Swimming in the Sea of Language

Story by Jennifer Garci // Photo by Kathy McPherson

Imagine telling someone you’re a swimmer. You may have taken lessons for years, or been taught at least five different strokes. Now pretend we’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean and someone falls overboard. I look at you and yell, “Do something!” Then you and I and everyone on the boat realize, you’re not that kind of swimmer. Or maybe it’s skiing. Or cooking. Or in our case, speaking a world language.

World Languages

World languages teachers have been transforming the way Durham Academy teaches and students learn because we realized there was a gap between knowing how to swim and being really good at it. We’re moving away from memorization of vocabulary lists and exploring what students can do with the language. Do they know individual words or can they combine phrases? Can they communicate in short sentences or entire paragraphs? Can they ask questions and discuss abstract concepts or elaborate ideas? All of these factors are used to establish a person’s proficiency level, which is what the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) measures.

Teaching students to speak a world language is our primary focus, followed by listening, reading and writing in real-world, spontaneous situations. We still teach grammar and vocabulary, but grammar and vocabulary now serve as scaffolding to get students to talk about something. Dynamic courses are now built around current topics, news and culture, with unique vocabulary lists for each thematic unit that use grammar in context throughout our topics. They can range from traditions in Central America, to political unrest in Cataluña, to sci-fi in French film or to China’s population policy. How does our environment shape our identity? Why are traditions different from culture to culture? In what ways is education different from country to country? Yes, DA students are talking about these topics!

First and foremost, we focus on unrehearsed, spontaneous conversation. As teachers, we are listening for words, phrases, sentences and/or paragraphs, an ever-expanding vocabulary, connectors, accurate grammar and multiple verb tenses. We evaluate students’ presentational speaking — rehearsed or planned speech, interpersonal writing, and interpretive listening and reading. This provides a 360-degree measurement of students’ proficiency, which has quantifiable value and real meaning for our students, colleges and universities and future employers. It doesn’t matter how many years students have studied a language. Proficiency can be measured, fluency cannot.

Recently, we renamed our Upper School language courses to reflect proficiency levels — level one and two students are considered novices, and levels three and four are intermediate — with placement based on proficiency and skill, rather than the number of years they’ve studied a language. A new “Spanish for Heritage Learners” course recognizes that heritage speakers often possess different proficiency levels, particularly in their speaking and writing. We’re placing students in the appropriate swimming pool — if it’s too deep they might sink, if it’s too shallow they might feel like they’re in the kiddie pool. Students have a more valuable classroom experience as unique language learners, working with peers of similar skill, swimming together and supporting one another.

Teachers from Middle School and Upper School will be attending the annual ACTFL convention, where they will connect with thousands of other language teachers from across the world — learning ways to further challenge our students and bring new ideas and tools into our dynamic spaces.

It’s an exciting time in world languages education and especially at Durham Academy, where the Hock Center has been transformed into a center for world languages classrooms and a shared office for world languages teachers. The next time you encounter a group of Upper Schoolers, ask them what their proficiency level is as they swim in the sea of language education here at DA!