Researcher and Student Team Up to Offer Spanish Language Pilot Program

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By Tom McLaughlin

In fall 2013, Aurora Boyette, a Spanish teacher at Absegami High School in Galloway, was growing increasingly concerned that her students were struggling to learn basic grammatical concepts.

Seeking a solution, the Galloway resident, a student in the master of arts in teaching Spanish (MAT) program at Rutgers University–Camden, reached out to her professor, Próspero Garcia, about the possibilities of implementing some of the same innovative approaches that she had learned in his classes in the MAT program.

As a result, Garcia, an assistant professor of Spanish at Rutgers–Camden, is leading the design and implementation of a successful pilot program at Absegami featuring “concept-based instruction,” a revolutionary pedagogical approach that he has been carrying out in his research. After gaining approval from the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District, the pilot program, which includes eight participating students, began in October and will conclude in mid-May.

As Garcia explains, the foreign language curriculum in high schools has been “stuck in the 1990s,” relying mostly on antiquated methods, such as standard verb conjugations and fill-in-the-blank quizzes to instruct and evaluate students’ progress. The underlying problem, he explains, is that students may be able to repeat what they were being taught, but they generally don’t fully comprehend the concepts to which they are introduced.

boyette-copy“In turn, it handicaps their ability to produce – to communicate in their own words – in the target language,” says Garcia.

On the other hand, he explains, concept-based instruction requires students to understand complex notions and to justify their actions regarding the topic, enabling them to transform their explanations – putting them in their own words – and create meaning from what they are being taught.

For instance, in one exercise, students are given a diagram as a tool depicting various verb tenses and when to use them. They then are asked to create their own diagram and to answer several questions justifying their representation. In another exercise, are given a blank comic strip and asked to fill in the text in a particular tense, as well as to explain their reasoning and how it connected to what they had learned.

“For you to share any story with others, you need to make it your own,” he explains. “You may add some details or make changes in order for you or others to understand it better. We need to transform it, and that’s when we show that we have understood it in a way that’s meaningful to us. This is a fundamental element in the learning process that allows us to retain and create new knowledge.”

For Boyette, the opportunity to introduce this pedagogy has been nothing short of transformative for her students, as well as her teaching.

“I have taken on the role of a facilitator and monitor, while learners are taking a more active role in their cognitive development,” says Boyette. “Students are enthusiastically collaborating amongst each other and taking ownership of their learning, which builds self-confidence, and promotes curiosity and creativity.”

As Boyette and Garcia near completion of their data collection, they note that the preliminary findings are promising. According to Garcia, one student was initially able to choose verbs correctly only 50 percent of the time and to conjugate verbs correctly only 23 percent of the time during a pre-instruction assessment. In a post-test analysis, he was able to choose and conjugate verbs correctly, as well as justify his answers, a perfect 100 percent of the time – only two weeks later.

Based on this success, Boyette and Garcia now hope to incorporate this methodology into Boyette’s everyday classes. In the summer, they also hope to offer a series of workshops in the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District to ensure that other teachers have access to these pedagogical materials.

But their collaboration doesn’t end in the classroom. In the fall, they presented a working research paper at the XXI Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning Research Working Group Meeting at the University of Miami. They also plan to publish the full results of their study in order to bring awareness of these innovative pedagogies to other foreign language teachers.

“We believe that such collaborations between teachers and researchers will help close the gap between research and practice, which will be beneficial to both fields,” says Garcia.

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