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Increasing Opportunities for Real Communication

Phyllis Santiago, Killeen ISD

Purpose of the Study

I teach Spanish I in a middle school to 8th graders who receive one high school credit for foreign language. I sought to investigate students’ interest level throughout a thematic unit of their choice with a focus on communicative use of the target language. My belief is that when students have a part in the planning and designing of lessons that are meaningful to them, they will seek opportunities to use and increase their newly acquired vocabulary and become life-long learners. I wanted to compare students’ communication in the target language under these conditions with the communication that regularly takes place using the standard lesson from the textbook.

The question is important to me because most students learning a foreign language are interested in communication. Usually the foreign language classroom provides the time for students to practice the target language, but in a controlled way, within the limited parameters provided by the textbook. Based on my observations in my classes, the end-result of these lessons is somewhat mechanical, even when we try to personalize the situations. At the end of the year, I want my students to leave with the feeling that they learned something that they will use. I do not want this Spanish class to be just another graduation requiremen

Research Questions

The question I sought to investigate was the following: Will student choice of thematic unit topic increase oral communication in the target language?

Data Collection and Findings

I designed a new unit with input from students and used videotapes and a survey to gather information for my project. I also kept a journal where I recorded my observations of students’ behavior and attitudes. For this project, I chose one class and told those students that I wanted to try a different approach with the next unit. We discussed some ideas about learning a foreign language and why it is important, and they all concurred that communicating orally in the target language is important to them. Next, we discussed topics that might be of interest to them. I asked students to vote on one topic. Out of 21 students, 19 chose food and two picked television. I also told them that at the end of the unit, they would complete a survey comparing the new food unit with the one we were currently working on.

At that time, we were completing a textbook unit on physical descriptions and personality traits which had been conducted in the customary manner: presentations of grammar and vocabulary, lots of oral drills and structured written workbook exercises. I decided to finish the unit by videotaping the students role-playing a situation in which they would apply the vocabulary and grammar from the lesson: describing a blind date. Students worked in pairs to write a dialogue and, after two days of preparation, they presented their role-play to the class.

We started working on the vocabulary for our trial food unit the following week. Students developed lists of words they were interested in learning, and together we decided on the words we would use. In the interest of time, I provided the students with the translations and pronunciation for the words that they chose. For example, students wanted to learn the names and placement of dinnerware, so they researched the information, discussed the results with me, and created their own placemats containing drawings of dinnerware placement with the item names in Spanish. We also learned to talk about likes and dislikes using gustar and encantar, preceded by me, te, le, nos, les. The class wanted to learn how to order food in a restaurant because they felt that knowledge would be useful in the community (where there is a high population of native speakers of Spanish), so we learned to use the verb querer. However, the grammar was presented only as it was useful for the specific purposes of ordering and stating likes and dislike. I did not present complete verb paradigms, and we did not spend a lot of time drilling the forms. We agreed that at the end of the unit, students could bring in food and recreate a restaurant scenario.

The prospect of eating in the classroom gave the students something to look forward to. One student worked on a menu based on the food items students would be bringing to school. The class voted on a name for the restaurant, and another student created a sign for it. The rest divided in groups and created different signs for the restaurant showing food groups or planned decorations for the restaurant. I videotaped students working on some of the activities to document their attitudes and enthusiasm in their learning and observed them using the Spanish vocabulary words we had learned in the lesson. For our end of unit assessment, I told students I would videotape the restaurant scenario and would walk around to listen to their conversations (ordering food, liking/not liking the food, etc.) They were already comfortable with the videotaping since I had been recording off and on to get them used to it.

Following “food day,” students completed a survey (some Likert and some yes/no responses) comparing their feeling about the two units they had just completed. They responded to questions about the helpfulness of the vocabulary and grammar provided in the textbook or by the teacher, whether or not they felt they had sufficient time to practice and learn the materials, and how helpful the structures and vocabulary were for their final role-plays. Students had slightly more favorable responses for the food unit regarding the vocabulary (72% compared with 61% for the textbook lesson), but more favorable responses for the textbook lesson regarding the grammar than for the food unit (72% to 39%). When asked specifically about their understanding of the grammatical structures, students clearly did not feel they understood them as well for the food unit, not a surprising finding considering the amount of time devoted to structured practice in the textbook as compared to the less structured discussion of verbs in the food unit. However, when asked which lesson they enjoyed more, students overwhelmingly chose the food unit (15 of 18 students with two non-responses). Overall, 12 students thought the unit on food was more useful, four students answered that the unit on descriptions was more useful, and two students answered that the two lessons would be equally useful.

Based on my observations in the classroom, the study of the videotape, and the responses from the survey, I believe the students enjoyed the unit on food and being part of the decision-making process more than the unit from the textbook on physical descriptions and personality traits. Most students were engaged in the activities in the food unit and stayed on task, and some students took special interest in creating special projects that their classmates could use during some of the activities. During the unit from the textbook, students worked in a more mechanical manner. For example, the videotape of the “blind date” role-play situation shows students reading their dialogues from their papers. In fact, at the end of the unit, some students indicated that for them, the role-play was just “doing something to get a grade.” However, they did appear to better understand the grammar structures for the unit on physical descriptions/personality traits than for the food unit as evidenced by the greater degree of accuracy in their role-plays. Again, more time had been spent on grammar in the textbook unit, and students read their dialogues rather than doing them spontaneously as with the restaurant scenario.

Difficulties that surfaced during the food unit included the distraction created by fact that there was food in the classroom. Students simply wanted to sit, visit, and eat. I, on the other hand, was busy making sure that students were participating and listening to their exchange of vocabulary. However, it was difficult, if not impossible, to be observing everything at once. I had asked students to self-rate their use of the vocabulary words and verbs and was disappointed with the results. Students did not indicate that they used these words as much as I had hoped. I believe that taking away the food element might improve students’ performances.

Plan of Action

I hope to compare the results of this study with a textbook unit on food that the students will be covering at the end of the year in which they will not be bringing food to class. I also plan to continue allowing students input into the topic of our lessons and providing them more opportunities to engage in activities that focus on real-world use of Spanish. However, because some of my students will be working towards distinguished diplomas or an International Baccalaureate, I want to be sure that they are comfortable with the grammar while not neglecting the hands-on tasks and functional use of the structures.

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