Archive for the ‘Language & Culture’ Category

How do we design an effective oral interview for assessing foreign language competence? The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) offers an extensive set of guidelines in its Oral Proficiency Interview Tester Training Manual. There is also the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to offer some guidance as well.

In the DCAL workshop on February 20, 2011, a diverse community of 18 faculty members representing all of Dartmouth’s foreign language departments gathered to hear a presentation by Prof. Elizabeth Polli, Spanish Language Program Director, and Mario Ruiz Legido, Director of the Instituto Cervantes-Boston University, on these two sets of guidelines.

Mario Ruiz Legido began by discussing the Instituto Cervantes approach to Oral Assessment for the Spanish International Diploma (DELE), based on the CEFR. The CEFR was developed as a common base to guide and inform textbooks, curricula, exams, certification systems and other programs. The CEFR offers both coherence and transparency to foreign language programs throughout European countries. At its core, the CEFR is used to evaluates learners along a continuum of six steps, from basic users to proficient users. A series of “can do…” statements helps to define the expectations of the six steps.

The oral exam is a component of the global DELE exam, and takes between 10 and 20 minutes depending on the exam level undertaken. The candidate is examined by two examiners, one who is doing a holistic analysis and the other who is doing an analytics assessment. The goal is to confirm what the candidate CAN DO for his/her level. The process may include a personal monologue (2 min), a topical dialogue (2-3 min), a conversation with interviewer (3-4 min) and a role-play (2-3 min) at lower levels and additional types of tasks as levels increase. The exam is scored from 0-3, with 2-3 as passing scores.

In comparison, the ACTFL guidelines are quite different. The OPI is the only nationally recognized instrument for measuring communicative competence in the U.S. It does not measure what the student has learned in the classroom, but does attempt to measure what a student can do in a particular language. The OPI is generally a 20-30 min 1-on-1 recorded session. It looks at the individual’s ability to use language in real life situations. It measures ability against the specific tasks, not against other learners. It is a series of evolving questions throughout the interview, rather than a set of specific tasks or questions. It relies on having a very highly skilled interviewer, and the training process for interviewers alone can be 3-4 days long.

While knowledge of both the OPI and CEFR is certainly beneficial for classroom instructors, the goal, though, is not to teach to the exam. The challenge for instructors is to consider the ways in which they can design classroom activities that will encourage the kind of proficiency that is measured by these assessment tools.

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John Tansey (Executive Director of Off-Campus Programs), Heather Earle (Counseling and Human Development), Kevin O’Leary (General Counsel), Leslie Seabrook (Risk Management) and Lisa Thum (Undergraduate Dean’s Office) were all on hand to present a thorough program designed to answer a slew of questions and alleviate the concerns of the 10 faculty attendees who will be leading or participating in upcoming off-campus programs for the College.

Each attendee received a three-ring binder of useful information on roles and responsibilities, program orientations, and general health and safety, along with case studies, readings and more.

The program progressed along a planned open discussion of the most frequently asked questions, but even the two-hour block of time could have gone on further.

Since this blogger is not a legal adviser, I will refrain from providing my edited and interpreted responses to the questions, but would like to highlight some of the FAQ that were discussed.

  • What is faculty liability if a student is injured on a program? Does the college cover me for liability?
  • What should I do if a student who will be participating on my program informs me, prior to the program, that he/she is receiving ongoing care for a serious medical and/or mental health condition?
  • Why don’t we ask students to complete the voluntary health disclosure form before acceptance decisions are made for the program
  • If I find that one or more of my students is abusing alcohol or drugs (or violating one of the Off-Campus Programs Norms of Conduct) do I have the authority to remove the student(s) from the program should I decide to?
  • What should I do if one of my students informs me that he/she has been sexually assaulted?
  • In the event of a medical condition, should I recommend that the student visit the medical clinic nearest the host family or university, or should International SOS be contacted for a referral?
  • How does medical confidentiality and FERPA affect Directors?

Often, the answers to these questions seemed like common sense, but it was certainly good to have them clarified. The general advice in most situations was to stay alert, touch base with all concerned, and keep the Off-Campus Programs Office and Dean’s Office in the loop.

Anyone leading or considering leading an off-campus program would be wise to contact John Tansey and his team for more thorough and complete answers to their questions. I know the workshop’s attendees appreciated the chance to learn more from all of the presenters.

