In December of 2018 I had the pleasure of creating a proposal for a new 100-level Spanish sequence at Portland State University through the Office of Academic Innovation. It was a very exciting opportunity, and I was honored to be asked to present my proposal at the Certificate of Innovation in College Teaching conference in 2019.
First, a bit of background information on the college level Spanish sequence that I have been teaching for the past two years, and will continue to teach this summer.
During my time teaching and studying at Portland State University, I have observed that increasing student retention is an important goal for any department, and is an especially important focus in the World Languages and Literatures (WLL) department at our institution. Student retention in foreign language classrooms has become an increasingly prioritized topic nationwide, as new data shows that from 2013 to 2016, higher education in aggregate lost 651 foreign-language programs (Johnson 2019).
In our World Languages and Literatures department, the greatest loss of students is from the 101 course to the 102 course, despite the fact that the majority of those students who drop after 101 have received A or B grades.
It is of the utmost importance to improve student retention, and this matter has been given high priority within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and within the WLL department itself.
Student retention is not only advantageous for the department, however. Portland State University requires two years of coursework in a foreign language to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and two terms of foreign language to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree. Seeing as language courses are a requirement for graduation at PSU means that student retention in the WLL department for may make the difference between a student who graduates from PSU, and a student who drops out before completing the degree.
I have taught the Spanish 101 – 103 sequence for the last five consecutive terms. During this time I have observed that the course requirement of the sequence, of purchasing the PANORAMA: Introducción a la lengua española (5th Edition) textbook and online access code, serves as a barrier to entry for a course that is a graduation requirement for many students at Portland State University. This prohibitive cost has caused many of my students each term to drop the course in the first few weeks, after realizing that they cannot afford to purchase the online access code and/or textbook. The course as it stands, with the course structure being guided by the PANORAMA: Introducción a la lengua española (5th Edition) textbook, is not sustainable and does not promote student success and retention in Portland State University’s language program.
In the World Languages Department, the Spanish 101 – 103 program serves approximately 500 students in any given term. This means that each academic year, the Spanish 101-103 program serves upwards of 1,500 students.
The cost of the text for this course is $246.75. This includes both the textbook, as well as the online access code to “Supersite”, which each student is required to purchase. The cost of the online access code alone is $155.00 and is a required component of the course. It is not possible to buy a used access code, or to loan an access code from the library. If a student takes only one of the courses in the Spanish 101 – 103 sequence, that student must also pay the full price for the access code and/or textbook.
Not only are the PANORAMA: Introducción a la lengua española (5th Edition) textbook and online access code prohibitively expensive, but the course materials do not serve student success or promote student fluency. Through this textbook, students learn the Spanish language through instructions and grammar presentations in English, which is a huge deterrent for students who are studying the language to become fluent and use the language in the workforce.
Unfortunately, this is a common practice among textbooks that are used in the university setting. According to an article from the journal Hispania, “the traditional way of teaching grammar with the presentation-production practice model (or grammar-based model) (Larsen-Freeman 2003) is no longer advocated because presenting grammar rules explicitly and manipulating them through drills or decontextualized production practice does not engage the cognitive processes necessary for grammar acquisition (Fernández 155). In this study, Fernández found that explicit grammar instruction supplied by the teacher or the textbook may be obtrusive for communication because it usually requires learners to focus on the form before experiencing its meaning (Fernández 157).
In her article, Fernández states that perhaps the “main reason” for the current state of grammar-based textbooks in the university setting, as addressed by several scholars, is the “prevalent conservatism of the profession” (Aski 2003; Bragger and Rice 2000; Dorwick and Glass 2003). Language instructors are not willing yet to let go of traditional ways of teaching grammar, and this situation is reflected in the approaches to grammar found in the textbooks (Fernández 166).
In addition, the order of the grammar that is taught in the textbook does not align with student success or fluency. In my courses, I have seen students become easily frustrated with the textbook and struggle to understand simple concepts, due to the fact that the order that the grammar is presented in the book is not congruent with student success with or mastery of the language.
And now, it's time for a bit of information about my proposed solution for the 100-level Spanish sequence.
In December of 2018, I proposed that the PANORAMA: Introducción a la lengua española (5th Edition) textbook should be replaced with an option that is cost-effective and promotes student fluency. I believe that a straightforward solution would be to introduce graded readers to the curriculum.
I have proposed that at least one graded reader be taught in Spanish 101, one in Spanish 102 and two in Spanish 103, for a total cost of $24 per student for the entire Spanish 101 – 103 sequence.
