Listen to my interview with Rebecca Blouwolff (transcript):
“I took French for three years, but I can’t speak any French.” Some version of this is expressed by so many of us who took a language class in school. The lack of connection between school-based language classes and actually learning how to speak that language seems to be something we’ve just accepted.
This is probably due to the way languages have traditionally been taught: Lots of vocabulary and book work, verb conjugations, occasional bite-sized “culture” studies, and scripted dialogues that don’t give students much real-life practice using the language in real situations.
But if you stopped by a world language class today, you might be surprised to find that a lot of those traditional practices are disappearing: Textbooks are being replaced with more authentic resources, culture is integrated in a more organic way across all activities, and there’s a much bigger emphasis on helping kids learn to actually communicate in the whole language, rather than just master parts of it.
I first became aware of these shifts when I met Rebecca Blouwolff, a French teacher in Boston who interviewed me for the We Teach Languages podcast this past spring. Getting to know Rebecca, I could see how excited she was about some of the changes she’d made to her practice in recent years, and she mentioned how different things were getting across the board in the world language teaching community.
So naturally I wanted to know more. In our podcast interview, which you can listen to above, Rebecca shares six of the most significant changes she has made to the way she teaches her own French class, changes that reflect a growing trend among world language teachers across the board.
If you want a more comprehensive look at all the shifts in world language instruction, two documents from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) will help to flesh out the thinking behind the changes:
- The Six Core Practices for language learning recommended by the ACTFL
- A Skills Map for world language learning produced by the ACTFL in collaboration with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Six Shifts in World Language Teaching
1. Students learn to USE the language instead of learning ABOUT the language
It used to be that world language teachers could opt to use English for most of their instructional communication and only use the new language for structured lessons or activities. Although there have always been language teachers who insisted on speaking as much of the new language as possible, many other teachers tended to isolate the new language to structured lessons without really requiring students to use the language to communicate throughout a class period.
But now all world language teachers are encouraged to use the new language much more: The ACTFL recommends that teachers and students use the new language for 90 percent of class time. The rationale is that regular use of the language will result in greater fluency and proficiency in day-to-day communication.
“No one is signing up for my class because they’ve always dreamt of learning the subjunctive, right?” Blouwolff says. “I think everyone who takes a language class wants to talk to people in the language, but we had not been delivering on that promise in previous generations.”
This doesn’t mean the teacher simply barrels ahead with the new language in a way that students have no chance of understanding.
“It can’t just be that I get up there and yap on in French and maybe the kids are listening and maybe they’re not,” Blouwolff explains. “It has to be what we call comprehensible input. I’m providing meaningful messages in a way that they can digest them, and I am designing lessons so that I’m getting tons of feedback on which parts they’re able to process and understand. I’m scaffolding for them so that from the very first days, they know enough French to be able to respond to me either nonverbally or with very, very simple words.”
2. Communicative activities are given priority
Whereas the speaking that happened in language classes of the past was often highly structured, focusing mainly on getting the correct answer to a set of exercises, more emphasis is now being given to activities that require students to actively communicate with each other.
This shift begins with the way the teacher interacts with students.
“So often as teachers,” Blouwolff says, “our talk with students is evaluative in nature. Teacher asks a question, student gives an answer, and then the teacher says something like, Good job, yes! “
To create a language speaking community, she says, “we really need to quell the desire to give that evaluative answer and try to be more interactive, like, Oh really? Tell me more about that. You’re going to the movies this weekend? Are you going to go to this movie theater? This shows that we’re curious about what our students have to say, so we’re encouraging them to keep talking in the language.”
Along the same lines, discussion activities are also changing to require more active, relevant communication between students.
For example, instead of having students talk about what they did over the weekend, Blouwolff might say, “Talk to your partner about their weekend until you found two things that you both did and two things that were different. And then I might say, having done that, decide who had the more physically active weekend.” In this way, students are not just listing activities for an exercise; they’re having a conversation about something that might be more inherently interesting to them.
3. Grammar is taught in the context of other meaningful activities
“In the past,” Blouwolff says, “I think we had this idea that we had to give students all the rules before they were allowed to create with language at all. So don’t even think about the past tense until you know all six forms this way and that way.”
Now with the larger emphasis on functional communication, “We’re really backing up and saying, what do we need students to be able to do? In order to do that specific task, what grammar would they need? What language would they need?”
So rather than teaching grammar in isolation, with students completing dozens of conjugations, concepts are taught in small chunks as needed to meet a particular communication goal.
“When we present those chunks as vocabulary and not as tricky grammar,” Blouwolff says, “the kids are able to use it right away. Even my first-year French students can say, ‘I went,’ and if I give them that, they can tell me all the places they went over the weekend. But if you were to look at a traditional textbook, absolutely no way would students be allowed to form a past tense irregular verb in the first year. That’s just not going to happen.”
