Sketch of an Instructional Approach

For a recent work project, I collaborated with my LARC colleague Chris Brown on outlining the approach to language instruction in our short intensive language courses. His contributions and the many discussions I have had with colleagues such as Shahnaz Ahmadeian-Fard and Farid Saydee informed my thinking and are gratefully acknowledged; shortcomings and gaps are my own. The following sketch is a slightly adapted version of an excerpt from the text that resulted from this project.

Over the years, LARC’s instructional approach has been built on two pillars: sustained student engagement and systematic language proficiency orientation. Student engagement has been achieved through lesson plans and learning processes in the classroom pursuing the strategy of gradual release of responsibility. The gradual release of responsibility follows the schema of I do > we do > you do together > you do alone and progresses in six dynamic steps: orientation, presentation, guided practice, collaborative practice, independent practice, and reflection. First, the teacher orients the students towards the learning goal(s) of the lesson, by providing a schematic conceptualization of the learning goal. In Sociocultural Theory and its pedagogic practice, Concept-based Instruction, such a schema is called SCOBA (Lantolf & Poehner, 2014). SCOBAs are multimodal, student-centered representations of the concept to be learned. Such concepts are, for example, a communicative function (greeting, introducing oneself and others), a semantic field of vocabulary (kinship terms, food and cuisine), an abstract grammatical construction (subject-verb agreement and verb conjugation, definiteness and indefiniteness), and a cultural concept (social respect and honor, a holiday tradition). SCOBAs need to be multimodal, that is, they need to incorporate two or more of print, spoken word, image, sound, animation, and video, in order to facilitate students’ cognitive understanding, to succinctly provide them with the ‘why?’ and ‘what-for?’ context, and – most importantly – to engage them successfully and to boost their intrinsic motivation. This comprehensive orientation is also important because it facilitates the students’ focusing on learning goals during the subsequent phases; this in turn enables them to notice features and facets of the language and culture, which they have not yet learned or with which they are not yet comfortable. After the orientation, the teacher can present more concrete examples of the concept. In the presentation phase the teacher models target language use and makes important features more noticeable and transparent, always engaging the students as active participants. During guided practice, students try out the new vocabulary and grammatical constructions, or they work and talk in pairs and small groups. Often this is done in direct student-teacher interaction. Throughout, the teacher provides individualized guidance, support, and feedback. More responsibility is released to the students during the collaborative-practice phase. Students interact with their peers and engage with and learn from each other. In the last practice phase, each student works independently, so that they have the opportunity to check their own knowledge, abilities, and skills. This phase or the final reflection phase can be combined with formative assessment. In the reflection phase, students publicly demonstrate their work and achievements, monitor their learning outcomes, and plan actions to further deepen their knowledge, abilities, and skills.

With all class sessions following this six-step lesson plan progression, target language use in the classroom is made increasingly possible and productive, as learners quickly become accustomed to teacher expectations, and they are able to tell for themselves if they are having success, or if they need more support. In this lesson plan structure only the first two phases – orientation and presentation – are instructor-focused. All other phases have the students at the center of the interaction in either an interpretive, interpersonal, or presentational mode, consistent with the ACTFL National Standards and recognized language teaching best practices.

Sustained, productive target language use is also achieved through a parallel progression in students’ learning activities, which is based on the dynamic phases:

  • reception (understanding the orientation and presentation, listening to the teacher’s explanation or feedback),
  • verbal imitation (repetition of teacher models, response to recasts),
  • material manipulation (accompanying words with associated gestures, total physical response, manipulating words and sentences by hand),
  • verbalization (explaining word choice or a grammatical rule while applying it in target language use, explicitly stating personal or transcultural contexts of a cultural concept),
  • private speech (students make explicit their planned and current language learning and language use steps only for themselves), and
  • inner speech (students are actively aware of their newly acquired learning material when they apply it in communicative situations).

This sequence, which again is rooted in the sociocultural theory of Vygotskian provenience, ensures that learning always moves from the social plane – student-teacher and student-student communicative interaction – to the psychological plane – the internalization of newly learned material. Instructors, and students, intertwine these two dynamic sequences to maximize learning success.

