Color-coding to develop meta-linguistic awareness in the classroom

Photo by  Agence Olloweb  on  Unsplash

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

In genre-based approaches to language learning, one of the key goals is to teach students not only what texts mean, but how they mean, so students can use (or resist) these conventions when they express themselves.  While the goal of understanding WHAT a text means is fairly straightforwards for students and instructors, I find that the goal of understanding HOW a text means is more complicated.  To give a precise example of what this means, in a “recount” which is the retelling of an event, there are usually three stages: an orientation, a description of events, and an evaluation.  So for example, it might be something like the following:

Orientation: Last weekend, I went to the zoo with my family

Events: We saw the giraffes, and fed the ducks, and rode the carousel . . . (etc.)

Evaluation: It was a really fun time!

Focusing on WHAT this text means would include what specific animals we saw, or where we went, etc.  Focusing on HOW this text means would include noticing the use of the past tense to describe the events, a time phrase in the orientation, and a phrase giving an opinion in the evaluation.  These could then be used in another recount, describing a different event.  By helping students understand how texts are structured, in addition to what they mean, they can use these structures when they create language.  Importantly, understanding structure is not just about understanding grammar, which is where we sometimes get confused—grammar (such as using the past tense to describe past events) is only one part of understanding how texts achieve their communicative goals.  

For this stage, which I call “analysis” or “ta7eel” in my lesson plans, I have tried various techniques, from presenting my own analysis of the stages and important linguistic elements to each stage to asking students to find specific phrases and language that achieve the goals of the text.  However, I have never felt that this was particularly successful—while some students were able to recycle this language when creating their own versions of these texts, others were not.  

However, this semester I have finally hit on a technique using color coding and google drive that seems to be more effective. As I’ve noted earlier, in our curriculum students work with a text each night that serves as an example of the Can-Do Statement targeted in class the next day.  So for example, for one of my lessons, the Can-Do Statement was “I can describe a holiday” and the read a text that describes how Ramadan is celebrated in different Arab countries (from the Al-Kitaaab textbook).  To understand the meaning of the text, students work with it at home, recording what they understand and don’t understand, and then we discuss this in class.  

For the analysis stage, I split the class into four groups, with each group responsible for a paragraph describing a particular country (which I pre-typed into a document in a shared google drive).  They then had to color-code the text, with one color for information specific to Ramadan, and another color for parts of the text that would be useful in describing any sort of holiday.  To start them off, I gave them the following example:

Screenshot 2019-02-07 09.12.44.png

After they have analyzed the text, the students can then rework it, by substituting the information specific to Ramadan with information about another holiday, while keeping and using the more general language.  In this class, I actually just had them illustrate their paragraphs with pictures of the information specific to Ramadan, as many students were unfamiliar with these customs, so obviously I don’t always follow this technique myself! However, when we did a lesson with a text on weddings instead, I had them edit the text to describe a wedding in another location/religion/social group, etc.  

If the texts are listening ones, I’ll either have the students transcribe a specific section (each group has a different speaker for example) or I’ll transcribe it for them (if I think it is particularly difficult).  They can then conduct the same color-coding analysis, but in the creation part I’ll have them make their own video (if it’s presentational) or conduct interviews (if it’s interpersonal).  

So far, this has been working really well, and I’ve even heard students say things in class like “Oh, I’m starting to see how this describing works” in addition to having them produce higher quality examples of the Can-Do Statements.  So, I’m excited to see how this continues throughout the semester! 

Multilingualism and Plurilingualism: Implications for the language classroom


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Last year, I did a series of posts on language ideologies (What is language?) arguing that while these frequently inform our expectations and actions in the language classroom, we don’t think enough about this.  Recently, I’ve been delving into the literature on plurilingual ideologies and pedagogies, and thought I would discuss the differences between these terms here.  

Based on my reading thus far, plurilingual and multilingual were not always distinct terms.   In discussing situations involving multiple languages, the term “multilingualism” was more common in English, and “plurilinguisme” more common in French, and when some French writers wrote in English they used the “pluri” rather than “multi” prefix.  However, this could refer to the same situation and/or come from the same type of language ideology.  

However, there are two ways in which more recently the terms “plurilingual” and “multilingual” have diverged.  One is in making a distinction between the use of multiple languages at the societal level (multilingualism) and the use of multiple languages at the individual level (plurilingualism).  For example, in a multilingual society, speakers of different languages may be socially separated from each other, such that the multiple languages at the societal level do not correspond to the multiple languages in individuals’ plurilingual repertoires.  Similarly, an individual’s plurilingual repertoire may include languages not represented at the larger societal level.  

The second way in which the terms are used distinctly relates to language ideologies, where the term plurilingual is used to indicate a language ideology that views language boundaries as fuzzy, and emphasizes connections between these languages in an individual’s linguistic repertoire.  This can be contrasted with a monolingual language ideology that emphasizes language boundaries and is rooted in the European nation-state.  A multilingual approach could in fact take either of these ideological lenses (emphasizing plurilingual connections or expecting multiple monolingualisms) which is why the term plurilingual has been used to distinguish the former rather than the latter.  

This is a useful distinction to make, which is why I will probably use the term plurilingual, rather than multilingual in the future, although I have used multilingual in the past (in academic works now forthcoming and on this blog) to mean the same thing! It’s also worth noting that the only reason we need to develop these special terms now is because language teaching in English dominant environments like the United States is firmly rooted in monolingual language ideologies.  After all, people in many parts of the world (such as Makalela’s students mentioned in my post on learning about translanguaging practices from African contexts) simply refer to this as “the way we talk”, no special terms needed.  

So, what are components of a plurilingual language ideology? First, there is a focus on the individual’s plurilingual repertoire and an emphasis on the connections and relationships between the languages and varieties in this repertoire.  In contrast to a multilingualism rooted in monolingual language ideologies, plurilingualism takes an unbalanced mix of the languages in an individual’s plurilingual repertoire as the norm—the so-called “balanced bilingual” is not expected.  In terms of linguistic competence, this is established in particular contexts and interactions and is always in progress—there is no “mastery” or end state as the repertoire continues to change throughout the lifetime.  This is a very different definition of competence than that expected in monolingual global proficiency tests.  Furthermore, plurilingual approaches emphasize making connections between linguistic elements in an individual’s repertoire, either to communicate in plurilingual situations or to expand the linguistic repertoire.   This is called plurilingual competence, and it extends beyond measurements of linguistic competence.  For example, an individual with high plurilingual competence may be able to successfully communicate in contexts where their linguistic competence has little overlap with that of their interlocutors.  

There are clear parallels between the ideological approaches informing plurilingualism and translanguaging theory.  As far as I can tell, the major difference is that the former is rooted in work on language policies in multilingual Europe and the latter has been more focused on the context of working with minoritized students in English dominant settings like the US and UK.  Proponents of plurilingualism consider translanguaging a plurilingual practice, and plurilingualism the overarching theory or ideology.  However, translanguaging has also been developed as a theory of language, and scholars working from this background would consider translanguaging both a theory and a practice.  

As for the pedagogical implications of a plurilingual language ideology, here again we see many overlaps with what is called translanguaging pedagogy. Plurilingual pedagogies view students’ previous linguistic knowledge (of languages and dialects) as a tool to expand their knowledge of new languages.  Since competence is contextualized, plurilingual approaches focus on specific situations, and ways in which to use both plurilingual and linguistic competencies to communicate.  There is also a focus on developing meta-linguistic awareness, or an understanding of how language works (including pragmatically, sociolinguistically, not just grammatically!) such that existing linguistic knowledge can be used in new situations.  

While researchers and practitioners taking a plurilingual perspective on language teaching in the fields of bi/multilingual education and TESOL would probably also say there is much progress that needs to be made in this area, this perspective seems to be particularly lacking in what I call the “other TESOL”, or Teaching English Speakers Other Languages.*  While this is no doubt a result of our roots in monolingual ideologies of language, and there are real challenges in implementing plurilingual and translanguaging pedagogies (as you can see from my description of our attempt) I think it is crucial that we move towards a plurilingual perspective for a number of reasons.  

I hope to elaborate more on this in a future post, but it essentially boils down to this: the contexts in which English speakers use English and in which they might use other languages are not the same.  Without a plurilingual perspective, we focus on being able to do everything we do in English in other languages, which is a) not realistic and b) obscures some really important contexts in which we need other languages.  For example, as I’ve argued before, we don’t necessarily need the other language to complete transactions (e.g. ordering a coffee or engaging in a Q&A following an academic conference presentation), though of course it’s nice to be able to do this.  However, the nature of our relationship will be fundamentally different with the person in that transaction if we share multiple languages, or even just the existence of a plurilingual repertoire.  This is true even if the person speaks “perfect English” and we complete the transaction in English—there is still the relationship part, where we might make small talk or joke as we wait for the coffee or interact in a reception at the academic conference, and need to use the other language, or even more likely, translanguage.  Yet, which of these are we more likely to focus on in the language classroom: ordering coffee, or making small talk while we wait for it? Participating in an academic presentation or talking to the same person at the reception afterwards? Will we learn to translanguage, or just the multiple monolingualism perspective of doing something completely in English or completely in the other language?  

Learning other languages through a plurilingual perspective can also make us better speakers of English, as we develop meta-linguistic awareness and the ability to listen to speech that is difficult for us to understand, and try anyway.  This is extremely valuable in the situation of English as a lingua franca, where we encounter and (hopefully) desire to communicate with English speakers whose English differs from ours.  We frequently hear about English speakers learning “English grammar” for the first time when they study other languages, but grammar is not the only type of meta-linguistic awareness—developing our sociolinguistic and pragmatic awareness in other languages can also make us more aware of these issues in English.  This awareness can impact our relationships with other English speakers, as we realize how our pragmatic expectations may differ even though we are speaking the same language.  Perhaps more importantly, this type of awareness can help us prevent ourselves from using language to reproduce racial and social inequalities through our judgements of the “appropriateness” or “correctness” of linguistic elements and language varieties.  We can also start to ask hard questions, like why aren’t we spending more time listening to speakers of varieties of English we find hard to understand?

So, what do you think about plurilingual approaches in the context of the “Other TESOL”? If you’re a teacher and/or learner in this context, have you tried them? Would you try them? Why or why not?

*Usually referred to as ”foreign” or “world” language teaching, but really I think what makes this different is not the “foreignness” of the languages but the fact that the learners speak English, the actual world language.  This includes both monolingual English speakers and plurilingual English speakers learning other non-English languages (like an English-Spanish bilingual learning Arabic!).

