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SWIMMING IN THE SEA OF LANGUAGE

by Jennifer Garci (Upper School World Languages Department Academic Leader)

Imagine telling someone you’re a swimmer.  You might say you’d taken lessons for years, had been taught at least five different strokes, and oh yeah, you’d always watched the summer Olympics.  Now we’re on a boating trip in the ocean and there’s an emergency: “Person overboard!” I look at you and yell: “Do something!” Then you (and I and everyone on the boat!) realize, you’re not that kind of swimmer.  Or maybe it’s skiing.  Or cooking. Or, in our case, speaking a world language.  


A few years ago, the World Languages Department began transforming our curriculum.  We focused more on proficiency and moved away from performance (say exactly this, memorize these lines, fill in this box).  We began exploring the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) proficiency guidelines, which classify speakers of any language according to their skill, according to their mastery, according to what they CAN DO with the language.   


Do you speak in just words or can you say some phrases?  Do you communicate in whole sentences or in entire paragraphs?  Can you express yourself in different time frames and discuss abstract concepts?  How rich and varied is your vocabulary? Do you connect your sentences, can you offer elaborate ideas, and are you asking questions?  All these factors are used to establish a person’s proficiency level -- which can be measured. All our students speak a world language, but at what proficiency level is the real discussion. 


Teaching students to speak is our primary focus, followed by listening, reading, and writing.  That’s not to say that we don’t still teach grammar and vocabulary, the former heart of any traditional language program; but rather, grammar and vocabulary are now the scaffolding, the support system, to get students to talk about something.  Content is the vehicle, but the path is what a person can do with the language. 


Our dedicated language teachers guide students through dynamic courses built around current topics, news, and culture.  It could be Traditions in Central America, Political Unrest in Cataluña, Sci-Fi in French Film, Transformation in Kigali, Rwanda, China’s Population Policy, or Trade War with the US and China.  With the school-wide work with Understanding by Design (UbD), we pose Essential Questions to our students, and as scaffolding, as support, we create unique vocabulary lists for each thematic unit and teach grammar in context, spiraling it again and again throughout our topics.  How does our environment shape our identity? Why are traditions different from culture to culture? How do activists create real change in their communities? In what ways is education different from country to country? Yes, your students are talking about these topics!


Assessment has also evolved.  First and foremost we focus on Interpersonal Speaking -- unrehearsed, spontaneous conversation.  As teachers we are listening to our students to see and hear what I described above: words, phrases, sentences, and/or paragraphs; an ever-expanding vocabulary, connectors, accurate grammar, and multiple verb tenses (where appropriate).  Additionally, we assess Presentational Speaking -- rehearsed, planned speech -- Presentational and Interpersonal Writing, Interpretive Listening, and Interpretive Reading. And what are the results? A measurement of the proficiency of our students.  This measurement means something -- to our students, to colleges and universities, and to future employers. In actuality, it doesn’t matter for how many years you studied a language, or if you are fluent (a word that has little true meaning). Rather, knowing your proficiency level has quantifiable value and real meaning.  Proficiency can be measured, fluency cannot.  


The most recent change we made was renaming our Upper School courses to reflect the proficiency levels.   Additionally, we have added a Spanish for Heritage Learners course. This course recognizes that heritage learners often possess different proficiency levels, particularly in their speaking and writing, than from our traditional, second-language learning population. 


So which class will students take at the Upper School?  Levels 1 and 2 fall into the Novice category and levels 3 and 4 are now Intermediate levels.  In essence, we place students in the appropriate swimming pool. Anything too deep and they’ll be paddling and getting nowhere, and possibly drown.  Anything too shallow and they won’t be challenged and feel like they’re in the kiddie pool. For this reason, every student including rising 9th graders (taking a spoken language; Latin is the current exception) and students new to DA, is assessed and individually placed. Students take courses according to their individual proficiency levels, and not the number of years they have studied a language.  Attending to our students as unique language learners allows some students to practice at a level a bit longer if needed and some to accelerate to a higher level.  Students have a more valuable classroom experience, working with peers of similar skill, swimming together and supporting one another.


In all, our PK-12 program emphasizes proficiency. Our PS and LS Spanish programs have always emphasized oral proficiency and continue to do so.  Next on the horizon is to consider where students are on the proficiency scale when exiting those programs. Our MS program is currently bound by unique limitations of scheduling and grade levels, yet our MS teachers continue to ACTFL-ize their program in their teaching methods, assessment, and helping to place their students in the appropriate US courses.  Furthermore, most of the MS teachers along with a few US teachers will be attending (or have recently attended) the annual ACTFL convention, where they’ll be connecting with thousands of other language teachers from across the world, learning methods, sharing successes, and looking for ways to further challenge our students and to bring new ideas and tools into our dynamic spaces.  


In all, it’s an exciting day in world language education and it’s an exciting time at DA.  Come visit us in the Hock Center, where the World Language teachers are finally all together, collaboratively sharing and working in an inspiring new space.  And when you have a minute, ask an Upper Schooler what their proficiency level is as they swim in the sea of language education here at DA!