Today, Juana Arias-Dominguez, an AP Spanish teacher at Union City High School in New Jersey, shares how to develop oral competency in students learning a language.
As a past program leader for the CIEE Language and Culture program in Seville, Spain, I enjoyed watching students grow through this multifaceted program. The thought of working in the summer may not sound enticing to some teachers, but the gains I made for my classroom, the professional interactions, and the individual students I encountered, proved to be exceptional in every way. The collaboration between the co-leaders and the curriculum director quickly breaks barriers that, in our year-long jobs, would normally take months to create, establish, and calibrate.
Taking oral competency to another level on the ground
In Spain, students in the program must complete mandatory “into the community” activities requiring them to speak with Spaniards in the target language, using a given task. I found that my students, especially those that were shy, rose to the occasion and shed their shyness.
Take the case of my student Miller. When I first met him during the initial interview, he seemed to exhibit excellent vocabulary but did not like to speak in the target language because his Spanish studies to that point had been based on grammar and memorization. As the program progressed, however, Miller became one of the stars, not only speaking in the target language but even being comedic in his language production. Miller’s confidence in the language wasn’t the exception; rather, it seemed to be the norm during the four-week, intensive language-learning program.
The “into the community” experiences encouraged students to complete the assigned activities and return with a clear understanding of both the culture and the social norms of Spanish society. These are central to the program—students visit a museum, cook a traditional meal, and look around the city for historical and cultural cues. Students need to understand that culture is neither static nor isolated—it is dynamic and influenced by all people. Likewise, culture cannot be separated from language, just as language cannot be separated from culture.
Oral competency is essential to the language classroom. Most language teachers focus on vocabulary building, the dreaded conjugation charts, and the false realities often found in school texts. However, in my Spanish classroom back at Union City High School, the effect of my experiences permeated my lessons as soon as I returned from Spain. I brought back activities from the summer study abroad program and adjusted them for my classroom students—such as asking them to buy a ticket, find a bus schedule, ask a friend about family, decide what itinerary is convenient—among other activities. These “experiences,” as I call them, add a new facet to language acquisition. The cultural component also becomes more prevalent and students are now more comfortable working in pairs to complete tasks orally.
The students who travel to Spain come back with an understanding that they have the ability to function in another language, and that confidence is priceless. That’s the self-assurance of learning that creates perseverance in students. This confidence is also what I strive to bring to my students. Leading a study abroad program in Spain has made me realize that you can study a language for many years, but until you are forced to use that knowledge functionally, the real language acquisition does not occur.
Some language teachers tend to focus their teaching on the writing—the grammatical structures and other exercises, which is important but isn’t as helpful in building student confidence. Upon coming back from Seville, I have realized that I need to work to allow students to use the language structures that they have been taught to effectively communicate, ask questions, and respond. For example, in my classroom we have a weekly activity where students must speak to each other about an article from El País that covers news in the United States. By doing this, they’re not just reading the news from new perspectives, they’re also learning rich vocabulary and practicing speaking through an exercise that transcends any textbook material.
As an example for the class, I regularly spend some time talking about my observations of the CIEE student and teaching model. I discuss language acquisition as children experience it; that is, children do not acquire language by writing it first, but by repetition and imitation. Therefore, instructors should focus on the oral and listening skills of students to increase how they function in a real setting. Perhaps mistakes in spoken language need to be more accepted in the language classroom as acquisition increases. Learning another language is about communication, imitation, and functioning in the target language.
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