Pacing, not Sprinting: My Semester Plan Spring 2019

It’s the start of a new semester, so time for a new semester plan! In the Fall, I shared my Fall semester plan and one thing I like to do at the end of the semester is review how that went (as it is never exactly to plan!).  So, here is the plan at the beginning of the semester:


And here is the plan at the end of the semester:


As you can see, a variety of things got added in, and not everything that I planned got accomplished.  However, I tend to view this not a failure of the plan, but as a flexible adjustment.  When I make my Spring plan, I can focus on whether the projects I didn’t complete need to be carried over (because they take longer than I allotted or got replaced with something new) or just deleted (painful, but sometimes necessary).  

So, here is my Spring 2019 plan:

This semester, my main goal is to make it to the end of the semester without being exhausted (hence REST as my focus word).  Last semester was a particularly challenging one due to a variety of anticipated and unanticipated things that took more mental and emotional energy than I expected (on top of the physical exhaustion of having young children that don’t sleep through the night).  While the pattern of pushing to exhaustion and then resting on the semester breaks seems to be the dominant one in academia, and there are people who really thrive on this type of sprinting, deadline-based approach, I have decided that it is not for me, and I’m working on figuring out a more paced approach.  One reason this doesn’t work for me is that my “breaks” tend to be filled with catching up on life admin activities I neglect during the semester or hanging out with my kids and family.  The first can be mentally exhausting and the second physically exhausting, if a nice mental release.  

So, the question is, how to make a semester plan that has a pacing strategy?  I have to admit, this is unclear as the beginning of the  semester is already jam-packed, is unclear, but I hope to report back with things that worked and didn’t work in May.  As I mentioned in my Fall post, I make my semester plan by putting in the relevant dates and deadlines that are already scheduled, and then adding habits, goals, projects, and tasks.  This semester, as part of my pacing goal, I brainstormed everything I wanted to do separately, and then tried to select only a few to actually make it onto the plan.  You’ll also see I have nothing planned in May—this is the buffer time for things that take longer than anticipated or that I don’t know about yet.  I’m also trying a new variation on my weekly planning, where I organize my days by energy consumed and generated rather than category, that I’ll report back on in a later post.  

Do you pace your semesters? Or are you more of the sprinting type? Let me know if you have ideas for pacing!

Curriculum Development Part 8: Week 6 Recap, and Final Thoughts


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In my last post, I described Weeks 3, 4, and 5.  In this post, I’m back with a recap of Week 6 and some final thoughts on the project.  I’ve also placed links to all of the curriculum development posts leading up to this unit at the end of this post if you want to follow the story from the beginning!

Week 6 Recap

There were only two days in this week before review/finals, and overall they went well.  On Monday, students’ assignments was to describe what they did at the party, and then in class they read each other’s descriptions and asked questions while my co-teacher worked on correcting their drafts.  On Tuesday, their homework was to reflect upon their party planning experience with my favorite set of reflection questions (What did you accomplish? How can you magnify this? What can be improved next year? How?).  They then discussed their answers in their committees, before I led them in a full class discussion.  This took much longer than I anticipated (the entire 75 minute class!) but was a fruitful discussion, as students realized that despite their frustrations, they did pull off the party, and they also had some excellent ideas about how to improve the planning experience next time, or at least feel less frustrated with the combination of bureaucracy and many moving parts (truly a valuable life skill!).  They also noted that when they felt frustrated, they were less likely to use Arabic as they didn’t have the words to express themselves—another reason I think it’s important to incorporate social and emotional language into the language classroom.  

In week 7, my co-teachers and I had our end of semester reflection meeting, and our thoughts were similar to the students in terms of the overall success (we had a party!) and the improvements (wow that was more stressful than we thought for planning, bureaucratic, and communication reasons!).  Many of the students seemed invested in the party, and far more attended than has happened with other events.  It was also a fun way to end the semester.  We also made specific plans for improvement (focusing on breaking tasks into their component parts, written agreements of what the class and Arabic club will take care of) that we noted in our shared google drive*.  

So, that concludes our curriculum development for this semester, where we used genre-based approaches to language learning and Can-Do Statements to ditch the textbook to learn about renting apartments and plan a party.  If you’d like to follow this series from the beginning, here are links to all of the posts:


Part 1: Choosing Assessment Tasks

Part 2: Finding Texts

Part 3: Introducing Intentional Translanguaging Pedagogy

Part 4: Unit Plan and Week 1 of Party Planning

Part 5: Week 1 Recap, Planning Week 2

Part 6: Week 2 Review, Planning Week 3

Part 7: Week 3 Recap, Weeks 4 and 5, Planning Week 6

Part 8: Week 6 Recap and Final Thoughts (this post!)

*This practice bore amazing fruit toward the end of our reflection meeting, when we needed to choose topics for the Spring fourth semester class—and lo and behold when we looked in the curriculum development folder, we had already done this at the end of the Spring semester when the class was fresh in our minds! Neither I nor my co-teacher had any memory of this, but there they were and it was just a matter of going from our four suggestions to three actual topics (five weeks per topic seemed to be a good fit in the Fall).  So yes, planning and reflecting takes time, but it also saves a lot of time!

Curriculum Development Part 7: Week 3 Recap, Weeks 4 and 5, Week 6 Planning


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In my last post, I reflected upon the second week, and plans for week 3.  As I’m posting every other week, the class is going faster than  my blog, so this post will cover a week 3 recap, plans for week 4, the week 4 recap, planning week 5, a week 5 recap, and planning week 6.  Almost the end of the semester!

Week 3 Recap

This week, we had two Can-Dos on Monday, “I can write a program for the party” and “I can introduce a speaker”.  This turned out to be too much, especially as the video for the second can-do was challenging, so in the future we should split it up.  Following this and the TalkAbroad assignment on Tuesday, we moved on to planning.  Students had task lists for their committees, and then had to essentially create their own homework of carrying out the tasks (using a structured assignment sheet that asked them what they discussed/did in class, what each person was responsible for, and what they needed to do before the next class).  Each group also had to report at the end of class on what they had accomplished.  Here, my co-teacher and I were surprised to discover that these assignments were extremely challenging, though not for linguistic reasons.  Rather the challenges came from breaking tasks down into smaller activities (such as printing posters being a necessary step between designing and hanging them) and coordinating all of those activities in a group.  This definitely led to some frustration for students who felt like they no longer knew exactly what to do, and for my co-teacher and I, who felt like the activities were clearly listed, why were they confused?  This led us to wonder whether students were really benefitting from these activities, especially linguistically.  On the other hand, learning the skills of breaking tasks down into smaller parts and coordinating committee work are rather valuable life skills, so why not learn them in Arabic class?

Week 4 Planning

Week 4 was a short week due to the Thanksgiving holiday.  While we originally were not sure how much planning time students would need, after Week 3 it was clear that this would take longer than we had originally anticipated.  So, the plan was as follows:

Monday: I can carry out my tasks for the party

Tuesday: I can carry out my tasks for the party

Wednesday: I can learn a song about a party (this one, as a fun pre-break class)

Week 4 Recap

Week 4 continued to see challenges related to planning and coordinating more than language.  An additional challenge was coordinating with the Arabic Club, who had the funds to actually make purchases for the party (departments can no longer spend money on food at my university).  Many of the students’ tasks involved emailing the Arabic Club President (in Arabic, cc’ing the teachers) to reserve rooms, technology, and decide on food and decorations.  After several rounds of emails, two things became clear: (1) we needed a lesson on email pragmatics, and (2) the teachers needed to keep track of and respond to the emails 

To address number 1, I spend most of class on Tuesday discussing pragmatics, using the diagrams from this great book by Rémi A. van Compernolle to help students understand how language places them on continuum of formality, social distance, and relative status, and how they need to consider both how they want to present themselves and what is expected in the situation.  I then had them analyze two example emails I wrote (one just a list of decorations, and the other including more information, a greeting, and introduction, etc.) and then write some more example emails taking into account the pragmatics information and their analysis of the emails.  

To address number two, and also the planning challenges discussed earlier, my co-teacher and I responded to individual emails, and I also wrote group emails to each committee breaking their todo lists into products (to bring to class Monday) and activities (to determine when and who would complete these).  

Week 5 Planning

For week 5, we continued planning, but also focused on how we could help students with the challenges of breaking things down into smaller tasks, coordinating, and mapping these tasks to their schedules.  The schedule was as follows:

Monday: I can present my final report for the party (based on the products and activities in the group email I sent on the previous Wednesday)

Tuesday: TalkAbroad assignment: I can discuss party planning

Wednesday: I can plan my schedule for the day of the party

Thursday: I can prepare for the party

Friday: I can celebrate in Arabic! 

The major question going into this week was would the party be a success? Would it happen? Would it be worth the frustration?

Week 5 Recap

Week 5 did not start off well, as on Monday, the students were still missing some of their products, and did not have plans for completing all of their activities.  There were also challenges in coordinating between the Arabic Club and the students, which led to hurt feelings, stress, and frustration.  Tuesday, another TalkAbroad assignment went well as students compared their first recording of the semester with their most recent one and were able to see improvement! Wednesday, students had to prepare their schedules for the day of the party, which was challenging for many (due to thinking about schedules, not language) but then my co-teacher went over the group schedule in class with them, writing it down, which led to a good schedules discussion.  Thursday, I returned to the group emails, and printed them out for each group to discuss together and then report item by item to the class.  While this look longer than anticipated and printing emails feels a little strange, by the end it was pretty clear that everyone was set for the party in terms of their product, activities, and when they were going to do them.  Finally! Following this, I had the student re-read the texts from the first week of party planning, and they were excited to discover that while they still didn’t understand everything in the texts, they understood a lot more after five weeks of party planning.  Friday in class students completed final arrangement for the party (like picking up technology) and then Friday at 4:00 started setting up.  

And as it turns out, the party (a languages clubs mixer) was a great success! Many of the languages clubs showed up and shared about their activities, and everyone enjoyed the food, music, and mingling with other language students.   So while on Wednesday I was considering never doing this unit again, post-party I changed my mind :-)

Week 6 Planning

This is the final week of classes, so we basically have only two days of class activities before review and exams.  The plan is to help students reflect upon their party-planning experience, first by describing what happened at the party and what they did, and then by discussing the successes and challenges they experienced in planning the party, and how they can amplify/address these in the future.  So:

Monday: I can describe the party (using picture taken at the party, especially if they were unable to attend)

Tuesday: I can reflect on my planning skills

And that concludes the party unit, as Wednesday-Friday are exams and reviews! I’ll be back in my next post with a final report.  