From the very first day, instructors deliver 90 – 100% of classroom instruction in the target language, making almost every moment of program time a genuine engagement with the language and culture at study. Drawing on recent research on the use of L1 and L2 in the classroom, instructors optimize the use of L2, while carefully monitoring learner performance to make sure that the predominant use of L2, especially in the early stages, does not lead to learner misunderstanding or frustration, or even a lack of active participation in class. To this effect, instructors make use of topics and domains relevant, and often familiar, to students, maximize the appropriate use of cognate words to the extent possible. They also use artifacts, images, body language, and acting – which all support the negotiation of meaning between students and instructor – while frequently checking students’ comprehension. Setting clear linguistic performance objectives for students during each class session, day, and week also aids in keeping learners engaged and motivated, as they can tell immediately if they are on track or not, and they are able to more clearly see for themselves what they need to improve in the latter case.

Technological resources such as DiLL (digital language lab software), online workbooks, and LARC’s Computer Assisted Screening Tool (CAST, an online oral proficiency assessment) also enable students to increase their time on task with the language. The program pursues the balance between knowledge about language and language use. This balance is necessary for students to achieve high levels of language proficiency. The consistent inclusion of integrated performance assessment in our programs keeps classroom instruction, learner activities, and formative assessment aligned with performance-based objectives. We also give students an orientation to the ACTFL and ILR proficiency guidelines approximately one week into their summer intensive experience. In this session, students are familiarized with the spectrum of functional language proficiency (from Novice to Superior; ILR 0 – 3), the expectations for their proficiency by the end of the summer, and the common challenges and plateaus associated with progressing from absolute novice to intermediate level in a second language. The purpose is to diminish unnecessary ambiguity around program expectations, enhance students’ focus on what they should be able to do and what they do not have to achieve, and foster constructive learner beliefs about how individual students can further their own second-language development.


Language Proficiency

It has been a few weeks during which I did not add anything to the blog. I have been travelling: attended the Third International Conference on Heritage / Community Languages at UCLA; travelled up to Victoria, BC, to meet with friends, colleagues, fellow researchers to discuss approaches to (language) learner-computer interaction in computer-assisted language learning; went to San Francisco for the meeting of the CSU World Languages Council, and then to Washington, DC, for a meeting at the Institute of International Education. After having been slowed down by a nasty flu bug, I have been working on a grant application over the last weeks. The goal of the project is to reform and augment an undergraduate language program so that its students can reach professional proficiency (ILR 3 and ACTFL calls it superior proficiency) upon graduation. The short snippet below, in which I talk about proficiency, is from this grant application.

In Applied Linguistics, proficiency is operationalized – for research, teaching, and testing – as a collective variable consisting of the complexity, accuracy, and fluency of a learner text. The make-up of complexity is diversity (a larger range of vocabulary (lexical) and a larger inventory of linguistic constructions (syntactic) are more complex) and sophistication (longer words with a more elaborate morphological structure (lexical) and longer sentences with additional adjectival phrases, modifiers, and sub-clauses (syntactic) are more complex). Linguistic constructions, sentences, and texts that deviate less often and less significantly from an expected norm are more accurate. Uttered texts that contain more linguistic constructions, for example words, per time unit or task unit and that are more coherent and cohesive are perceived as more fluent by listeners and readers. Increasing complexity and fluency of learner texts normally correlate; for example, learners with a larger accessible vocabulary tend to be more fluent. On the other hand, there are trade-off effects between accuracy and complexity; when students focus on producing more complex and longer texts, they tend to make more mistakes proportionately.

In very broad strokes, this is what, I believe, teachers can do to foster their students’ development of proficiency:

  • provide very frequent opportunities for the students’ language practice and use;
  • focus on fluency development to increase and maintain the Flagship students’ strong motivation;
  • teach for successful broad vocabulary acquisition and the mastery of a wide range of relevant linguistic constructions and patterns;
  • introduce and develop the students’ strategies of successful language use so that they can communicate effectively with L1 (first language) speakers of Russian and L2 speakers with professional language proficiency;
  • increase the Flagship students’ language awareness of patterns of form-meaning mapping, useful linguistic patterns in Russian, and different conventions of language use in relevant communicative situations;
  • improve their textual accuracy and to build a strong and positive L2 learner identity, by integrating language practice, focus-on-form, and contingent corrective feedback episodes in their teaching.