diego.

“I think people are beginning to see the need for world language proficiency at a higher level than has been produced,” says ACTFL President Jacqueline Van Houten, also a world languages specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky.

The conference will feature hundreds of presentations and workshops over several days, including many focused on updates to ACTFL’s World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. The revisions, first released in 2013, have driven subtle but important shifts in classroom practices.

Changing standards

The language standards set goals in five areas: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons and communities.

Prior to the update, students were expected to “engage in conversation, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions” in a foreign language. Now, the standards call for students to “interact and negotiate meaning” as well as share information, feelings and opinions.

In the past, when a few students were asked to talk about their day in a foreign language, their classmates could sit and listen politely, says Paul Sandrock, director of education at ACTFL and a conference presenter. Now, students should be asked to decide, for example, who had a busier day, which requires debate and making value judgments.

Students should now learn not only to understand and interpret language, but to analyze itÑusing higher-level thinking skills to discuss and debate meaning rather than focusing simply on the ability to translate content word for word.

Another way to help students develop abilities like critical thinking in another language is to look at the 12 skills for college and career readiness laid out by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21).

Then, teachers should choose one skill that each language lesson will target and build a lesson or student project that not only teaches language skills but asks students to demonstrate P21 skills like problem solving, says an ACTFL presenter Lauren Rosen, director of Collaborative Language at the University of Wisconsin.

Teachers can go one step further by incorporating technologies that can help foster those skills. With programs like Google Hangouts, students can talk to their peers in other countries. They can also use smartphones to take pictures and create presentations that demonstrate vocabulary skills, Rosen says.

Expand immersion programs

ACTFL continues to see a huge proliferation of immersion programs in classrooms across the nation’s schools, particularly in Spanish, Chinese and, most recently, Arabic, says ACTFL Executive Director Marty Abbott.

About 10 percent of students in Portland Public Schools in Oregon are enrolled in an immersion program. The district recently completed a three-year, federally funded study that showed gains in student literacy in such programs, and offered insight into the reasons behind their success.

For one, students in Portland’s programs are encouraged to speak in the partner language as much as possible, says Michael Bacon, assistant director of Portland’s Department of Dual Language and an ACTFL presenter.

That means teaching content subjects in the second language and encouraging students to speak that language in the hallways and cafeteria.

“Another non-negotiable is that every lesson is a content lesson and a language lesson,” Bacon says. “Even when teaching math, you have to have an objective around language.”

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.