Curriculum Development Part 6: Week 2 Review, Planning Week 3


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In my last post, I reflected upon the first week, and plans for the second one.  In this post, I’m reflecting upon week 2 and describing planning for week 3.  


Week 2 involved texts focused on the following tasks and the students carrying out versions of these tasks in class: reserving a room, ordering food, planning decorations, deciding on appropriate dress, and writing invitations.  Overall, this went fairly well.  The texts were challenging for the students, but they were able to follow enough to do the task in class, which of course was the goal.  There were also technical difficulties, where for example the video explaining how to order food uses a different version of the website than the current one.  Overall, I’d probably also spend more than one day on each activity in the future.  


The plan for week 3 is to have one day related to tasks, and then start planning the party. As we also have a day focused on a TalkAbroad assignment (a telecollaboration program sponsored by our language lab) and I’ll be at a conference one day, that’s actually only two days for planning. So, the schedule goes as follows:


I can write a program for the party (text is the very beginning of this document)

I can introduce a speaker (text is the introduction of this lecture)


TalkAbroad Reflections


I can write a plan for the party and carry out the necessary tasks


No class, conference


I can carry out my tasks for planning the party

For Wednesday, I wrote todo lists for three committees (Food and Decorations, Entertainment, and Logistics) in coordination with the Arabic Club, and these are the text for Wednesday’s lesson. In class, they’ll sign up for the committee they want to belong to, and start planning their next steps. Each committee also has order sheets for various items (food, decorations, sound systems, room reservations, etc.) that I made based on what is actually available. They then have to email the president of the Arabic Club (since the club has the money for the event) to make the necessary arrangements. At the end of class, they students will give a report on what they plan to accomplish before the next class. Their homework is to fill out a sheet describing what they talked about in class, what each person on their committee needs to do, and what they need to do for the next class (and of course do it!).

In terms of my lesson planning, the big question of course is how long will carrying out these plans take? In addition to language skills, this part will also require planning and coordination skills, which the students may also need to develop. So, it should be an interesting week, with lots of potential revisions for next time!

Curriculum Development Part 5: Week 1 Recap, Planning Week 2


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In my last post, I talked about planning the overall structure party unit as well as the first week.  In this post, I’m back with a recap of week one and planning week two! 

Week One Recap

This week focused primarily on understanding the steps for planning a party, and the greatest challenges for students were the texts themselves,  as this is a new unit with new vocabulary and authentic texts.  There were also some technical challenges with accessing the vocabulary lists the first few days which didn’t help.  However, by the end of the week, following activities like breaking the texts into jigsaw discussions and continued repetition of the party planning words, students did seem to have a clear idea of possible steps in planning a party, and which ones would be relevant to our party.  Including questions specifically targeting sociolinguistic and pragmatic elements on the homework also seems to be helpful in getting students to notice and think about these parts of language, instead of just focusing on vocabulary and grammar (which is still important, but not the only important part of language!)

Week Two Planning

For this week, each day focused on a specific step in planning a party, and I searched for texts that supported this step, coming up with the following plan (click on the day to see the supporting text):


I can understand the necessary information to reserve a room for the celebration

I can write a request to reserve a room for the celebration


I can order food for the party according to my budget


I can discuss ideas for decorating for the party with my classmates


I can discuss appropriate clothing for the party

I can decide on appropriate dress for our party

Friday: Multiple Examples

I can write invitations

As with Week 1, some of these texts are quite challenging for my students, and quite frankly, I find some of them a little boring, and would prefer to find more appealing texts in the future. However, there is only so much time to spend searching for texts, so at some point I have to go with what I have.

As with the first week, after planning the schedule, I then analyzed the texts for necessary vocabulary, grammar, pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and cultural elements.  Using this analysis, I made an example text homework, helping students focus on what they understand, don’t understand, and sociolinguistic and pragmatic elements, as well as a google drive chart focused on vocabulary and grammar for them to study and create their own sentences related to the Can-Dos in preparation for class.  In class, we focus on activities that have them doing whatever the Can-Do is for that day, using the homework text as a model.

Week 3 will involve putting the students in committees to plan the actual party, and I hope to be back with that in a few weeks!

Curriculum Development Part 4: Unit Plan and Week 1 of Party Planning

As I mentioned in my previous curriculum development posts, this year in our Intermediate Arabic classroom we are moving away from the textbook and designing our own units informed by genre-based approaches to language learning.  We are concluding our unit on housing, and starting our unit on planning an end of the year party.  This is the unit I’m primarily responsible for developing, so I thought I would blog that process as I do it.  In previous posts I’ve discussed background information, choosing assessment tasks, finding texts, and introducing intentional translanguaging pedagogy. In this post I’ll discuss making the unit plan and planning the first week of the party unit. The goal of this unit is to have students develop the skills to plan and carry out a language clubs mixer at the end of the semester.

Unit Planning


My first step in planning the overall unit was to map out the weeks for this unit on a large sheet of drawing paper (stolen from my kindergartener 😀).  Here, I listed the weeks and days, and then referred to the original plan my co-teacher and I had made for the semesters to fill in holidays, conferences, and other events that occur in that time period.  This left me with a specific number of days to work with.  I then consulted our original idea about putting students in committees to plan a language clubs mixer/end of the year party as well as the texts I had found this summer representing language functions related to parties and party planning.  Incidentally, I’m really glad I did that over the summer! Based on this, I used different colored post-its to plan out where these language functions could fit into the unit.  I decided to start with texts describing the necessary steps for planning a party, then move to specific pieces of party planning (like ordering food or setting up entertainment), then students’ committee work, then some practice time.  I was also able to leave a flex week to work in challenges we face as we get closer, and a reflection week for review and reflection after the event.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in teaching and planning, it’s that you need to fit in some flex/buffer time to plan for the unexpected, and also some reflection time after the event or project!

Week 1

With a rough plan for the unit laid out, I moved on to planning Week 1 in detail, since that’s starting next week! At the start of each new unit, we include a culture day focused on that topic, where we ask students to research questions related to the unit at home, and then discuss them in class in small groups and then as a class.  This is primarily in English, although, as in all parts of a language class, you’ll find some translanguaging as well.  So, I put that on the schedule for Monday, and made a note for myself to create a culture assignment.  Tuesday was already taken up finishing a telecollaboration assignment from the housing unit, so that left me with Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to plan lessons working on understanding the steps of planning a party.  For each day, following our incorporation of genre-based approaches, I would need Can-Do Statements related to the topic and an example text of these Can-Do Statements.  

Since I knew that I wanted to focus on the steps in planning a party, I first looked at the texts I’d gathered over the summer on this topic to select the three I thought would work the best.  I narrowed it down to an article on party planning generally, an article on planning a party celebrating someone’s success (since we are celebrating a successful semester inshallah!), and a video on planning a birthday party.  I chose these texts from the ones I’d gathered because they were relatively short and had more accessible language (though my students will likely still find them quite challenging!).

With the texts selected, I made notes on my to-do list to analyze each text, create a homework sheet, and create a google drive chart for each text.  I’ll explain these more later, but essentially because I didn’t have a big chunk of time to work on this unit, I needed to make clear notes to myself about what to do so I could do each task later, without first having to figure out what was it I needed to do again? As you can see in the picture, my list is in three categories: Make, Analyze, and Discuss.  


I also focused on creating clear Can-Do Statements for each day.  Although I have been writing Can-Do Statements since 2014 for our regular year and Summer STARTALK programs, it remains a challenge to write ones that are functional (e.g. I can describe what I did yesterday not I can use the past tense), specific enough (I can describe what I did yesterday, but not I can describe events in the past), and clearly assessable in a class period (I can describe what I did yesterday, but not I can talk about yesterday).  So, for this upcoming week I tried to imagine how students would be performing language functions based on the texts and write examples based on that.  I came up with the following, and then made a note on my to-do list to make a schedule for the students and teachers formatted appropriately.  


  • I can write the steps of a successful party and my ideas for implementing them for our party

  • I can present my ideas to the class


  • I can write the steps for planning a party celebrating success and my ideas for implementing them in our party

  • I can exchange my ideas with my classmates


  • I can write the steps to plan a child’s birthday party

  • I can follow these steps in planning a birthday party for my teacher’s child

The next step was to analyze each text by making a list of vocabulary, grammar, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and cultural information necessary to understand the text. Because I had time, I chose to analyze all the texts before making the homework related to them, but if I were more pressed for time I would analyze and then make the homework for each text.  As I read or listened to each text (multiple times), I tried to pull out key elements in each category.  For example the vocabulary included words like steps, confirm, reserve, decorations, etc.  The grammar included the imperative form, as well as al-maSdar.  The pragmatics column included works for giving advice, such as “be sure to” or “don’t ever”. The sociolinguistics category included features like the use of MSA or dialect, or the use of English for phrases like “party center”, and under culture I listed specific cultural information that would be important to understanding the text.  Some of these would be obvious to my students (like a graduate cap) and some might be less obvious, like giving perfume/cologne as a party favor.  Of course, there was also overlap between these categories, such as the use of the female second person imperative in two of the texts, indicating that the primary audience for these party planning texts is female.    

I then drew from my analysis to plan the homework students would do for each text, and I’ll draw from it again when planning my lessons, as I couldn’t cram everything into the homework and review is helpful!  For homework, we have students do two items: (1) an example text homework and (2) a google drive chart.  The “example text homework” asks them what they understood and didn’t understand and prepares them to do specific tasks in class (as opposed to just asking comprehension questions).  For these texts, I asked students to identify the party planning steps listed and items they understood and didn’t understand from each step.  There is also a section where we try to draw students attention to what language they can identify in the text that will be useful for doing the Can-Dos in class.  In the past, students have tended to focus on vocabulary and to some extent grammar, so for these texts I chose to specifically target sociolinguistics and pragmatics in these questions (such as who is the audience, how do you know? Or what are some possible reasons the article refers to “party center” in English rather than Arabic?).  We’ll see how this goes.  

