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by Erica Fischer on Apr 1, 2013

Balancing Modes of Learning and World Language Skills

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#langchat teachers discuss the delicate balance of teaching students a love for world language in addition to the required skills and modes of learning that makes them proficient and AP-bound


Balancing Proficiency Skills and Activities

World language teachers have traditionally organized their classes around the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. In recent years, ACTFL reorganized the proficiency guidelines by embedding these 4 skills into three modes of communication: interpersonal, interpretive and presentational. On Thursday, #langchat participants discussed ideas for balancing these skills and modes to ensure students develop a well-rounded world language proficiency.

Systems for Balance

@SECottrell asked, ‘Do you have a systematic way you make sure students are practicing each mode of communication?’ She mentioned that her system includes choosing a proficiency topic for each day of the week. ‘In AP I actually plan a theme for each day. Tuesday, usually interpersonal. Friday, presentational.’ @km_york shared that, in the past, she has included one question for each proficiency mode on each unit exam.

Other teachers thought that having a set system for balance would be difficult, due to students’ differences in proficiency. @senormattm said, ‘I imagine having a system maybe a challenge due to students’ continual growth in the language. More listening in the beginning,etc.’

Getting World Language Teachers on the Same Page of Guidelines

One of the major confusions that arose was: which system of proficiency are we trying to balance? According to the old ACTFL guidelines, the skills that were to be covered by world language classes were speaking, reading, writing and listening. @CalicoTeach asked the key question: ‘Do you plan based on new modes (interpersonal, presentational, interpretive) or old modes (speak, read, write, listen)?’ It was clear from the responses that some teachers are still using the old skills or modes to plan their classrooms.

A number of different visualizations of the skills and modes of world language learning came out as a result of the discussion about the various forms of guidelines available to world language teachers.

Old ACTFL Guidelines: These guidelines focused on skills that should be learned by students. Specifically, the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. The ACTFL just recently changed from this format of standardization, but many teachers continue to include these basic skills in their lesson planning. Many established world language teachers still make these guidelines the basis for their classes.

New ACTFL Guidelines: In the new ACTFL guidelines, the emphasis on skills has decreased and been replaced with a focus on communication methods. @sraoconnor explained her drive to help colleagues move towards the new style. ‘I have been pushing my department toward the interpersonal, interpretive, presentational and IPAs.’

Updated AP Guidelines: Some teachers, like @SECottrell, discussed using the recently updated Advanced Placement (AP) world language guidelines as general benchmarks. @SECottrell explained that there are five categories: ‘The 5 are explore/interpersonal/novel/interpretive/presentational.’ A number of teachers had not heard about including exploration and novels in the modes of learning, and the impression was that it served the AP classrooms specifically. @km_york said she was still using the old modes for this reason. ‘Old modes here – no AP program to push me out of the box.’

Hybrid Style: @senoraCMT shared her view on the different skills and modes:  ‘I have a hybrid new old mode style. [I try to] keep all in mind and try to plan units that include some of all! ! think using the modes old and new to design units helps me bring in lots of great #authres as I try to hit all of them!’ @cadamsf1 also shared that she tries to keep both the old skill levels and new modes in mind while preparing their lessons for world language classrooms. @cadamsf1 said, ‘I keep all in mind but I try to focus on interpersonal because I think at levels two and three we miss lots of opportunities.’ @SECottrell also agreed: ‘It is a mistake to think of whatever categories discretely. Involve students in them all!!’

AP: To Theme or Not to Theme?

Some teachers shared that their structure of teaching in each of the modes (or skills when applicable) is through teaching thematic world language units. @SECottrell said, ‘I can’t imagine how we’d explore our themes without using each mode regularly. Anyone teaching purely thematically?’ Teachers like @senoraCMT, @abbrugiati and @madamebaker all shared that they were using themes to teach in all of the modes.

@madamebaker brought up an interesting idea: using AP themes to teach lower-level world language classes. @SenorG asked, ‘Are all levels doing the same themes with variation being [the] depth of coverage or different themes for each level?’ @madamebaker responded, ‘That’s the idea.’ There were two schools of thought on this idea: that it is a great way to prepare students for long-term world language learning, or it is too advanced for lower-level students and they will become frustrated.

Benefits of Using AP Themes: The benefit of using AP themes to teach lower-levels is that they are more prepared for AP exams and more likely to move into AP classes. Students are able to tackle important questions regarding global issues at an earlier stage in their world language journey, which makes for a more engaging learning experience. @madamebaker said, ‘That way by the time the students are in AP it won’t be so difficult… The 6 AP language and culture themes.’ In response to the idea that global issues were out of reach for most novice learners, @madamebaker said, ‘…But couldn’t topics as “simple” as weather, hunger be “global issues”?’

Drawbacks of Using AP Themes: The drawback for using AP themes is that many students do not have the proficiency necessary to discuss these difficult topics, which can lead to frustration and attrition. @SECottrell said, ‘AP themes are all advanced except 1. It’s not realistic to ask a novice to address global challenges at any depth of coverage…Talking about the weather is a precursor to climate change; but you can’t call it a global challenge IMO.’ Another drawback is that the focus in world language classrooms is narrowed by too much adherence to AP themes. @CalicoTeach said, ‘Makes sense to build towards AP from early on, but also makes me sad if themes at all levels end up with narrow focus.’

