Researcher Leads Innovative Language Teaching Project in South Jersey Schools

Participating students and their teacher (front, center) at Paul VI High School in Haddon Township

By Tom McLaughlin

While research in applied linguistics and pedagogy is booming these days, language teachers and their students have yet to benefit from these research advances, explains Próspero García, an assistant professor of Spanish applied linguistics at Rutgers University–Camden.

Looking to change that fact, the Rutgers–Camden researcher is now bringing pedagogical innovation to South Jersey schools, as he leads the “Empowering New Jersey Foreign Language Educators: Concept-Based Instruction as a Gateway to Learners’ Success” project.

Over the course of the fall semester, he and his graduate students have been collaborating on the research, design, implementation, and assessment of a concept-based approach to teaching Spanish at Camden County Technical School in Winslow Township, Cramer College Preparatory Lab School in Camden, Pennsauken High School, Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, and Paul VI High School in Haddon Township.

classwork“We want to help teachers and their students move away from traditional pedagogical approaches based on rules and repetition, and embrace developmental instructional models that empower learners,” says García.

The project utilizes critical concepts taught in García’s “Psychological Foundations of Spanish” course, including the need for teachers to understand learners’ cognitive makeup – physical, social, and moral development – and how it shapes their learning capacities. Components of the project range from enhancing literacy and reading comprehension in bilingual and foreign language classrooms, to the teaching and learning of conceptual grammatical notions.

“In essence, this project enables these graduate students to become effective teachers and researchers empowered by their own reflective practices,” says García.

A major commitment across the board from participating school administrators and teachers, as well as Rutgers–Camden students, has produced quick and dramatic results, says Madison Rogers, a first-year student in the master of arts in teaching Spanish program at Rutgers–Camden, who assisted her classmate, Lissa Croce, in the training and implementing part of the project at Pennsauken High School, where Croce is currently teaching Spanish.

“It was a lot of hard work, but in the end, we were teaching a class of high school students very abstract and complex concepts,” explains Rogers, a Collingswood resident and 2016 graduate of Rutgers–Camden with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and minors in Latin American Studies and English. “We were hoping that they’d pick up on it, but they began transforming their thinking through utilizing these tools about a concept they had never been exposed to before – all in five days.”

In- and pre-service participating teachers (left to right) Krysta Herrera, Marianela Abreu-Dejesus, and Madison Rogers, with Próspero García

According to Rogers, the students’ progress was especially evident when comparing their pre- and post-course tests on the concepts. On the first day, she explains, test answers consisted mostly of blank or terse responses, such as ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I don’t know.’ On the final day, however, the students were drawing visual – and accurate – representations of bounded and unbounded verbs to support their linguistic choices, and even conjugating them in the past tense.

“It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences I could have asked for as a researcher in my first ‘real’ high-stakes research project,” says Rogers.

This project is the latest iteration of García’s continuing efforts to unlock the power of concept-based instruction in high school Spanish curriculum. Supported in part by a faculty research grant from Rutgers–Camden’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, García then began the current project by designing some pedagogical tools to enhance teaching and learning in the foreign language classroom that were then adopted and implemented by his students to support Spanish teachers in the area.

Around that time, as the Rutgers–Camden researcher recalls, some of the student-teachers in his graduate “Psychological Foundations of Teaching Spanish” course were displeased with the manner in which they were teaching parts of the Spanish curriculum – such as grammar and reading comprehension – as they saw that their students were not achieving their true potential.

After presenting his newly designed materials to several of the pre-service and in-service teachers who were having trouble in their own classes, they agreed to talk to the schools in which they were teaching and put them in practice with their own students.

“There’s no reason why our high school students can’t become effective language learners, but we need to provide them and their teachers with the necessary tools to make that possible,” says García.

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