In the google drive chart, we list linguistic features (usually vocabulary and grammar, but I’m trying to incorporate more pragmatic features) from the text and have students create sentences using these features that they can (in theory) use in class the next day to “do” the Can-Do Statement.  We also allow students to add to the chart with words that are important to them.  After class, we correct these sentences to give feedback.  For this unit, I chose to copy or transcribe the example sentences from the texts themselves, to give students more context and also show how some of these words repeated throughout the text.  

So, that’s week 1! Hopefully I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a recap of how it went and plans for Week 2.  

Ethnographic Projects for Study Abroad


Photo by Joaquín on Unsplash

In my very first post on this blog, I discussed how despite popular belief, language and intercultural learning are not automatic outcomes of study abroad.  I also mentioned three key components of study abroad programs necessary to promote these outcomes: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  In this post, I want to focus on one of my favorite interventions for study abroad, that of ethnographic projects for study abroad.  

What is an ethnographic project for study abroad?

Ethnography is a research method where the researcher(s) spend a lengthy period of time (usually years) within a community, with the purpose of describing the culture of that community from an inside perspective, traditionally through the production of an ethnography.  The tools ethnographers use include participant observations, informal conversations, interviews, photographs, videos, and other visual data.  They then analyze this data to describe the particular culture or cultural practice as it is viewed by members of the community (as opposed to outsiders).  

Ethnographic projects for study abroad use the same tools and methods of analysis, but differ from traditional ethnographies in key ways.  First and foremost, students do not have the training of professional ethnographers, nor do they spend an adequate time in the field.  Secondly, the primary goal is developing students language and intercultural skills, not producing a research project.  The basic sequence is for students to complete training in ethnographic methods at home (the home ethnography) then collect their data while abroad, and then write up their project upon their return home (the abroad ethnography).  

The two main examples of ethnographic projects for study abroad in the research literature I am familiar with are the Language and Residence Abroad (LARA) Project described by Celia Roberts and her associates and the Special English Stream (SES) analyzed by Jane Jackson.  The LARA Project focuses on students from England studying abroad in Germany and Spain and the SES Project on students from Hong Kong studying in England.  More recently, there is the Ethnographic Encounters Project from the University of Southhampton.  I’ve also written about my experience designing an ethnographic project for study abroad (and the challenges therein) in my chapter in this book. I would highly recommend reading the literature on these projects as a basis for creating your own.  

Why are ethnographic projects an appealing intervention? 

I find ethnographic projects for study abroad particularly appealing because they incorporate all of the elements research shows is necessary to promote language and intercultural learning during study abroad: language and intercultural contact, reflection upon this contact, and connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences.  They can also encourage critical approaches to language and intercultural learning, which is something that I think is frequently ignored in language classes, and yet has so much potential for social change if we only made it a focus.  

1) Creating language and intercultural contact:  By forcing students to engage in observations, informal conversations, and interviews, students have to find opportunities for language and intercultural contact.  Even if the possibility of conversing or interviewing in students’ own language exists, the fact that this is part of their language class may make them more likely to incorporate the target language as well, or even better develop an understanding of the social connotations of  different linguistic behaviors.  Second, they have to sustain this contact in order to develop their project—it’s not enough to have one conversation or observation.  

2) Reflecting upon this contact: Due to the emphasis on interpreting data from an insider perspective, students also have to reflect upon multiple ways of interpreting their data, and how their own interpretations may differ from those of community members.  This includes not only their interpretation of what particular conversations or practice mean, but also understanding how their own views are encoded in their data collection (for example if they describe a cafe patron as “attractive”).  This ability to understand situations from multiple perspectives is key to the development of intercultural competence.  

3) Connecting the pre, during, and post sojourn experiences: Students receive training at home, collect data while abroad, and create their final project after their return, which allows for a natural connection between these periods as well as continual focus on language and intercultural competence.  While this can be difficult to orchestrate bureaucratically, research demonstrates that it is essential to create these connections.  

4) Encouraging critical approaches: The potential of critical approaches in the language classroom is probably worthy of an entire post in itself, but for now I’ll focus on a few ways I think ethnographic projects for study abroad can play a key role.  First, a focus on interpreting linguistic and cultural practices can be an introduction to sociolinguistics, particularly how we use language in our construction and interpretation of social identities, and how these identities connect to larger structures of power.  Although all of us do this daily, and learn these identities and power structures in new languages and communities, language students rarely have the opportunity to reflect upon how this works, especially in lower level classes that focus on “neutral” or “standard” varieties.  This takes me to my next point, which is really perhaps the most important one: learning how to critically analyze relationships between language and power in “new” communities can give us new insights to these relationships in familiar ones, because our “new” insights now open up cracks in our previous worldviews, and allow us to see problems in our cultural practices we were previously unaware of, or aware of but unable to describe.  

Designing ethnographic projects for study abroad

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that ethnographic projects for study abroad are a key research-based intervention, the question is how to design them? I’ve designed two of these projects so far, one an independent study for a student abroad for an academic year, and one part of a faculty-led study abroad that included an 8 week at home component and two weeks abroad.  I’ll be revising this latter one when I do this program again later this year.  Based on my experience, I’d say the main considerations are as follows:

1) Timing—how many course hours are available for the project and how long do things actually take? In my academic year project, fitting in extra independent study hours was a major challenge for both the student and myself.  In the faculty-led study abroad, the short time frame meant that I couldn’t simply use materials made for a semester long course as there weren’t as many hours, but then it took me much longer than I anticipated to adapt those materials for a shorter time frame.  Understanding the timing is of course something that gets better with time (and time-tracking!), but it’s definitely worth thinking about from the outset.  

2) Materials—what materials will you use to teach the course? In the academic year project, I used an undergraduate ethnography textbook by Murchison, and in the faculty-led study abroad I modified the LARA project materials.  While I do think it’s easier to start with materials already made for undergraduates, it’s also almost certain that these will need to be modified to fit your context.  For example, some of the LARA project materials had references specific to England (like pub culture) and I had to think about how this might be more relevant to my students.  Alternatively, there might be things you want to include that aren’t in the materials you are using (in my case, critical approaches, which are usually thought of as “advanced”, but I disagree and would like to use them from the beginning).  

3) Activities—what activities will students do and how will they encourage language contact and reflection upon that contact? In both projects I’ve done, I’ve followed a pretty traditional sequence of moving from observations, to informal conversations, to interviews.  While this has worked well, it’s also key to think about how your feedback will fit into the sequence such that you can encourage reflection in subsequent assignments—this is something that was a challenge for these projects as I fell behind upon grading or students fell behind upon completing the activities.  

4) Final project—what will the final project look like? In the two projects I’ve done, I’ve had students write a final paper and also turn in their data collection and analysis, since using these methods for language and intercultural development is more of a focus than the final paper itself.  In my next iteration of this project, I may consider expanding the options to a video and/or recorded presentations to give students more options for expressing themselves, since producing a written ethnography is not actually a key outcome of this type of project.  

5) Post-project reflection—I think this is important for all projects, but especially research-based interventions in language learning.  Both of the projects I’ve done have helped students develop their language and intercultural competence (e.g. making them speak to more people, or use more Arabic, or giving them tools to consider alternative interpretations of situations in subsequent study abroad).  However, neither of them when exactly as I envisioned them going after reading the research literature.  This is party contextual differences, but I think also stems from the fact that we are encouraged to gloss over the challenges of implementing these types of projects in the classroom when we write research articles (as I was when I wrote about these projects in my book chapter, I had to actually argue with the reviewer comments to keep my discussion of the challenges in!).  However, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and how much time things actually take, and what materials were more or less accessible to students, and what they need more training on is key to further development of these projects.  

Have you tried these ethnographic projects for study abroad to promote language and intercultural learning? How did it work out? Would you try them in your own program? 

Weekly Planning, Daily Adjustments

As a tenure-track professor with small children who also teaches Highland dancing, I sometimes find it challenging to fit everything in, especially as there are so many parts to all of these that it’s easy to lose track of.  As a professor, I have research, teaching, and service time to fit in, and each of these also has multiple components or projects within it.  For example, with teaching I also have to account for prep, grading, meeting with students, curriculum development, and so on.  For research and service, I have multiple ongoing projects, that can also require coordination with other people.  As a dance teacher, I teach classes and also have to do administrative items like tracking payments, emailing students, planning lessons, and so on on a weekly basis.  I also have larger projects, such as volunteering to run several dance competitions a year.  Finally, with children, in addition to fun family things, there is a significant amount of chores/paperwork etc to divide up with my husband and do my share of.  

While I use my semester plan for the big picture, the key to my current strategy for managing the details is weekly planning and daily adjusting, so I thought I would describe this system in this post.  After all, I like to read about other people’s planning systems for ideas, so maybe you’ll want to read about mine? 

Weekly Plan

I make a weekly plan on Friday afternoons (usually) that goes through the following Sunday (weekend planning is probably a post unto itself).  On my google calendar, I have two calendars, one that shows my ideal weekly plan and another scheduled events.  These never match, so the first step is matching them to come up with a plan that incorporates the events and also has time blocked for everything I need to do.  This results in hard decisions, as I always want to do more things than there is actually time for.  

Then, I copy the plan into my paper planner (yes, this is redundant, but it help me focus so I keep doing it).  This is pictured below for the week of September 10-15.  It is also color-coded, which gives me a quick overview of what my week is focusing on. I also try to leave some blank spaces, I never know what will come up, but I know something will! However, you can see I was not especially successful at that in the week below.  

However, the real key to my system is thinking of this weekly plan as a compass, rather than a strict map.  In nearly three years of following this system, my week has not once followed my actual plan.  Perhaps it’s a sick child, or an unexpected meeting, or I’m just too tired to make significant research progress, or on a more positive note something took less time than planned and I have a free afternoon! 

Daily Adjustments

This is where the daily adjustments come in.  Each day (or better yet, the night before) I make a plan for that day, blocking out time for things with the same color code on the left side of the page.  I use the weekly plan to guide my daily plan, but don’t worry about following it exactly.  For example, I might refer to a previous day to catch up, a subsequent one to work ahead, or add in something new that has come up.  As I go through the day, I also track what I actually did in the right column, and this too doesn’t always match, for the same reasons the weekly doesn’t always match the daily.  

For example, on Monday, there is a pretty good match between my weekly plan, daily plan, and what I did (I find this happens more often on Mondays).  In contrast, you can see that Thursday doesn’t match quite as well.

