Teaching Language Skills for Life

Rachel Breitweser '03

How can you develop language proficiency? What's the best way to transition students to the next level of the foreign language they are studying?

Discussing these questions and exploring the answers was at the heart of the Dalton-Punahou Global Language and Culture Institute, a conference that features workshops on topics of interest to teachers of world and classical languages, kindergarten – grade 12.

This year's conference facilitator to 60 teachers from across O'ahu and the continental U.S. was Paul Sandrock, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Sandrock directs the national organization's professional development and initiatives around standards, curriculum, instruction and performance assessment.

Sandrock's passions center around language education that moves students from "performance" towards "proficiency," which is the difference between possessing expertise in a language and demonstrating confidence as a communicator in that language.

"Performance is characterized by what's learned and practiced in an instructional setting and is confined to a familiar context, is curriculum dependent, and assessed based on what's taught and practiced," said Sandrock.

Proficiency, on the other hand, is spontaneous, not rehearsed, takes place in real-world situations, includes a broad context, and is independent of how it was taught and where the language was acquired.

Sandrock liked the analogy of learning to ride a bike to demonstrate how a person becomes proficient in a language. When you're a novice, you ride around your driveway. Moving out to the street indicates an intermediate level. At an expert level, you have the skills to take it off-road. At each level, you're adding new territory, negotiating meaning in an ever-broadening context.

"What are some bridges we can make between performance and proficiency?" Sandrock posed to teachers.

One way to bridge the gap is through writing or speaking for an authentic audience. Examples include writing postcards, recipes, news articles and brochures, acting out plays, creating podcasts or demonstrating how to do something. Sandrock also suggested another idea: inviting native speakers to evaluate interpersonal communications between students.

The conference, in its third year, was born out of a collaboration between Dr. Lori Langer de Ramirez, K – 12 Director of World and Classical Languages and Global Language Initiatives at the Dalton School, and Academy Principal Dr. Emily McCarren, a former Academy Spanish teacher.

"We wanted to create our own conference, linking talented teachers with professional organizations and have a product come out of the session, like a new curriculum," said Langer de Ramirez. "Connecting teachers is huge, so is having a clearer sense of national standards and taking something home that you've worked on."

McCarren shared that the conference emphasizes not just teaching language skills but also how to get students to retain them. "It's about what can you do rather than what can you memorize and forget." ACTFL's standards help shift assessment to reflect this "because what's easily measured isn't always what matters in the real world," she said.

Students can get credit for taking risks and going beyond creating simple sentences, even if some mistakes are made along the way. After all, "that's the way you learn language," said Langer de Ramirez.

Teachers were invigorated by the concepts presented during the conference. "It was eye-opening to be able to understand where students are based on ACTFL's descriptions of Novice, Intermediate and Advanced," said Elizabeth Wong, a Punahou parent and Chinese language teacher at Kaimuki Christian. "To my pleasant surprise, they're Intermediate!"

Marissa Coulehan, K – 1 Spanish teacher at Dalton, noted, "It was great working with such a diverse group of faculty who are all interested in bringing students to the next level. Paul was motivating and a great sounding board."

Ngan Ha Ta, a Chinese language teacher at 'Iolani, left the conference feeling confident in designing a curriculum, aligning her lesson plans to ACTFL and empowered in pushing students "to the next level."

Some teachers are already putting what they learned at the institute into practice, including Punahou Academy Spanish language teacher Magnus Olander. He's using one of ACTFL's simplified assessment rubrics, which is non-numeric, to grade students on their listening and conversation skills. "I find that it's a very useful strategy," he shared.

He's also keeping the idea of the functions of the language in the forefront when designing lesson plans. "Why are students being asked this and what are they going to use it for? That way there's practical application built in right from the beginning," he said.