AP Pressue in the World Language Classroom

Regardless of whether teachers were in favor of or against using AP themes to teach lower levels, it was clear that the pressure of the AP status is clearly felt. Some teachers, like @CalicoTeach and @sraoconnor seemed to feel that AP courses should not be the ultimate focus of world language classrooms. @sraoconnor said, ‘I am not convinced that AP should be the ultimate goal. I think it is kind of a racket.’ @CalicoTeach agreed: ‘Having students love language and develop proficiency should be our goal.’ @madamebaker said, ‘As we move away from verb charts and give students ways to actually communicate the attrition numbers should dwindle.’

@profefranklin made an excellent counterpoint, though. ‘I see what you all are saying but how do we reconcile what we teach and many universities seem to want from our students?’ The raised expectations for students entering colleges prove a powerful motivator for many world language students and their teachers.

Only one solution was provided: to change the way universities teach language by being good examples at the elementary and high school levels. @sraoconnor said, ‘Maybe we need to lead the way. What do students need and want?  Many university courses are dinosaurs.’

Assessing the Modes

Assessment was one area in which teachers had some ideas about balancing the different world language modes. Since assessment is a very concrete item, it can be more easily planned for. Some teachers, like @SECottrell and @csfadams1 have regular schedules for assessing each of the three major modes. For many teachers, creating the assessments this way helps to prepare units and individual classes by “backwards engineering” focused on the assessment. @natadel76 said, ‘I feel that if I don’t plan well to include all [of the modes], I fall short on instruction and therefore students are not ready for assessment. I feel that I need to prep them first with almost exact practice before assessing.’

At the same time, informal assessment of these three modes is also vitally important. Assessing some modes, like interpersonal skills, can be difficult for many world language teachers. @natadel76 shared that time played a huge role in her avoidance of interpersonal assessment, and @senoraCMT disliked focusing on presentational modes of teaching.  @senoraCMT said, ‘Presentational to me is not natural communication because it is prepared!’

Ways to Assess in the Three Modes:

  • @SignorSedita said, ‘For interpersonal I encourage discussions and conversations over interview format info gap works well but only a “quasi interview.’ Keep the conversation going even if [its] not “perfect.” I have small formative rubric for assessing informally.’
  • @crwmsteach said, ‘Spend more time with walking interviews related to a unit. [For example], do you prefer camping or staying in hotel? What’s your favorite vacation? ask/answer/move [Do a] presentational gen once a unit.’
  • @cadamsf1 said, ‘If I am assessing the interpersonal task (i.e. info gap activities as opposed to assessing the conversation within a group), I usually combine two of them over a two period- formally so we may do interpretive and then do a presentation or work and interpersonal. I try to have a presentational twice a week and interpretive about 3 and I’m not as set with interpersonal. In AP class we focus on one each day but it’s really a mix. So in writing that’s the focus and then share interpersonal.’
  • @CalicoTeach said, ‘Think-pair-share for lower levels makes it easy to do quick interpersonal assessment.’
  • @senormattm said, ‘I follow the sharing and greeting from Developmental Designs model, used in homerooms, for daily interpersonal assessment.’

A Balancing Act

Between all the different modes, skills and interpretations of what students should be learning, world language teachers must delicately balance each of their students’ needs with what benchmarks must be accomplished. But, @abbrugiati stated the most important element succinctly: ‘Love language first, and then develop proficiency. We are losing too many students.’

Although not many structures for doing this were shared during Thursday night’s #langchat, it became clear that the ultimate goal of participants was communication. Enriched course content, continuous positive experience with the language and backwards-engineered lessons can help to thoroughly prepare students for assessments that give them motivation to succeed with world language far beyond the classroom.

Other Ideas for Balancing Modes of Communication:

  • @SECottrell said, ‘Spanish 3 – we have an assessment in each mode for each unit. Make sure practice prepares for that.’
  • @cadamsf1 said, ‘I share ACTFL Proficiency guidelines so that sts have a more realistic idea of where they should be & they set goals.’
  • @crwmsteach said, ‘For balance I use a different modality for each intro activity; can extend as long as students are engaged.’

Thank You!

Thank you again to our moderators @CalicoTeach and @SECottrell for giving us some structure to this great chat. Also, thanks to everyone who came out and actively participated. We love to hear what is working in your world language classrooms.

Please help us be a better professional learning community by sharing with us what you would like to chat about during #langchat. Visit us online to share you topic ideas for upcoming chats. You can also find a complete transcript of last Thursday’s chat.

Additional Resources

ACTFL Performance Guidelines for the Three Modes of Communication (@CalicoTeach)
ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners (@CalicoTeach)
Performance Assessment Rubric: Whitefield Academy (@SECottrell)
Self-Guided Culture and Communities Studies Resource List (@SenorG)
60 Embedded Cultural Readings from Michael Miller (@SenorG)
AP Spanish Language and Culture Curriculum Framework (@SenorG)

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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