 And just to keep it real, you can see on Friday I didn’t make the daily plan at all (but did record what I did), and here’s an example from another week where the daily and what I did don’t really match either.  Yet because I have the weekly plan, I’m still able to keep on track when my days get off.  

At the end of the week (Friday afternoon) I do a weekly review (inspired by various productivity systems, but mostly those from Getting Things Done and Organize 365). This allows me to see how I’m doing overall, and where I need to focus the next week.  You can see this recorded at the bottom of my weekly plan.  

Do you do weekly planning and daily adjusting? What systems work for you? Let me know!

Curriculum Development Part 3: Introducing Intentional Translanguaging Pedagogy

In my last post, I talked about why it is so important to be aware of language ideologies in the language classroom.  One major reason is the class in expectations that can occur between students, teachers, and textbooks when there are ideological mismatches, as there is no ideology free classroom (despite what we sometimes pretend with “neutral” language and so on).  This past week, we embarked on our first unit (housing) without the textbook (though keeping some texts from the textbook).  As an introduction, I held a discussion of intentional translanguaging pedagogy with my students, as I feel like being explicit about the language ideologies informing how I design my classes is important.  I wasn’t sure how this would go, as at least initially, I think translanguaging often flies in the face of what people imagine to be the “ideal” language classroom (all Arabic, all the time).  While some students were certainly more interested than others, most of them seemed to like turning the lense on their language use, and to really think about it in a less restrictive way than is this Arabic (great!) or not (bad!).  So, I though I would share the actual process I used in case it might be helpful in other classrooms.  

First, I asked if anyone had every heard of translanguaging.  No one had.  I then asked if anyone had heard of code-switching, and several students immediately perked up.  So, I presented the following example (taken from my data on study abroad in Jordan) of an language partner explaining why he was participating in the program (I’m presenting all these examples as screenshots of my slides as apparently I was not smart enough to pick a website platform that supports rtl languages and translanguaging: 

Screenshot 2018-09-20 17.06.26.png

I then showed the following slide, explaining that looking at this utterance from a code-switching perspective would focus on the two codes (Arabic and English) and how the speaker was switching between them to speak.  

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I then showed this next slide, explaining that from a translanguaging perspective, this utterance came from the speaker’s unique linguistic repertoire, which overlaps what we call certain languages.  I also pointed out that it is contextually based—since the speaker was talking to me, he drew from parts of his repertoire that overlap with Arabic and English, but not Russian for example.  

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Then, I asked the students to discuss this idea in small groups, and in five minutes each group had to ask me at least one question about this idea.  They had some great questions, which also allowed us to get into ideas like the fuzzy and liquid nature of linguistic borders, psycholinguistic representations of language, and so on.  

Next, I had the students reflect upon their own linguistic repertoires, emphasizing that this was not just limited to “languages” but also included dialects.  I was inspired to use Scottish Highland Dance theory as an example of how my linguistic repertoire does not overlap theirs entirely, even though we all “speak English”.*

Then, I introduced what I like to call intentional** translanguaging pedagogy with this slide, and assured students we were about to get to some actual examples:

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Then, we went through the following three examples, with students discussing in small groups how these could be examples of intentional translanguaging pedagogy, and then sharing their discussions with the class.  These are all made up examples, but if you teach a language class, I think you will recognize their patterns.  

The first example is an exchange between a student and a teacher:

Screenshot 2018-09-20 17.07.27.png

Here, we discussed how when the student runs into words they don’t know in Arabic, they simply say them in English, because in a bilingual environment like the Arabic language classroom, they know their peers and teacher will understand.  This allows the student to actual use more Arabic than if they had stopped to look up or ask for these words, so it is an example of translanguaging to expand their linguistic repertoire to use more Arabic.  When the teacher responds, they have the linguistic repertoire to say “health insurance” in Arabic, so they are also drawing from their full linguistic repertoire to help the student learn Arabic (by understanding the English and speaking the Arabic).  This is only possible because they are bilingual, and differs from if they had simply responded to the student with the Arabic words for “health insurance” and “ceramics”, correcting them.  Overall, the message is taking advantage of the bilingual environment to expand one’s linguistic repertoire, rather than looking at the use of English as a failure.  

The next example is between students, in the context of students translanguaging to prepare a skit to perform in front of the class and then performing the actual skit monolingually.

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Here, we discussed how students translanguaged in process to present a monolingual product.  Students noted that when planning, using English could save time and help them organize their thoughts, but it was useful to use Arabic so they were sure they knew how to say what they were planning to say and it helped them get ready.  So again, this is an example of drawing from the full linguistic repertoire to expand it to more Arabic.  

The challenge with the examples presented thus far is that of course they present translanguaging as a scaffold to monolingualism, and while it certainly can be a scaffold, it’s important to keep in mind that monolingualism is not necessarily the goal.  To present the idea of a creative translanguaging space that transcends monolingualism, I presented the following slide with bilingual jokes.  Unfortunately, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to really emphasize this point, but at least I included it.  

The final example was one from outside of the classroom, as something that is coming up more and more in my own research is how a classroom focused on a monolingual, Arabic only ideal, doesn’t necessarily prepare students to interact outside of the classroom in multilingual situations, where multilingual people will, for example, not always speak only in Arabic with them.  So, the final example was from a discussion between an Arabic speaker (not a teacher) and an Arabic student.  

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This example led to a lot of interesting discussions.  Students noted that in this exchange, both parties got to use a language they might want to practice, and the student got not only language information, but cultural content information (something also of interest to students!).  We discussed how this allowed both speakers to identify as speakers of both languages, something that is generally important when you’ve invested a lot of effort in learning a language! Students suggested that perhaps the Arabic speaker repeated themselves in English to ensure that the student got the language and the information, and we discussed how this could be especially important in an Islamophobic context, where speakers are concerned about misrepresentations of their culture and religion.  I also pointed out that sometimes bilingual English and Arabic speakers use English for emphasis in an Arabic conversation, and this could also be an example of this practice.  So, lots to think about! 

I concluded with this slide, which asks what I think is a common question when we discuss translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom, especially in the context of English speakers learning other languages:

Happily, at this point in the discussion, students were able to offer a resounding NO! I then proposed the following question as an important one to ask that is more nuanced than am I speaking Arabic or not.

This was my first attempt at introducing translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom, and I’m sure it could be improved, particularly in terms of helping students realize that translanguaging isn’t simply a scaffold to monolingualism.  However, I was impressed overall with the topics we were able to discuss in such as short period of time (about 50 minutes!).  Do you have favorite strategies for teaching about translanguaing pedagogy in the language classroom? If so, let me know in the comments!

*I’m not sure transpassioning is a term, but I am always super excited when I get to use Arabic and Highland Dancing in the same context!

**In reality, translanguaging pedagogy is always intentional, but I think we are especially likely to forget this when we think about English speakers learning other languages so I put it in the term as a reminder.

Why awareness of language ideologies is important


Photo by Tim Huyghe on Unsplash

“Ideology” can be a dismissive turn people use to critique or undermine certain ideas or practices by contrasting this “ideology” with facts, or science, or reality.  On the one hand, the dismissers are right—these are “just ideologies.”  On the other hand, it’s also not the case that there is  a reality free of ideologies.  Ideologies may simply be a collection of beliefs, but these beliefs shape our perceptions and experiences of what we call “reality.”  Thus, the problem is not the existence of ideologies, but rather our lack of awareness of how ideologies are always shaping our world.  Below, I’ll address some reasons I think it’s critical to be aware of language ideologies in the language classroom.  

Ideologies inform our expectations

A key reason to be aware of our language ideologies is that they inform our expectations for what should be taught in the language classroom, what is “good” language, and what proficiency in a language means.  For example, if our expectations are informed by nation-state ideologies of language, we will seek to make an environment of monolingual immersion in the classroom and expect students to produce “standard” language that gets as close as possible to the linguistic behavior of a monolingual native speaker.  If our expectations are informed by folk linguistic theories of language, we will expect lots of vocabulary and grammar exercises, followed by texts or interactions applying this vocabulary and grammar points.  In contrast, if our expectations are informed by formal theories of language, we will expect little or no grammar lessons, and extensive input and use of the language in activities.  If our expectations are informed by functional theories of language, we will expect a strong connection between classroom activities and social functions.  If our expectations are informed by translanguaging theory, we will also expect a connection between language and social function, and instead of worrying about target language immersion as how our linguistic choices contribute to our language learning.  Clearly, there are lots of potential expectations for a language classroom depending on what types of ideologies are contributing to our expectations for this setting.  

Real life consequences

Thus, while ideologies are imagined, they are certainly very real in the way they shape our expectations for the language classroom.  In a program where the curriculum, teacher, and students all subscribe to differing language ideologies, but these ideologies are not explicitly recognized, there can be frustration and even conflict—why is the teacher speaking so much Arabic? Or why is she speaking so much English? Why does she mix language? Why are there so many grammar activities? We need more grammar activities! Why won’t the students use the target language? Why don’t they study the vocabulary? Why can’t they conjugate verbs, we learned this two years ago! Why does the textbook teach such pointless vocabulary? Why does the textbook teach non-standard language? Why does the textbook only teach the language of the most powerful speakers of this language? 

If you’ve taught a language class, I’m sure you’ve experienced this conflict of expectations in designing curricula, using textbooks, reading student evaluations, talking with students, and discussing teaching with peers.  Yet in all of these discussions, some of which seem never-ending (e.g. the great fus7a-3aamiyya debate), I find there is rarely an explicit discussion of our language ideologies and how they impact our expectations, even though these ideologies are the root of the conflict.  Being aware of our ideologies means we can explain why we have certain expectations.

Open to reimagination

It can certainly be disconcerting to discover that beliefs and practices you assume are natural are actually imagined.  However, this realization is also quite powerful, because it means that there is the potential for reimagining a better world (or language classroom).   For example, if we are aware that an expectation of learning vocabulary, then grammar, and then putting it together comes from a particular ideology of language, we can consider what other options there are, and whether these are more appealing for our language learning (or not!).  If we’re aware that our desire to achieve a certain “native-like” pronunciation has it’s roots in nationalism, perhaps we’ll question this goal, or even stop judging and categorizing accents generally.  

Language learning for real social change

Language learning (especially during study abroad!) is frequently viewed as a way to reduce social conflict (or even promote world peace!) by promoting intercultural dialogue and tolerance.  Now, intercultural dialogue and tolerance are certainly crucial elements of social change, but they are not automatic results of language learning nor are they enough on their own.  As with study abroad, reflection upon this contact is also essential.  Taking this reflection a step further, to critically examine how our language ideologies shape our expectations and evaluations of intercultural conversations can let us question whether these are the ideologies we want to be shaping our world.  If they’re not, how can we reimagine them?  What would you like to reimagine?

