What I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago About Teaching A World Language

Kristin Mancini

Kristin has dedicated her 15 years in education as a Spanish teacher and World Language leader. She is currently the District-wide World Language Coach for Branford Public Schools, CT. Kristin enjoys helping teachers re-imagine curricular units.

A couple of years ago, I was the curriculum coordinator in charge of reimagining our World Language courses for grades K-12. After the project was over, the seeds that were planted in our curriculum writing grew to further innovation. Here are just some of the epiphanies I have had since the writing process:

You don’t need a textbook

Students need high interest and engaging topics, but you don’t need a textbook to get you there. Can you re-imagine your favorite “travel chapter” into a travel experience more high interest and engaging for kids? The online resources we have available to us now far exceed any that can be published in a textbook. One of my favorites is  Newspaper Map —  all of the latest news from any newspaper in any country you desire! What about using novels? There are so many readers/novels out there, that are comprehensible to students, that connect to cultural topics and themes, and are more high interest to kids than textbook pages. Students will also feel accomplished that they read a whole novel in the target language!

Check out new authors like Jennifer Degenhardt who is a teacher herself and knows what students will find high interest and engaging, on puenteslanguage.com (books also available on Amazon).

You don’t need long, predetermined vocabulary lists

Speaking of textbooks … is that where the long vocabulary lists were born? When we hand out vocabulary lists of 25-50 words at the beginning of a unit, how many of them do we think students are going to use during our unit? How many will they actually remember after the unit ends? Should we assess them on all 50 words? This year we are mucking around with allowing students to personalize their own vocabulary acquisition.

In some classes there are no more predetermined lists, in my sophomore honors courses I still give them a fairly long list of words related to an AP theme, but this time I allow them to personalize their learning by selecting 15 of the words to learn and use in context during the unit. They write definitions in Spanish for these words and use them in sentences and paragraphs/stories that connect to their own worlds.

You don’t have to be an expert on a topic to teach it (or even know that much about it)

Ten years ago I would have never walked into my classroom not having read or re-read a story the students read or previewed a film we were going to view. That would have meant that I was unprepared for class, right? Step away from that misconception. Last year a colleague came to visit my classroom while I was stressing over reading a story and preparing for class the next period. He told me to go in cold, not read it, and let the discussion go where it would. He promised me it would be great. I looked at him like he was crazy, but I went for it.

Since I had no agenda for which points to highlight, I found that I let the kids have much more control than ever. Students even asked me a few questions I didn’t know the answer to. I owned it, found my confidence, and told the students that I was discovering the text along with them for the first time. Here is your perfect opportunity to make good use of electronic devices in the classroom … I asked a few students to take out their devices and use an App to look up a few words and then we worked as a class to make meaning of the short story in Spanish.

In another class where we were discussing a film based on a mining accident in Chile. Some students had some specific “fact type” questions about the accident that I could never have been prepared for even if I had watched the film ten times before class. “Take out your devices and let’s figure out the answer to that question together.” The teacher doesn’t always have to be the expert.

You don’t have to give big tests to assess student learning

Stop giving full period tests that include every single item from the last few weeks of instruction. In my department, most of our assessments are less than 30 minute formative grammar “check-ins”, lab, informal/formal writing, or vocabulary assessments. Anything longer than that is a Performance Based Assessment (PBA) where students are showing understanding of multiple skills and knowledge, and that they can transfer their learning.

You don’t need to spend hours marking up rough drafts of papers, you can conference with students (and the papers will end up better)

This has probably been the most eye opening of all for me. Every year I assign a research type paper in our most advanced level Spanish class. Students choose a work of literature and a theme, and analyze the theme within the work drawing on scholarly sources, etc. I spend hours grading the first draft, asking questions, and marking up the paper with red ink. Last year I scheduled conferences instead. I sat with each student and read and talked through the papers together.

If the introduction wasn’t clear, I asked them what they were trying to say instead of writing out questions to them that I would never get the answers to. I realized that conferences were a much better use of my time, I was spending less time marking up papers with comments students may or may not read, and the students were now getting even better LIVE feedback. Win-win. The final versions of the papers were better than ever before.

What about grammar errors? For my sophomore honors students, I am focusing on having students self-reflect on their own errors. Both the students and teacher focus on just 4-5 types of errors during correction and peer editing (tense of verb, gender, etc). Students reflect on which type of error they seem to be making most and why. This led to some error-correction conferences last year where I had students talk to me in small groups about the types of errors they are making, why, and what they are doing to improve them.

You don’t need to worry so much about whether the students will be comfortable as you immerse them in target language.

Every week my sophomore honors students go to the language lab to engage in a variety of activities related to the week’s theme. They participate in simulated conversations, listen to various audios, all with voices of new and varied native speakers. Most days the students look like they are going to vomit (I even joke with them and tell them NOT to vomit), but when the simulated conversation beeps, I tell them to just speak. They look worried, glance up at me from time to time, and I encourage them to just breathe and keep going. They over-analyze everything and want to sound perfect, but at the end of the day we have to prepare students to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

In one of my previous blogs, I talked about bringing my students to Costa Rica. When they were in an authentic situation, many students became uncomfortable and couldn’t speak as well as I know they can. We have to think about how we can prepare students for the discomfort that can come with using the language in authentic situations. Better utilizing my school’s language lab has been a good next step for me.

Another topic that relates to preparing students to be comfortable being uncomfortable is use of the target language. ACTFL says teachers should be using 90% plus. I am here to tell you that you can use 100%. The students will understand you (I promise) and its okay if it makes them slightly uncomfortable. I will be honest with you that I fought this for years. I was sure that there were things I had to say in English or they wouldn’t understand me.

My good friend and colleague who does this extremely well always pushed me and told me, “you have to fight the good fight.” What does that mean? It means that it is pretty much up to the teacher. With every week of the school year that goes by you have to “fight the battle:” stick with it, push the kids, and stay in the target language. One day last year when I turned to English in class, I noticed students laughing at something.

When I asked what was going on, one of my favorite students looked at some tally marks on his notebook and said, “You used English 12 times today, we were keeping track.” The fact that they noticed it indicated they didn’t need the crutch. I never spoke English again for the rest of the year …

You don’t have to remove all grammar from your curriculum

Many new methodologies out there have us focusing less and less on grammar, and more on comprehensible input. Can we do both? These methods can be great at lower ends of your language program to gain engagement in the language, but at some point in their second language education students crave some sort of grammar explanation, and accept the challenge of it so they can move to the next level.

Set up your grammar instruction in a more student friendly way by embedding it within the context of high interest and meaningful topics. You may also consider setting your grammar instruction up in mini-lessons, spending part of the class time introducing a concept, and then having students work through it in meaningful activities within the context or themes of your unit.

Sometimes I find it truly terrifying that many of the topics above would never have occurred to me 10 years ago, but mostly I find that this type of innovation and reflection is refreshing and is what keeps me in the profession today. What other ideas have cropped up in your teaching? Please comment below.

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