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Communication Curriculum

Modern language curriculum moves to communicative

Spanish teacher Daniel Kelty talks with students of his Spanish 3 class on what they would do in the case of various natural disasters such as floods and tornadoes on Oct. 26. The communicative approach deals more with real life application of the language, having students answer and ask questions using their language.

Wesley Henshaw.

Spanish teacher Daniel Kelty talks with students of his Spanish 3 class on what they would do in the case of various natural disasters such as floods and tornadoes on Oct. 26. The communicative approach deals more with real life application of the language, having students answer and ask questions using their language.

Wesley Henshaw, Managing Editor

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Over the past three years, the Modern Language Department has been undergoing massive curriculum changes from the more grammar-oriented approach, to the more communicative approach, in an attempt to increase fluency and general speaking ability in students.

“Our goal is for students to end our program, whatever level they exit at, that they are highly proficient learners,” Spanish teacher Andrea Williamson said. “So that they are conversational and literate.”

For the new curriculum, students are now being taught using the communicative approach. The communicative approach is a complete refocus from the original grammar-oriented curriculum, focusing on a more natural and immersive study of the language.

The communicative approach is “when you use a language to get the kids to communicate with each other on various topics and most of the class time is spent on using the language for communication,” Spanish teacher Daniel Kelty said. “At the same time though you’d have to teach the grammar that went along with it.”

When it comes to a trend towards communication, many teachers consider the approach to be better for students.

German teacher Christie Staszcuk went to school at Parkway Central and learned under the old curriculum, which she thought didn’t prepare her for speaking later on.

“We want our kids to speak, we want our kids to use the language,” Staszcuk said.

The new approach differs greatly with the original curriculum, which the Modern Language Department teachers were, in essence, stuck with. For example, with Spanish, the classes used the textbook iExprésate!, which proved quite difficult for Spanish teachers.

“Once we started using it, it really just canceled out the whole communicative approach because it made us only teach grammar, and the problem with the foreign language curriculum up until this point has been that the textbook pretty much dictates what you teach,” Kelty said. “So we were pretty much at the mercy of whatever textbook we adopted.”

Instead of the textbook, teachers now use “authentic” sources, meaning any videos, songs, and other forms of media made by and for members of the target culture.

Additionally, the tests and class time itself has been recentered towards communication and interaction.

Before the change, the tests were split up into categories such as reading, grammar, listening, and writing. Now, assessments are split into three categories: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational. The interpretive section acts as both the reading and listening sections. The interpersonal section is actual speaking, typically between two students. Finally, the presentational is mostly compositions, but also whenever students give a presentation to the class.

The biggest change, however, is in how classes focus on culture.

“Now we always talk about leading with culture,” Williamson said. “It’s more interesting for the students, it’s more interesting for us, it really connects us with the real world.”

Students discuss cultural topics and current events, refining their communicative skills as they do. The grammar that was so heavily emphasized previously is now taught as needed.

“When we ask them, ‘Okay, what happened with hurricane Michael,’ they’re going to be summarizing, so that means we’re going to have to teach them a little bit of past tense In order to go along with that,” Williamson said.

One of the key aspects of the new curriculum is something known as “thematic units.” This means that each unit focus on a theme, such as food, art, and other outlets of culture.

“Instead of having, ‘In chapter two we’re going to talk about the past tense,’ it’s more, ‘In this unit, we’re going to talk about art and we’re going to include things in there with vocabulary and culture,’” Staszcuk said.

The entire Modern Language Department then roughly follows the same units. For example, the German 2 and Spanish 2 classes were both on a self-portraits unit at the same time, their classes even sharing paint. Of course, this isn’t the case all of the time.

“A lot of what we’re doing is very similar, especially in levels one and two,” Staszcuk said. “But when you talk about being culturally driven, there are big differences in the German and the Spanish cultures, so when you get to those more upper levels the topics should probably change.”

The transition to the new curriculum wasn’t exactly smooth, though.

“Before I got here, they wrote the level one and level two curriculum and it was not a fun transition,” Staszcuk said. “Everything was the same. Vocabulary lists were the same across all three languages. They tried to implement that, it didn’t go well.”

The main problem with the transition was that the teachers in the Modern Language Department had to make their own curriculum from scratch, without the aid of any textbook. As a result, the curriculum was being created as it was being taught. This led to plenty of problems.

“That’s why the people who are in level three now, they’ve really suffered because they have been our guinea pigs for the past three years,” Kelty said. “They’re good kids, they’re smart, but they’re not at the level they should be.”

For younger students, the department has smoothed over many of the problems, creating a more solid curriculum. However, the curriculum is still growing.

“We are continually revising trying to find things that do work, find things that we can have in common,” Staszcuk said.“But keeping the cultural and the linguistic differences in mind so that it is more authentic to the culture and language that we’re talking about.”

The change reflects a national movement towards the communicative, as many teachers across the country had been switching to this new style.

“Our previous World Language coordinator kind of was looking at national trends and decided that this was the direction we were going to go,” Staszcuk said. “I worked in Rockwood previously and Rockwood was doing the same type of curriculum change.”

The new curriculum has been implemented into language levels one, two, and three, and teachers plan to implement it into the fourth and fifth levels at a later date. Teachers have begun noticing many improvements in students’ fluency and conversational skills as a result of the change.

“The kids that are using this new style of curriculum, when they do their speaking tests, are a lot more responsive to what their partner is saying,” Williamson said.“They’re actually listening to what their partner is saying and coming up with an off-the-cuff response.”

These students also have been described as less intimidated by listening to indigenous speakers speak. But, there have been some drawbacks. In turning away from grammar and vocab, the younger students don’t have as wide a vocabulary or as much knowledge of grammar.

“These kids don’t have that kind of range of grammar knowledge or vocab knowledge, but when I used to teach level three in the past there weren’t many people who could speak spontaneously, whereas now I see a lot of fluency that’s impressive,” Kelty said.

The teachers feel that, despite some difficulties, the change has worked out well and they’re now working on solid ground.

“There have definitely been growing pains, but, especially with the level two curriculum this year, it’s something that we’re pretty proud of and we think is working well,” Staszcuk said.

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