Using Trello to Organize Teaching

Trello is my favorite digital organization tool, and I use it to organize basically everything in my life.  It essentially consists of “cards” that you put into “lists” on a “board”.  I make a board for each class I teach where the lists are the weeks of the semester (including the week before and after) and the cards are things I need to do for my class each week.  There’s also a “Done” list that cards get moved to as they are completed.  

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In this post, I thought I would share how I use it to organize my teaching.  For me, Trello solves four major productivity challenges related to teaching:

  1. Keeping track of all the little details
  2. Keeping track of beginning and end of semester events
  3. Giving myself enough prep time and grading time for major assignments
  4. Coordinating with my co-teachers

Keeping track of all the little details

Teaching language classes in particular seems to be full of so many little details for each class, especially since daily attendance and homework grades are the norm.  Did I grade that homework? Did I cut up papers for the game I made or just design it? Did I log the attendance? Did I make reflection notes on my lesson plan? Did I post the schedule or just make it? None of these are particularly complicated, but I found myself wasting valuable time and mental energy (things that are at an especially high premium when you have little kids that don’t sleep through the night) trying to remember if I had done these things, or checking our learning management system to figure out if I had done them.  I solved this problem by making three checklists, one for “class prep”, one for “after class”, and one for the “weekly schedule”.  Each weekly list contains one weekly schedule card, and “class prep” and “after class” for each lesson.  Here are pictures of a translation of each checklist (my actual one is in Arabic):

As you can see, the items on these checklists are pretty basic, and when I tell people about this system, a common question is can’t you just remember that? For me, while I can remember it, and usually do, I don’t always, and then I’ll have the wrong dates on the schedule, or lost a homework assignment.  Almost every item on this checklist has ended up on it because I’ve forgotten it at least once! I might also forget to log attendance or make reflection notes, and if more than a day or so passes the chances of me recalling that information are pretty slim.  While I try to do all of the after class activities immediately after class, sometimes I have other commitments, or, as is the case currently, a major paper deadline I’m prioritizing over grading homework.  When I get behind, and it’s time to catch up, I can just look at my Trello board and see where I need to catch up, rather than trying to figure it out be searching the schedule and learning management system, which is what I used to do.  

Semester set-up and conclusion

There are also a number of teaching tasks that just need to be completed at the beginning and end of the semester, like making the syllabus or submitting assessment charts.  While I’ve never forgotten to make a syllabus, setting up our learning management system requires a series of steps that I always forgot one of when I went to set up classes 5-7 months after the previous time.  I’d forget to web enhance my class, or make a section group, or set up the textbook site, or something.  So, I finally made checklists for these items too, and I put each item as it’s own Trello card in two lists, “Pre-term” and “Post-term”.  This way, when I get to the beginning and end of the semester, I don’t have to try to remember all of the things I need to set up the course site, I can just go through my Trello board. Here are more pictures:

Prep and grading time for major assignments

A third challenge was setting aside enough time for me to prep and grade major assignments (beyond daily homework and attendance).  Too often, I would look at the schedule and think, oh, my students need to turn that in in a few days but I haven’t even made the assignment yet! Now, when I make the weekly schedule for the following week, one of the checklist items is to put a prep card and a grading card for any major assignments on my Trello board.  I usually put the prep card in the week before the assignment is due, and the grading card in the week it’s due.  Then, when I plan out my week (a topic for another blog post) I can make sure to incorporate prep and grading time as needed.  

Coordinating with co-teachers

All of the language classes I teach are co-taught, where for example I’ll teach the Tuesday/Thursday sessions and another teacher will teach the Monday/Wednesday/Friday sessions.  While my co-teachers are not quite as fanatical about Trello as I am, we do have a shared Trello board, and they have concurred that it is useful :-).  You can assign cards to different people, so for example I would be assigned the “class prep” and “after class” for Tuesday, and my co-teacher the same cards for Wednesday.  This also helps us share the prep and grading of major assignments.  

Benefits of Trello

 So, that is how I organize my courses with Trello! For me, the primary benefit is freeing up mental energy to spend my teaching time on more creative things, like designing lesson plans or implementing genre-based approaches or translanguaging pedagogy.  It also lets me prioritize research (necessary in a tenure-track position) by letting me know that if I get behind on the details, it’s easy to be reminded of what I missed.  Perhaps someday when my kids sleep through the night I’ll no longer need such a detailed system, but for now, it’s keeping me on track! Do you have a system you use to keep track of teaching details? If so, what is it?

Learning from African examples of translanguaging as a pedagogical and social practice


Picture by qimono on pixabay

Translanguaging as a concept and translanguaging as a pedagogical practice are hot topics in the field of Applied Linguistics these days (or at least the circles I’m in).  As I’ve written earlier on this blog, I find translanguaging pedagogy a compelling approach for language classrooms, including Teaching English Speakers Other Languages (my version of TESOL :-)).  However, while translanguaging pedagogy is certainly a new mindset for those of us raised with and trained in monolingual ideologies of language, it is worth emphasizing that these practices, including their pedagogical applications, are not new at all.  In this post I’m going to highlight work on translanguaging in a few different African contexts.  I think these are examples from which those of us who are less familiar with translanguaging can learn about translanguaging as a social and pedagogical practice and begin to adapt these practices to our own classrooms.  

Translanguaging as a way of being

For those of us who grew up in monolingual environments*, and experienced language learning as learning a separate and distinct language, ideally in a monolingual environment, the idea of participating in social environments where multiple languages are used at the same time, by speakers who are not necessarily “fluent” in all of them seems impossible.  After all, how can you have a conversation if people are using a language you don’t understand? And how do you respond?

As it turns out, this is not only possible, but entirely commonplace in different African contexts (as well as other parts of the world).  In her book, Racialized Identities in Second Language Learning: Speaking Blackness in Brazil**, Uju Anya describes the language practices she experienced growing up in Nigeria as follows:

As a child in my multinational home, I remember relatives and domestic staff communicating across language and cultural boundaries fluidly in conversations throughout the home, speaking in northern and southern varieties of Igbo and British, Caribbean, Nigerian, and pidgin Englishes. 

Although we could all  understand them, none of us spoke every one of these languages.  Some just spoke two or three very well, some also spoke entirely different languages elsewhere with other people, and some like me were still young and emerging in expertise.  But we all contributed and participated according to individual ability, using whatever resources were available to make ourselves understood and to follow along with others.  This was who were were and how we did language based on what needed to be said to whom anyhow best, most easily, stylishly, appropriately, and comprehensibly it could all be achieved.  

While Anya is an applied linguist and translanguaging expert, I would not expect comedian Trevor Noah to spend a lot of time reading the academic translanguaging literature (but maybe he does). However, he gives an excellent description of this practice in his memoir, Born a Crime:

You'll be at a party with a dozen people where bits of conversation are flying by in two or three different languages.  You'll miss part of it, someone might translate on the fly to give you the gist, you pick up the rest from the context, and you just figure it out.  The crazy thing is that, somehow, it works.  Society functions.  Except when it doesn’t.

Also in South Africa, Leketi Makalela describes training student teachers from Johannesburg townships to use translanguaging pedagogy.  In contrast to a setting like the language classroom in the United States, the student teachers were not surprised at the idea of translanguaging to communicate or to learn new languages.  In fact, they referred to translanguaging as “the way we talk ko kasi [in the location]”***.  That is, it was their standard way of communicating.  Their surprise came from the acceptability of this way of being in a academic setting, which until then they had experienced as preferring monolingualism, or a monolingual view of multilingualism with separate and distinct languages.  

Translanguaging Pedagogy

In addition to helping us learn translanguaging as a way of being in the world, African contexts also provide examples of how we can use translanguaging pedagogy in our classrooms.  As described above, Makalela uses Ubuntu Translanguaging Pedagogy, rooted in concept of ubuntu, summarized as I am because you are, you are because we are. This pedagogy resists the monolingual ideology of “linguistic boxes”, and involves multilingual lexical contrasts in 3-5 languages, mixing language skills by reading or listening in one language and speaking or writing in another, and comparing and contrasting cultural constructs in multiple languages. Makalela emphasizes that he does not need to speak all the languages of his students, but rather facilitates their ability to explore and expand their own linguistic and cultural resources.  He also notes that the comparing and contrasting of vocabulary, linguistic structures, and cultural constructs differed from the monolingual grammar-translation approach by focusing on what students do with language, rather than languages as separate systems.  

Moving to East Africa, in a presentation at the American Association of Applied Linguistics Conference,  Jamie Thomas documented the translanguaging strategies of a Swahili teacher instructing learners from diverse language backgrounds in Tanzania.  For example, in teaching Swahili story-telling practices, the teacher first drew upon story-telling knowledge in students’ background languages, using them as resources for developing their Swahili knowledge.  When she realized that her Ghanaian Akan/Twi-speaking learners had a similar call and response pattern in their story-telling tradition, she encouraged them to present this pattern, aiding not only their language acquisition, but that of others in the classroom.  This is a good example of treating students’ existing linguistic resources as a way of building new ones.  

Translanguaging to engage during study abroad

Research on U.S. Students abroad in Africa is a context that brings us closer to the context of U.S. language learning. Mori and Sanuth describe the language learning experiences of three U.S. learners of Yoruba studying abroad in Nigeria.  Two of the learners expressed frustration with the lack of an immersion experience, having expected a monolingual Yoruba environment (likely a result of the dominance of monolingual ideologies of language in the United States generally and language teaching in particular).  This caused them to feel that they couldn’t integrate locally or that Yoruba was in need of preservation.  In contrast, the third learner, a heritage speaker of Yoruba familiar with transnational experiences, modified her expectations to meet the translanguaging practices of her location, and emphasized how using not just English or Yoruba, but also translanguaging practices involving elements of both, would help her career.   