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Few people would argue that one of the easiest ways to connect students to foreign culture and language without traveling is through the medium of film. Alfia Rakova, who teaches in the Russian Department, and Mayumi Ishida, who teaches Japanese in DAMELL, both have a long history of “Teaching Language through Film” and shared their experiences in a DCAL workshop on April 22.


Rakova received a grant from The Language Consortium back in 2000 and used the funds to develop teaching materials (readers and exercise books) from the scripts of four films. Film scripts are not regularly published, however, so it meant watching and re-watching the film countless times in order to extract a working script. From there, she could build vocabulary lists, identify parts of the film that serve to demonstrate grammatical points that she wants her students to work with and understand, and highlight language exchanges between characters that serve to model real-world interactions. The films also provide a rich repository for discussing culture, history, and music in the target language. Rakova notes, “This is not a film course; it is a language course,” and the purpose of using the films is to help students build vocabulary and their abilities with the Russian language, as well as to introduce students to aspects of Russian life and culture. In Intermediate Russian courses, students work closely with the texts that Rakova developed. For the advanced classes, though, “The film is the book”!

Watching the films is not merely a passive activity. The tasks in which Rakova involves her students encompass the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Along with more typical exercises around vocabulary and grammar usage, students may be asked to write, present, or debate in Russian on themes, plot elements, or characters. They may develop their own skits borrowing from language employed in the films, which are then presented to and evaluated by class peers. Going beyond the film, in fact, is what students like most, as Rakova receives positive feedback from students who enjoy discussing the issues, watching films without subtitles, and re-imagining the characters in new scenarios of their own creation.


Ishida, too, has been teaching with films for quite a while. She shared many of Rakova’s opinions on the value of film for teaching language and culture, and pointed out additional aspects as well. For example, films excel at presenting clear demonstrations of non-verbal communications, which textbooks may only be able to describe. Unlike video prepared as part of a standard language textbook, films are not created with language students in mind. This can be both a blessing and a curse, however. On the one hand, the language is more natural and it allows instructors a lot of freedom in choosing what to teach, and they are more motivating to students. On the other hand, though, it can be quite time consuming for an instructor to select content and to balance it with other course materials appropriately.

In her time working with films, Ishida has taken at least four different approaches. The first method is similar to what Rakova did with her Consortium grant. Ishida refers to it as the “holistic” approach. In essence, it involves tackling a film as an entire project–deriving the script, creating vocabulary lists, making grammar and culture notes, formulating grammar exercises, homework activities, and quizzes, and selecting which Kanji characters to introduce. The process takes a lot of time and it can be a challenge to find related materials. Even after expending incredible effort on such a task, some films have “expiration dates,” when the appropriateness of using the film is gone due to societal changes.

The second method is “project oriented.” It starts with a theme and then Ishida selects several films based on the theme. At the end of the term, students submit presentations or papers that explore the plots and themes of the films. While this method exposes students to more complex issues, the language learning takes more of a back seat, especially since students watch the films with subtitles for course efficiency. Conversations may still take place in the target language, but the learning is not as deep linguistically.

The third method is to teach with films as an L2 culture course. This is similar to the project model, but the course is taught in the target language exclusively. Worksheets and activities are still prepared to explore vocabulary, grammar, and story elements. And, students still complete a term project. Unfortunately, as an intensive language course, this is appropriate for intermediate and advanced students only, and may be best suited to short-term programs.

The fourth method is a hybrid of elements from all of the above. Ishida selects one film for viewing throughout the course, which is taught in the target language. The early part of the course deals primarily with linguistic aspects of the film, such as grammar and vocabulary. As the course progresses, more of the thematic topics of the film are explored. This approach allows the students to better internalize the language elements as well as the thematic elements over a longer period of time. The biggest challenge, though, is finding films that are suitable. The film not only needs to be appropriate to the teaching goals, but also needs to lend itself well to viewing over many class sessions.

Challenging Work

Too often, when an instructor turns to using films or television shows in their courses, other people outside of the field, may perceive the course as “easy” for students or not involving a lot of effort on the part of the instructor. Both Mayumi Ishida and Alfia Rakova make it very clear, however, that choosing to teach with films may actually be one of the most difficult and time-consuming decisions an instructor can make, and the reward is the greater motivation to learn and involvement with the language that they see in their students.

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Today, DCAL was pleased to host Barbara Sawhill, Director of the Cooper International Learning Center at Oberlin College, presenting Learning by Letting Go. Sawhill shared her experiences teaching Spanish at Oberlin with an approach that turns much of the syllabus planning, goal setting, and assessment over to the students.

