Effective World Language Learning and Instruction

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 immersion-like 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. The language teacher helps students use the skills they already control at a given level to practice the skills they will need to control at the next level. This commitment to developing language proficiency leads to real evidence of what students can do in the language. Such evidence should ensure that students don’t start over when they enter high school.

This approach is at the core of Jillian Lykens’ German language class at Beaumont Middle School in Kentucky.
“When planning units, I avoid mapping out lessons based on what grammatical structure they will learn, but focus rather on what the students will be able to do with the language by the end. With a real-world task in mind, I then work backward to fill in any new vocabulary and sentence structures that may be needed to accomplish this task. Students are proud of themselves when they feel they can actually use the language in a creative, communicative manner. Planning units based on ‘can-do’ statements rather than grammatical points allows them to accomplish this.”

Lykens goes on to explain this standards-based approach as the key to organizing her curriculum around “the skills necessary for students to be able to really ‘use’ the language. Rather than planning a lesson with the goal that the students can use the irregular verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be,’ I can plan an activity that is relevant to the middle school students based on the [Kentucky Standards’] Sample Learning Target of ‘I can describe another person’s personality.’”

For example, to learn how to use the phrases “he/she has” and “he/she is,” the students find out as much as they can about a new student in the school and share that information. “Through this, they are practicing the use of personality trait vocabulary, physical appearance terms, and verb phrases in both question and statement form.”

Beaumont Middle School French language teacher Laura Roché Youngworth explains how she creates tasks that help students move to higher levels of proficiency by applying what they are learning in meaningful ways.
“The first and most significant change I have embraced is a focus on purpose, and this purpose reflects real-world goals. For example, at the beginning of the year for seventh graders, we focus on greetings, introductions, spelling our names, and telling where we are from. In class activities we have the students up and moving, simulating meeting others in formal and informal scenarios and then writing ‘text messages’ to classmates sent by paper ‘email.’

“We then explore the cultural activity of marionette shows in the parks of France and watch YouTube videos made by parents filming their kids at different shows. Students take their two weeks of knowledge, create marionettes, and write their own marionette performance incorporating a moral of politeness towards others … This event sets the expectation for my students that we will use our French in real-world ways and that even a novice level speaker can function.”

Guiding Principle #3

Instruction should be integrated with the middle school curriculum, supporting literacy and tapping the rich content from other subject areas.

Effective world-language instruction provides students with the skills and knowledge to communicate in the real world.

Students need to talk, read, and write about something—to make connections. All middle school subjects are perfect for “mining” content and topics for discussion, extending understanding, and making comparisons beyond the textbook. These national standards also align perfectly with the four strands of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy, emphasizing the purpose of communication behind each of the skills: interpersonal communication (listening and speaking), interpretive communication (listening and reading), and presentational communication (speaking and writing).

Meghan Coates from Highland Park Middle School in Texas identifies specific Common Core literacy skills she develops through the teaching of Spanish: “Teaching kids how to ask questions and circumlocute are crucial skills as well. I use stories about my own experiences—my times that I have fallen short on vocabulary knowledge and have had to circumlocute or ask a zillion questions to get directions, get help, or order a meal off a menu.”

Critical thinking skills also can be developed in the world language classroom. Lorig Topalian explains how she did this by setting up “a mock trial of a particularly cruel character in a story we read. Despite his obvious guilt to those who have read the story, some impartial juries found him innocent because either he had great lawyers who can manipulate the information at hand to their advantage or the prosecution had lawyers who lack that skill. Again, they realized that they can’t just have an opinion but must be able to know why they have that opinion and explain it well to others.”

Guiding Principle #4

Middle level students are explorers. Therefore, through world language instruction, students should experience language, culture, and content first-hand; students should be learning about themselves and their world by examining another culture and its language.

Rather than focusing on abstract data and facts unrelated to their lives, middle level students need to use language to explore the similarities and differences of languages, practices, products, and perspectives other than their own.

Alina Lee of Murphy Middle School in Texas’ Plano Independent School District shares how students learn to explore their own and another culture:

“As things are introduced and taught, I expect [students] to use them in the daily classroom experiences. I also use them when I talk to [students] in the target language to make it a part of our routine … I always have a funny saying or phrase I find on Pinterest on my screen to welcome them to class. I do not translate it for them. Every day, I see students running into class to find out what we are doing and what the funny of the day is. They enjoy figuring it out using the picture clues or context … I love it when I hear them laughing and saying they got it!” These students clearly have the explorer attitude!

Meghan Coates explains how she develops this attitude: “If you make your classroom engaging and applicable to their lives outside of your classroom, students are far more willing to invest time and energy into learning a new language. Having your kids tweet in Spanish or make fake Facebook profiles or make a case file on a dangerous criminal for the FBI takes what they might actually do in real life and brings it into the classroom.

“Students forget that they’re actually doing tough work—using tough verbs or lots of vocabulary—because it’s fun and interesting. They begin to do things like post statuses or tweets or pictures on Instagram using their Spanish—because it’s not weird. They’ve done it a million times in class.”

The Gift of Access

World languages are an important component of learning in the middle grades and give students the gift of access to more people, perspectives, ideas, and experiences. Alina Lee says her students would agree. “They say they use their Spanish all the time—at restaurants, at the movies, at the mall, and even at soccer practice!”

Listen to a podcast with author Paul Sandrock


Paul Sandrock is director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, Virginia.  psandrock@actfl.org  www.actfl.org

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, April 2014