Finally, I’ll focus on North Africa, and my own personal experience as a language learner and study abroad researcher in Egypt. Egypt is certainly a different context from South Africa, Tanzania, and Nigeria (and I’m sure there are also differences between those contexts that I miss not being familiar with them), but my experiences and observations there are I think one reason why I find translanguaging pedagogy so compelling.  Initially, like the students descried by Mori and Sanuth, I felt quite frustrated that Egypt was not a monolingual environment, and that there was so much English, which was of course preventing me from learning Arabic! Yet as I returned again and again, and long before I had ever heard of translanguaging as a concept, I began to realize that the key to developing relationships and using more Arabic was to actually use Arabic and English together, not just with Egyptians, but also with other study abroad students.  

While I still have a lot to learn about translanguaging as pedagogy and practice, it is clear to me that African contexts are among those where those of us who are less familiar with translanguaging pedagogy and practice can learn from those for whom this is simply a way of being and a natural pedagogical practice.  The work I’ve described here is not an exhaustive list, and if you have more recommendations, let me know so I can add them to my reading list!


*Or at least environments interpreted as monolingual—this is a post for another day, but I think the idea of a truly monolingual environment is questionable, we just categorize them as such, which is part of monolingual ideologies in the first place!  

**An amazing book on race and translanguaging and study abroad generally that I should also do a separate post on, but just read it in the meantime!

*** See Makalela's chapter in this book

Curriculum Development Part 2: Finding Texts


Image by stevepb on

This post is part of an ongoing series as I document our process for developing curricular units inspired by genre-based approaches to language learning and translanguaging pedagogy.  Previous posts in the series include a background post and choosing tasks (Part 1).  

After choosing our tasks as the first stage in curriculum development, our next step is choosing texts that serve as examples of people doing these tasks in Arabic.  This (for me at least) is the most challenging part of developing this type of curriculum, for a variety of reasons I’ll describe below.  However, I think making connections between the language functions, or Can-Do statements we’re trying to do, and example texts is essential.  It’s also worth noting that here, and in genre-based approaches generally, texts are not limited to written documents—they can be written, but they can also be audio, video, or multi-modal.  With that as background, here are some considerations for selecting texts and processes for finding them.  

Considerations for selecting texts:

1) Text as example or text as information: In the paragraph above, I described finding texts that were examples of people doing the can-do statements.  In the party planning unit, this includes videos of end of the school year parties, which show introductions, class presentations, and awards, and so on.  However, there are also texts that can be used for information.  For example, I found an article online that describes the steps and recommendations for planning a party celebrating someone’s success.  While I will not ask my students to write an article using this text as a model, they can use it to make sure they are following the necessary steps in planning their party, and getting ideas of what to do.  

2) Language level: This is where I have given up on texts in the past, as the texts I would find on the internet just seemed so far above the level of my beginning and intermediate students that it wasn’t clear to me how they would be useful examples of people doing our targeted Can-Do statement.  However, the more I do this, the more this become less of an issue.  First of all, if the example text is way above the students’ level, but is an example of a language function I’m expecting them to do, perhaps this is an indicator that this whole language function is above their proficiency level.  If it seems just a little out of reach, this may be because there’s a mismatch between the language needed to perform the language function this text is an example of, and what I’m actually teaching in class (because I’m using a textbook that is based on different texts).  In this case, I just need to change my teaching to focus on what is in the example texts I want to use, rather than what is in the textbook.  After all, the reason the textbook texts are more accessible (perhaps) is that they come with vocabulary lists, and grammar explanations, and cultural information, and written transcripts, etc.  So rather than ask myself will my students understand this text right now, I ask can I lead them up to understanding these example or informational texts? Finally, I don’t have to use the entire text.  In my party planning example, I’m not going to expect that my students watch and understand several hour long videos of end of the year parties.  Within the party, there are several different functions, so I’ll group those together (introductions, introducing people, performing, awarding prices, thanking people, etc.) and just assign those parts of the text initially.  This also has the benefit of steering what I teach to the language function, rather than looking for intriguing texts that “activate” certain vocabulary or grammatical structures assumed to be the starting point of language learning (see formal approaches).  This looking for texts to activate vocabulary or grammar seems to be a fairly common approach in language teaching, and while I support including interesting texts, I think we need to start with texts as examples of functions, not linguistic elements.  

Processes for finding texts: 

In professional development workshops and readings on using texts in the language classroom, I have found that there is a lot of emphasize on why we should use authentic* texts, and how to use them in different ways, across different language levels.  However, HOW to find these texts is not usually discussed, even though this is in my experience the most challenging and time-consuming part of using texts.  I basically find texts in three places: the internet, existing textbooks, and making my own.  

1) The Internet: This is perhaps the most obvious place to find texts, especially given the proliferation of videos, articles, and social media interactions today.  It is also usually where I start.  However, there is also so much information, it can be overwhelming—who has time to sift through the entire internet looking for the perfect video of an end of the year party? To remedy this, here are some strategies I use in looking for texts:

A) Set a time limit: Depending on the size of the project, I’ll usually give myself 2-6 hours (not necessarily at once) and commit to using whatever I’ve found at the end of that period or moving on to another method of finding texts (see below).  

B) Searching by medium: While I might start with a general google search, I’ll then narrow it down by medium (YouTube for end of the year party recordings or Google Images for examples of invitations).  

C) Using suggested results:  This can include suggested search results by google, and also recommendations based on the text I’m looking at.  For example, if I look at a few end of the year party videos, YouTube will start recommending more.  The first article I read on (found via google) was about birthday party planning, but then in the recommended articles section, I found the article on planning a party to celebrate someone’s success, which was more relevant to my unit.  

2) The textbook: As detailed in our background post, this is a strategy we’ve used to save time as we develop our curriculum.  It simply requires viewing the textbook not as a sequence in itself (usually vocabulary to grammar to text) but as a collection of texts from which you can pull to address certain language functions (and that usually have accompanying vocab lists!).  Using this strategy, rather than following the sequential order of the textbook, you just pull the texts that address the language functions you’re targeting.  For example in our housing unit, we’re using some (but not all) of the videos from Al-Kitaab 2 where Khaled discusses repairs in his apartment, or Ustaaza Kristen searches for an apartment.  

3) Making our own: If we can’t find something on the internet or in the textbook, we make our own, either recording a video or writing a text.  This is also time-consuming, but has an end product, as opposed to spending that same amount of time searching more and possibly not finding a result.  

So, that is step 2 in our curriculum development, finding tasks.  I hope this is a helpful description of how we find texts to address the tasks, or language functions, we’re choosing to address, and what we take into consideration in choosing them.  Do you have favorite ways of finding or selecting texts for class according to language function? Let me know!


*In language teaching this usually means “by native speakers for native speakers” a highly problematic definition I’ll come back to at some point.  For now though this would include the texts I find on the internet (e.g. a recording of the end of the year party in a school in Morocco), but not the ones from the textbook or the ones I make.  

Making a semester plan


This semester, in addition to posts about teaching and research, I’m planning to write some on planning.  For me, this is key to having the mental space to spend a lot of time thinking about learning and the time to actually act on those thoughts.  First up is my semester plan!

Why a semester plan? A semester plan essentially lets me see everything I have going on that semester all at once.  While this can be overwhelming, taking it in all at once lets me plan ahead for deadlines, not let things accidentally fall through the cracks, make time for my goals (like curriculum development!), and only do the things I really care about (at least in theory). 

Making a semester plan.  I use my own planning sheet, as you can see in the picture (some personal items are blocked out).  My steps are:

1) Dates: These are all the relevant dates in my life, including work, dance, and family events and deadlines, and they are all color-coded.  Laying it all out at once allows me to get a sense of when there is space in my schedule and when there’s not, which gives me more realistic expectations for what I can do during the semester.  

2) Focus: I also choose a specific thing I want to focus on for the semester, usually one very general word.  This Fall, it is space—I would like my physical, digital, mental, and time environments to have more space in them—wish me luck!

3) Habits, tasks, goals, and projects: These are the things that I always try to do too many of, and laying them out with my calendar helps me be more realistic about what will actually happen (still a work in progress).  I basically define them as follows:

Habits: Ongoing things I want to do to improve my life that don’t really have an end date.  For example, attending Crossfit three days a week and following a good family evening routine are my current habit projects.  

Tasks: Things that can be completed in one block of time that aren’t linked to a larger project or goal.  For example, my continuing professional development paperwork for being a dance judge, or an article review.  

Goals: These are things that I want to do to improve my life that can be completed, such as submitting a journal article or developing a curriculum unit.  However, they can’t be completed in a single time block.  So while they may have a specific deadline, I have to plan pretty far out ahead to make sure I spend enough time on them to accomplish them by that deadline.  

Projects:  For me, the difference between a project and a goal is whether it’s a stretch to do it.  For example, teaching my classes is a project, but developing new research-based curricular units for them are a goal.  

To choose what goes in these categories, each semester, I balance between what I’ve already committed to (such as conferences or paper deadlines) and what I’d like to add (so many things!).  Once I generate this list, I try to decide what will be realistic, and select only those things to go on my actual plan, making sure to also leave space for things that will come up.  Then, I try to balance them across the different months of the semester, rather than trying to work on everything at once.  Each month, I evaluate what’s happened, and adjust my plan from there.  

Do you make a semester plan? If so, how? Let me know—as you might imagine, I also love reading about other people’s plans . . .

Genre-based approaches in the language classroom: the appeal and the challenges


Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

It's back to school time, so time for this blog to resume as well! Onto the topic . . . 

I first learned about genre-based approaches to language teaching in a pedagogy class in graduate school, where we read two articles describing various aspects of the Georgetown German Curriculum.  I was immediately attracted to this approach, and have been working to implement this type of curriculum for the last six years in our Arabic classes (it’s been a long process!).  In this post, I want to focus on the reasons I find this approach so appealing, and why I keep coming back to it despite the challenges I’ll discuss, and also how I hope to expand it in the future.  

The Appeal

1) Functional texts as the source of language to be learned.  This is probably the reason I find genre-based approaches most appealing or language learning: they start with examples of people doing things with language and choose the linguistic elements to teach based on what actually happens in these examples.  While this may seem obvious, it’s almost never how academic “language learning” is done, where there is a tendency to start with a linguistic element (e.g. present tense) or vocabulary groups that you would almost never use all of at one time (unless you are in kindergarten, e.g. colors, numbers, family members) or imagined dialogues (at the restaurant, at the doctor, an improvement but often via an imagined dialogue rather than actual people doing these things).  Sociolinguistics research shows us time and time again that the way we think we talk is rarely the way we actually talk, so starting from actual examples rather then created ones is key (though at times very difficult, a point I’ll get to below).  