After introductions, and an affirmation of her belief in “Practice what you preach, present what you teach, practice what you teach,” Sawhill immediately turned the presentation over to the twenty-two faculty and staff attendees with an activity designed to identify what everyone hoped to gain from the event as well as an exploration of meaningful learning experiences in each of our pasts.

Attendees examining self-described evidence of "learning"

Attendees examining self-described evidence of "learning"

In discussing the outcomes of the activity, Sawhill pointed out the importance not only of drawing out students’ own learning objectives but also drawing attention to the overlaps and shared objectives which can serve as the basis for collaboration and community building within the classroom.

The challenge facing all of us is coming to understand the general disconnect within the “academy,” from k-12 and all the way up, between what we do and what we say or believe that we do, as often described on course syllabi or in the mission statements of our schools. Sawhill continued with the delineation between “schooling” and “learning” and the misplaced efforts to assess the latter by only evaluating the former. In pursuit of learning, there are barriers that get in the way. The biggest are the top-down institutional structures that are designed to manage institutional time and resources, which end up creating teacher-centric learning. For example, a certain amount of material (a textbook) must be covered over the course of a term with an expectation that Teacher A will deliver to Teacher B students that are “ready” for the next phase. Looking at foreign languages, it is estimated through research that it takes 720 hours to be minimally proficient in a foreign language that is at least somewhat similar to one’s native language (e.g. Spanish for an English speaker). In a class of 20 students, what fraction of that 720 hours can really be delivered or experienced by an individual student over the course of a term or year? The result is that too often faculty will have students “snorkel” through the syllabus, racing through a superficial or shallow covering of the materials. Instead, says Sawhill, we need to encourage more opportunities to “scuba dive” into the content areas, sacrificing some coverage for deeper more meaningful experiences or interactions with the materials.

With that as a framework, Sawhill next described how she has begun teaching her classes, starting with her second year conversational Spanish course for non-majors. Except for administrative information, the class syllabus develops with student input on their learning objectives. Common goals are “structured from the chaos,” as students discover their overlapping and/or complementary interests. The task is not necessarily an easy one, as students so often expect the instructor to define the objectives and the process. But, in such a traditional teacher-centric approach, how are teachers preparing students to become the “lifelong learners” that so many of our mission statements allude to?

Students are asked to identify a short-, medium-, and long-term learning goal for themselves in the course. In clarifying the distance between “where I am now” and “where I want to be, ” Sawhill explains to the students that the process requires “lots & lots of work.” As the syllabus and goals emerge, one of the key tools Sawhill requires students to employ are blogs, both individual ones for students as well as a class blog that is collaboratively constructed. More importantly, the blogs are “open” to the world, inviting and encouraging comments from native speakers from around the globe. Sawhill notes, though, that  it often takes about two weeks for external feedback to begin appearing and requires that students seek out and contribute comments or links to blogs outside of the class. Most of the commentary comes from class peers, who gradually begin to understand more and more that they gain from their contributions and from the feedback they receive, in the spirit of true community and collaboration.

At the end of the course, students are required to submit a short (250-500 words) essay, in English or in Spanish, that evaluates the progress that they made towards their goals, highlighting the factors contributing to or against their achievement. They also submit evidence of their efforts and give themselves a grade. In all cases, no one gave themselves an “A.” And in one case, a student felt she earned only a C, yet provided evidence of over 40 hours of Internet voice chat with native speakers, as well as 55 pages of text chat transcripts. Based on their overall course performance, self evaluation, and evidence, Sawhill assigns the final grade, consulting with the students when she finds her evaluation at odds with their own.

In closing, Sawhill made the following points:

  • Blogging is hard work
  • It’s not about “you.” It’s about “us.”
  • Mark Prensky’s notion of digital natives and digital immigrants is wrong. Our students have as much trepidation about technology as we often do
  • Making the curriculum relevant to the “out there” experience is hard. But, it’s worth it.

For those who are interested Barbara Sawhill, continues to write about her teaching experiences at her blog site Language Lab Unleashed http://www.languagelabunleashed.org/ and there are links to some of her class blogs from the Cooper International Learning Center site at http://languages.oberlin.edu/.

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yeah, it's long -- I didn't have time to make it shorter

Feral Librarian

Research libraries & higher education. Sometimes music, sports, & other stuff.