Forget Memorization: Here's Why Language Class Should Focus on...

Arts and Humanities

Forget Memorization: Here's Why Language Class Should Focus on Excitement Instead

By Kristen Wolf     May 2, 2018

Forget Memorization: Here's Why Language Class Should Focus on Excitement Instead

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

When I was in middle school, I was diagnosed with a learning disability, so the “typical” school experience was always a challenge for me. I struggled to sit still, focus, engage and memorize. School often left me feeling inadequate. I became a teacher to empower students who feel as disconnected as I did.

As a teacher of world language, I want my students to realize that you don’t have to learn Spanish by studying verb conjugations out of a textbook every day. A language is something to absorb, not to memorize. I want it to be an experience they enjoy, filled with culture and stories.

For my Spanish students who are interested in legends, I often have them listen and watch as illustrations are drawn from the rich world of mythology. Take the following excerpt from a Guaraní legend:

M’Boi, the serpent god, wouldn’t allow Naipi to escape with Taruba. He caused the earth to split in the middle of the Iguazú river, on the border of Brazil and Argentina. The two lovers didn’t marry and are now separated at the top of Iguazú Falls, one as a rock (Naipi) and the other as a tree (Taruba). They connect with one another when a rainbow is formed. M’Boi is constantly watching from below to ensure that they never truly reunite.

This is just one example of the “Story Listening” method, created by Dr. Beniko Mason, that’s helping to reshape what acquiring a language in school looks like. Ideally, students relax, watch me draw (often poorly) and hear stories in Spanish drawn from current events or various cultures. The goal is to expose them to what’s known as comprehensible input—where learners grasp the main idea of a spoken language in a non-stressful situation. Afterward, they may discuss or summarize with a partner or write down what they understood in English.

Taking Things Despacio

Currently, I teach at eight schools in Gallatin Valley, Mont., and I spend a lot of time in my car driving between them. It’s a lot to keep track of, but I have found a way to personalize my classes while minimizing stress.

One of my locations, Bozeman Field School, is in its inaugural year as the only independent high school in Bozeman. Right now we have 13 students in 9th through 11th grades, and the school hopes to double in size next year. As part of a service learning project, we are planning to take our students to the Dominican Republic in the not-too-distant future. As our trip is still in the planning phase, we’re using our class time to prepare via a general historical and cultural understanding, which is where the Story Listening method comes into play. I aim to equip my students with a strong basis of the language while exposing them to a wide variety of idioms in a greater context.

Each week, we have a new idiomatic phrase that we use as often as possible. It is our secreto, or secret, and it serves to build community, giving us our own unique language. It’s a glance into the complexities of Spanish and gets students exploring both the literal and figurative meanings. I love it when I catch them whispering “‘Tas charquito,” a phrase from Nicaragua that literally means, “You are a puddle,” but is often used to mean, “You lack experience.”

Given the limited time I have with students, I can’t possibly prep them for every situation they might encounter with a heritage speaker. It’s my hope that they gain the linguistic skills necessary to slow someone down when they speak too quickly—“Hable más despacio, por favor”—yet also relax and search for the main idea of their inquiry or statement. (The recently popularized song “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, has vastly helped me in my efforts to make this particular phase and skill stick!)

Preparing adolescents for the random conversations that they may engage in while we are abroad is daunting, but the big goal is to build confidence so they can remain composed in stressful situations. I approach it through wholistic, contextualized and high-frequency Spanish that is repeated in a variety of ways (using stories, games, readings, and videos) to help them latch onto language they will likely encounter in a variety of countries and contexts.

After listening to a story in Spanish, they need to physically move to help their brains incorporate what they just heard. A “Brain Break” or “Brain Burst” (as coined by Annabelle Allen, a.k.a. “La Maestra Loca”) is an opportunity for our students to take a breath from the rigor of listening and interacting with the target language. In my classroom, I remain in Spanish for 90-95 percent of the class period. This intensive listening and reading can be difficult for many learners, so brief periods of energy release are vital to help them relax and to improve their acquisition. Some of my quick go-to activities include playing Simon says, rock paper scissors or dancing. Typically these brief targeted activities are only 30 seconds to 2 minutes long and allow students the chance to move and express themselves with clear targets.

The Rainbow Connection

Modern world language classes are undergoing a massive shift. Traditionally, these classes focused on memorization, grammar study and forced output, where students were expected to perform, usually by speaking or reading in front of the class. For many, this caused deep anxiety and made them want to drop their language of choice forever.

Thanks to the research of Dr. Stephen Krashen, we’re moving away from memorization and toward more engaging audio or visual input. Dr. Krashen notes that all that is required for stress-free language acquisition is compelling, comprehensible input (listening and/or reading).

Each class appears completely distinct from the next, yet there is a method to the madness. If I have students that love being informed, we spend more time listening to “stories” from current events. If I have students that want to speak more about themselves and others, I use activities that allow them to accomplish this, using nuggets of Spanish output. Every period is unique because I get to tap into an individual’s interests and curiosities.

In reality, I have very little way of predicting what my students will retain 5-10 years after taking my classes. But I hope that if I provide an engaging experience, they will return to language opportunities in the future and may become the next generation of global conflict mediators or diplomats. It seems lofty, but I know in my soul that I can teach peace though language acquisition.

Like the rainbow in the Guaraní legend that connects Taruba and Naipi, world language classes should be grounded in practical and useful ways that connect the individual to the culture and the language. If we are helping them to make those links apparent, then we are accomplishing our goals and empowering our students in a world where the “rainbows” are often minimized. Here’s to keeping the possibilities and lights shining as a bridge to a brighter future.

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