The central goal of higher education language instruction should be to prepare students for the world that awaits them. If our students are to develop the skills they need to work, live, and lead in a second language after academia, then it is essential to create intentional connections between the classroom and the outside world. It is also important that they be given opportunities to reflect upon their own learning and assess their own growth and development as part of this process.
Students come to my classroom with a desire to apply their growing language skills to a real world context. Often they arrive expecting me to instruct them on how to get there. In response, I have found it important to ask “what are your goals for this class?” or more directly “why are you here?” at the very beginning of each term. Two things happen: first, we are able to confront some of the mythology that surrounds language acquisition and have an honest conversation about what is possible within a 15 week semester. Second, students work with me to set and also evaluate their progress towards realistic, personal goals and as such become more invested in their own learning.
I follow the work of Second Language Acquisition researcher Bill Van Patten who has stated emphatically that language is too abstract and complex to teach and learn explicitly; it cannot be taught as a subject matter (e.g. math or science or history). Language acquisition cannot achieved through memorization and drills, but through carefully scaffolded, proficiency-oriented tasks that give the learner the opportunity to create language in a communicative context. I incorporate these ideas into my classroom by encouraging the development of projects that are driven by the students’ goals and objectives, in order to generate and sustain language acquisition in developmentally appropriate steps.
Like many instructors who embrace active learning and student-centered learning, my teaching has evolved tremendously over the past decade. As I stated in an article I co-wrote in 2013, I see my work as an interactive facilitator—as opposed to an evaluative expert—and strive to make my courses about students’ learning rather than my teaching. I minimize lecturing in favor of small- and large-group discussion and discovery-based inquiry. In my classroom, I emphasize the acquisition of skills over the coverage of content.
I believe that the classroom is a place where learning is a shared goal, so I leave space for questions, comments, and opportunities to learn from my students and for them to learn from each other. I believe that teachers and students can interchange the roles of expert and apprentice in the classroom. I also believe that students should be allowed opportunities to reflect on their own growth and both self-assess and self-evaluate their progress towards their goals in my classes.
In addition to studying ways to create a learner-centered, active-learning language classroom, over the last two years I have been researching ways to teach listening effectively in the L2 classroom. Listening is one of our students’ most-wanted language skills, and yet one we teach the least. Teachers believe (and textbooks reinforce) the idea that students will learn to listen through great amounts of passive input, when the reality is quite different. Listening comprehension, despite what we are led to believe, is not a passive skill. In fact it is “a complex, active process in which the listener must discriminate between sounds, understand vocabulary and grammatical structures, interpret stress and intonation, retain what was gathered in all of the above, and interpret it within the immediate as well as the larger sociocultural context of the utterance.” (Vandergrift, 1999)
For the past several years, and with the support of student research assistants, I have studied listening from a variety of viewpoints — linguistic, neurological, psychological and metacognitive — in order to teach it more effectively in the language classroom. What I have learned has allowed me to help students understand how they listen and to develop techniques that work best for them. This results in greater concentration, engagement, and learning as well as strategies that they can take with them into other subjects and pursuits.
Another research project I have been involved in has been with the team that produces Radio Ambulante, the award winning Spanish language podcast, while working as their Spanish Language Education Coordinator. Radio Ambulante provides our students with Latin American voices and compelling long form storytelling in a way that textbook audio or news broadcasts cannot. I have spent the past two summers interviewing teachers from around the world who use RA with their students. Through this work with other teachers, I am developing a series of learner-specific best practices for using Radio Ambulante in the classroom to be shared with others.
Here is a link to research I have published via Google Scholar.
A Word about Technology and the Language Classroom
In my current position, I teach and also direct a Center dedicated to exploring how technology can be used in the teaching of languages. While this might sound surprising, as a technologist I do not believe technology is a panacea. Technology does not correct bad teaching, nor does it replace good teaching. When used wisely, technology can amplify what is already happening in a face to face classroom and make it more visible and accessible. However, ill-planned technology can and will exacerbate existing disparities, tensions, inequalities, and inefficiencies in the classroom.
When I use technology with my students, I make sure it is something I know and have used as part of my own practice. I make sure I can articulate for myself as well as my students why I have chosen this tool and what I hope will happen as a result. I ask my students for feedback throughout the process, being mindful that what worked in one class may not work in another. I know through my own experience as well as working with other faculty that using technology just for its own sake and without any type of pedagogical goal can often impede learning.
More of my thoughts and examples of my work can be found through the links below:
Teaching Listening: a series of posts I wrote about the research I have done into the process of developing effective listening strategies in the L2 classroom
Using radio in the language classroom: Creating a radio show is a great way to get students to practice their spoken language skills in creative ways. This post talks about what I did to make it happen and provides links to some of the shows we created as part of HISP303
Radio Ambulante: this is a link to a series of posts I wrote about the work I have done with my own classes and as the Spanish Language Education Coordinator for Radio Ambulante, the Spanish language long form journalism podcast that tells Latin American stories from all around the world. For more information about the podcast, click here. For more inormation about the Radio Ambulante in the Classroom project, click here
LLU podcasts: a series of meet ups, hangouts, live and recorded events we hosted to hear ideas, questions and expertise about topics of shared interest