“I think the fact that we don’t tell them it’s tricky grammar makes it go down a lot easier. The focus now is really on, do you know enough so that you can convey a message, and who would understand your message? Depending on how accurate you are, maybe only another world language teacher can understand your French right now. Maybe next year you’ll be able to be understood by a patient native speaker who’s accustomed to non-natives. And then the goal would be someday you could stop a busy person on the streets of Paris, and they would listen to you.
“But we’re not aiming there right away. If we insist on perfection from the get-go, most people just drop out, because that’s not how we’re built to communicate.”
4. Students examine authentic cultural resources
“For far too long,” Blouwolff says, “culture was relegated to these little blurbs in the textbook chapters, and if you had extra time you would read them and sometimes they were really awful. Or maybe some teachers were doing a thing like culture Fridays.”
In place of these activities, she says, “We’re using audio and text that were created by and for native speakers. So these are not materials for language learners: things like children’s books, YouTube videos, finger plays, pop songs, advertisements, tweets. The textbook really is not the curriculum anymore, and when we take these authentic resources and start using them at the center of our courses, then culture becomes the curriculum. But it just happens to be taught, for example, in French.”
For this approach to work, teachers need to select these materials with care. “We do have to be very intentional about the texts we choose, making sure that they’re appropriate for the level of our learners, that there’s tons of visual support, that the way they’re laid out really makes it clear what’s going on. And then we can create tasks that are appropriate.”
One activity Blouwolff did with her students was watching real estate videos in French. While watching, students are likely to notice some cultural differences, like the fact that homes in France keep the toilet in a separate room from the rest of the bathroom.
“They will initially often have a yuck factor,” she says, “like That’s so gross. How can the sink not be with the toilet? So we can try to take some of that judgment off of it by looking at it as a cultural product and then thinking about, okay, what’s the practice? What is the thing going on in this culture that makes this practice make sense? And it’s just a different way of looking at it.”
5. Instruction is planned using backward design
Just as in so many other subject areas, language teachers have traditionally followed the lead of their textbooks to plan instruction: They follow the book’s path through a series of exercises, then create and deliver some sort of assessment (or use one provided by the textbook company) when the exercises are done.
Although this approach allows teachers to cover a lot of content, the priority is exactly that: coverage, rather than real transfer of knowledge. This is another likely explanation for why so many students leave language classes without knowing how to speak the language.
“For so many years I felt that I was a necessary prisoner of my textbook, and that was my curriculum. The textbooks I have seen for world language cover a ridiculous amount of vocabulary and grammar, and maybe that sells more books because you get so much for your buck, but it’s totally unrealistic in terms of what kids are going to retain.”
When language teachers shift to planning with backward design—where they start by developing an assessment for a clear, measurable outcome, then plan lessons to enable students to succeed on that assessment—they keep the focus on goals for real communication.
“It’s so important that we start with the end in mind,” Blouwolff says. “What do we want our students to be able to do at the end of a unit? What do we hope our students will be able to write at the end of this unit? What do we hope they will be able to talk about? What would that sound like with their language level?”
Blouwolff heightens the impact of this kind of planning by sharing these goals with students at the beginning of each unit. For example, “At the end of this unit,” she’ll tell them, “I’m going to ask you, tell me about your town and then compare it to Quebec City. So there’s no stress at the end. Everyone knows. But there’s also some motivation. Like, how close am I getting to be able to do that? Why is she talking about this? Oh right, because at the end of the unit, we have to be able to XYZ.”
Keeping the end goal transparent not only boosts motivation for students. “It’s super exciting for the teachers,” Blouwolff says, “because they’re like, OK, let’s see how we can get there, what’s going to happen, you know? There is that discovery moment at the end that’s very different than correcting your publisher written unit exam.”
6. Teachers regularly provide appropriate feedback
In the past, assessment meant measuring what students can’t do. Now language teachers are trying to put more focus on the progress students are making.
“We’re absolutely not marking every error and all the more so when they’re speaking; we’re not going to interrupt students speaking to let them know that they said this or that wrong,” Blouwolff explains. “Number one, it’ll just shut them down. Number two, they’re never going to remember the correction and reuse it in all likelihood. They’re too busy thinking of what they’re going to try to say.
“So I think what teachers can do is look for patterns of error and think about giving maybe one or two pieces of feedback to students on their work. I really like that model of glow and grow: Here’s something that you did really well, here’s an area where you could improve.”
To help teachers get a sense for what students should be capable of at each stage of language learning, ACTFL has defined proficiency levels students go through as they progress in their language development. Blouwolff appreciates having these targets on hand. “I know, for example, in French 7, I need to get my kids to what we call a Novice High. And that level has very particular characteristics that I want my students to know and understand in a really deep way, so that they know what they need to do to reach that level and then even to surpass it.”
Other frameworks like Shrum and Glisan’s T.A.L.K. rubric measure qualities beyond language proficiency, like whether students are cooperative with other group members in a discussion. Including factors like these in assessment and feedback furthers the big-picture emphasis on quality communication.
“Years ago,” Blouwolff says, “I was having kids recite skits where it literally did not matter what the other person said, because you’d memorized your half, and you were reciting that no matter what happened. This is much more like what they’re working towards: talking to people in another language.”