Graded readers are books written especially for students of Spanish as a foreign language, which adhere to the comprehensible input instructional method. The comprehensible input method refers to language that is intelligible but just a bit more advanced than the student's current ability to understand it. This means that the overall message of the language should be clear, even though some words and grammatical structures might be unfamiliar. Graded readers offer students the opportunity to learn via the comprehensible input instructional method, and cost only $7 when purchased individually, or $6 when purchased in a larger purchase order. The publishing company Fluency Matters has published over fifty graded readers, and also provides comprehensive Teacher’s Guides to guide classroom instruction day by day. Click here to see a full list of the graded readers available through the Fluency Matters website.
In addition, I have proposed that the online, app-based program “Duolingo” replace the online access code “Supersite” (https://schools.duolingo.com/).
Duolingo, which is free for both teachers and students, largely eliminates the barrier to entry cost of the current textbook and online component “Supersite”, while improving the course structure to promote student fluency in the language.
The teacher dashboard component of Duolingo shows completed skill levels, as well as the number of days the student was active. Skill levels plus XPs (points earned while completing lessons) give guidelines of student progress (Techman 2015). As a classroom tool, teachers can opt to receive weekly skill and lesson summary reports. In addition, Duolingo encourages students to engage with each other through friendly competition, which promotes student engagement and retention.
So what are the steps involved making the proposal a reality for Spanish students in the university setting?
1. Re-write existing course structure and syllabus to include one graded reader in Spanish 101, one in Spanish 102 and two in Spanish 103. The revised syllabus will also include Duolingo as the online homework component of the course.
2. Choose supplemental materials to enhance the instruction of the novels (especially in Spanish 101). Select at least one higher-level reader for Spanish 103 (authors such as García Marquez, García Lorca, Laura Esquivel).
3. Revise existing mid-term and final exams to reflect the communicative nature and end goals of the course.
4. Purchase instructor’s manuals for the department and develop a day-by-day curriculum based around the course novel(s) (approximate cost for an instructor’s manual - $99).
5. Train instructors on the benefits of the comprehensible input method and how to conduct a class period while teaching through comprehensible input.
In a nutshell, what are the benefits of a revised college level Spanish curriculum?
After six years of teaching through the comprehensible method or “Comprehension Hypothesis” and two years teaching through the “Skill-Building Hypothesis”, I feel very strongly that college level students will be better served through a revised curriculum and course structure in the Spanish 101, 102 and 103 courses.
Stay tuned for my upcoming post highlighting the differences between the “Comprehension Hypothesis” the “Skill-Building Hypothesis”.
Thank you for taking a look at my post! Happy Monday, and have a wonderful teaching week!
Aski, Janice M. (2003). Foreign Language Textbook Activities: Keeping Pace with Second Language Acquisition Research. Foreign Language Annals, 36(1), 57-65.
Bragger, Jeannette, and Donald Rice. (2000). “Foreign Language Materials: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Agents of Change in a Changing Age. Ed. Robert Terry. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company. 107–40. Print.
Dorwick, T., & Glass, W. (2003). Language Education Policies: One Publisher's Perspective. The Modern Language Journal, 87(4), 592-594.
Fernandez, Claudia. (2011). Approaches to Grammar Instruction in Teaching Materials: A Study in Current L2 Beginning-Level Spanish Textbooks. Hispania, 94(1), 155-170.
Johnson, Steven. “Colleges Lose a ‘Stunning’ 651 Foreign-Languages Programs in 3 Years”. Chronicle. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 22 January 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Lose-a-Stunning/245526?fbclid=IwAR08X3B2evKn_YXxj1Wbvi8HhaMmF69eJhIU1wRY25WyKN_T48deJde5KQs
Krashen, Stephen. (2011). “Seeking a Justification for Skill-Building”. KOTESOL Proceedings 2011. 13 – 20.
Krashen, S. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. New York: Prentice Hall.
Larsen-Freeman, Diane. (2003). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammarian. Boston: ThomsonHeinle. Print.
Rodrigo, Victoria, Krashen, Stephen, & Gribbons, Barry. (2004). The Effectiveness of Two Comprehensible-Input Approaches to Foreign Language Instruction at the Intermediate Level. System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics, 32(1), 53-60.
SRI International. “New study reveals that OER courses and degrees benefit student retention and completion, improve faculty engagement, and result in cost savings for students”. Achieving the Dream. 12 October 2018. https://www.achievingthedream.org/press_release/17506/new-study-reveals-that-oer-courses-and-degrees-benefit-student-retention-and-completion-improve-faculty-engagement-and-result-in-cost-savings-for-students.
Techman, M. (2015). Duolingo for schools, reviewed: Test-driving the popular language-learning program's new educator tool. School Library Journal, 61(3), N/a.