2) Cultural constructions are inherent.  Too often in language classrooms, culture is relegated to a “culture” box in the textbook, or a “cultural discussion”, or a focus on cultural products, rather than how we construct and maintain culture in interaction (including with texts).  A key tenet of genre-based approaches is that the steps we take to effectively do something with language are culturally determined.  Although we tend to focus on (pan) nation-state definitions of culture in the language classroom (e.g. American v. Arab or French culture), there are many other overlapping ways of defining cultures that are also relevant for doing things with language, including race, ethnicity, class, geographic region, generation, workplace, activity, and more.  While genre-based approaches have been critiqued for being too deterministic (e.g. you must behave this way in this culture), I don’t think being aware of the culturally constructed nature of doing things with language has to lead to deterministic behavior.  Instead, it leads to informed choices—do I want to do learn to do it this way because that is what is expected in this context? Or do I want to resist? Most importantly, why? 

3) Pragmatic and sociolinguistic elements are essential, rather than advanced or extra. I’ve written before about how we tend to ignore social practices in the beginning language classroom especially for a focus on basic vocabulary and grammar (perhaps because these also feel easier to teach!).   If we use examples of people actually doing things with language, these will be present, and it’s important to understand how they work, rather than ignore them to get to the “basic meaning” of the interaction.  In Arabic of course, there is the additional benefit of looking at how people actually use dialects and MSA, rather than assuming that these are separate, or completely determined by medium (e.g. writing or speaking) or social context (e.g. social or academic).  

The Challenges

While I hope I’ve made genre-based approaches sound fairly appealing, if you are a teacher, you are probably also thinking . . . yeah, but how does this work in reality? That is an excellent question, one that I struggle with myself, and something that I think is really not addressed well in the research literature.  Especially in research articles, there is a tendency to gloss over or actively hide the challenges that occur while trying to implement research practices in the classroom.  I personally think this misrepresents the ease with which you can implement research in the classroom, but will admit I have also given into reviewers’ request to remove this “irrelevant” information (though I had more success with my recent chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Arabic Second Language Acquisition, I did have to argue to keep this information in!).  So, here are some of the things I’ve found most challenging in implementing this approach.  

1) Finding example texts of people doing things with language.  This is far and away the greatest challenge.  While the internet is amazing, I have limited time to search for texts on the internet, and I’m not always able to find multiple examples of the language functions I want.  This is why in the past we have used texts from the textbook or made our own, but these suffer from the limitations discussed in point three above, where the pragmatic and sociolinguistic elements are not exactly like we might find in more authentic texts (although authenticity itself is definitely another post!)

2) Analyzing texts.  In addition to taking time to find texts, I also have to take the time to analyze the text.  In addition to time constraints, this is also a challenge because analyzing texts according to systemic functional linguistics (SFL) is not something I was trained in, and the other teachers I work with have no training in any type of linguistic textual analysis.  So, this is intimidating and causes us to wonder if we are doing it correctly.  However, we decided to just start, hoping that any analysis that was trying to point out the different steps to “doing” the can-do and the crucial linguistic elements would be better than no analysis.  We’ve also tried to work on distinguishing between larger functions or genres (recounts, narratives, etc.) and the specific topics that can fill those genres (a daily routine, a trip, etc.).  We have not quite made it up to using all of the SFL terminology, but even our basic attempts are an improvement over what we did previously.  

3) Focus on writing.  Most of the research on genre-based pedagogies in the language classroom focuses on writing, and becoming aware of the steps and linguistic conventions to produce certain types of genres (not to be confused with literary genres such as a novel).  Yet writing is only one way we do things with language, so I would like to see this expanded to other mediums, including establishing and maintaining social relationships, or requesting information, or so on.  So, if you are aware of any research on genre-based approaches in the language classroom that doesn’t focus on writing, please let me know!

So, this is an overview of why I find genre-based approaches so appealing and also so challenging to implement in the the classroom.  If you are a language teacher, have you tried this? Would you? Why or why not? Any suggestions for overcoming my challenges?

Bringing emotions and ideology into the MSA/dialects debate


Meme found here

The meme above seems to be making the rounds for everything these days, and the image above popped up in my Facebook feed the other day.  I smiled, because it my experience it captures a common conundrum in Arabic teaching—we usually focus on Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, الفصحى in the classroom, much to the dismay of many Arabic students, especially those who go abroad.  In my own research on Arabic study abroad students, many of them complain about the “uselessness” of fus7a, and support studying Arabic dialects prior to study abroad, so they don’t lose time learning 3ammiyya (although my research also shows they pick up major dialect features quite quickly, sometimes within a few weeks of going abroad).  Students and teachers that oppose dialect teaching typically point to the regional variations in dialects, and that students travel to different locations and teachers in the same program may be familiar with varying regional dialects.  In this perspective, MSA is seen as being a “neutral” variety because it is used across geographical regions (although research also shows that there is geographical variation in MSA, and speakers of different regional varieties do not necessarily switch into MSA to speak to each other).  Thus, whether to teach dialects or not is a seemingly never-ending debate with strong feelings (and not much research) on both sides.  

However, the reason this image captured my attention is that it points to some things I think are often overlooked in this debate, namely ideology and emotion and how these intersect.  I wrote before about how the language classroom tends to ignore the social to focus on academic or transactional language, and I think this is actually at the heart of the فصحى\عامية debate in Arabic language teaching.  In this image “طلاب العربية” clearly wants a relationship with “العامية” much to the dismay of ““الفصحى”.  Similarly, although we tend to argue that طلاب العربية need to learn العامية to engage in basic everyday transactions during study abroad, the real reason I think they care so much is that العامية is (usually) the language of establishing relationships, and this much more important to many study abroad students than using Arabic in academic contexts. So while they may not be after the type of romantic relationship pictured in this image (although research on study abroad does note that this is an important, though overlooked, component of study abroad), they almost certainly desire relationships with Arabic speakers, and it is clear to them from the beginning of their experience that 3ammiyya is the language of these social relationships*.  Thus, the ability to access social relationships is at the heart of Arabic students’ desire to learn 3ammiyya, much more than the ability to order food or take a taxi or do any other basic service encounter that could probably be done with gestures and/or English.  In this way, not teaching 3ammiyya can be interpreted as preventing students from accessing these social relationships.   Although I don’t think this is ever the intention of those who promote only teaching MSA, I think it is the source of the emotionally-laden frustration students express in response to this policy.

The next reason this meme is particularly compelling is the look of disappointment on الفصحى’s face.  Language ideology usually comes up in the 3ammiyya/fus7a debate in terms of fus7a being perceived as the “correct” version of Arabic.  However, I think the ideological issue is actually less about what is the “correct” version for non-Arab learners to learn, and more about how those who grow up speaking Arabic (especially in an Arabic school system) perceive the relationship between 3ammiyya and fus7a.  While the word “Arabic” could conceivably include both MSA and dialects, اللغة العربية tends to only refer to الفصحى.  I have met countless Arabs who tell me (in Arabic) how bad their Arabic is and how they failed all their Arabic classes—they mean fus7a, without even considering what they are doing as speaking اللغة العربية.  In contrast, those who speak fus7a well are understandably proud of the years of effort they have put into developing their abilities, and want to convey this knowledge to Arabic learners . . . who promptly ignore it to go after 3ammiyya for social relationships! So here, there is also an underlying emotional response, as students (again unintentionally) devalue the knowledge speakers of fus7a have worked so hard to become experts in. 

This tendency to focus on academic and transactional language, and ignore the social and emotional is of course not limited to Arabic, it just happens to map well onto the ideology of Arabic diglossia and be the case I am most familiar with.  Yet what would happen if we recognized the value we should place on social language and emotions in academic language learning settings?  

*Yes, there are people who form social relationships in الفصحى.  However, in my experience people who do this also remark upon it, as in “my friend and I always speak فصحى together” or “I like hanging out with study abroad students because I can speak فصحى”.  

Curriculum Development Part 1: Choosing Assessment Tasks


Image by monicore on Pixabay

As I mentioned last week, the current stage of our curriculum development is creating our own curriculum and materials.  Given time constraints (a constant in teaching!) we are focusing on doing this only in our second year class in the upcoming academic year, and making only minor modifications to the other classes.  With the permission of my colleagues (and yes, they read this blog) I’m going to try to document this process here as we go.  يالله بينا!

Step 1: Choosing topics/tasks: We knew that we wanted to basically have our entire curriculum be a sequence of Can-Do Statements, with periodic formal assessments of our students abilities to do this activity.  In our end of the semester reflection meeting, we reviewed the Can-Do Statements we had targeted last year in Arabic 211, looking for shared themes.  A key in our development of the curriculum so far has been a distinction between Can-Do Statements as language functions (e.g. I can ask and answer simple questions) and Can-Do Statements related to a particular topic (e.g. I can ask and answer simple questions about an apartment I want to rent).  This may seem obvious, but it took us several years to make this realization/distinction!  Based on the topics we had covered last semester, we brainstormed the following main topics in our reflection meeting (this is a screenshot of part of our google doc):

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We also discussed our next steps, and came up with the following.  Notably, we want to incorporate news (a student interest) and emotional responses (something that is generally lacking in our academic-focused classrooms) in all topics:

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At our next meeting, we focused on designing assessment tasks related to these topics, specifically ones that we could implement in our actual classroom (possibly with the help of higher level Arabic students, so students aren’t waiting to role-play a simsaar situation with a teacher).  Here is a screenshot of our brainstorming of tasks related to housing:

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As you can see, this is fairly complicated.  So was our other task (organizing an end of the semester party for language students), so at this point we decided we could probably drop the jobs topic entirely, especially as intermediate level students are unlikely to apply for jobs in Arabic (they might use Arabic, but would apply in English or another language they are more fluent in).  To be sure, we made a semester chart (I love charts! But apparently I’ve converted my colleague because she suggested it first :-)).  The semester chart basically involves making a chart of all 17 weeks of the semester, adding in holidays and days we’ll be at conferences, and then putting in our units.  Once we looked at the time we had to finish the first year textbook and  fit in the housing and party units, it was pretty clear we could drop jobs.  Here is the part of the semester chart related to housing (the first column is the week of the semester, the rest are Monday-Friday):

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For each unit, we also made a list of texts (e.g. related listening or reading items) we’ve used in the past.  We may or may not use these, but at least we know we have them! We also brainstormed cultural information related to the topic we’d need to cover, as a key part of our curriculum redesign will be incorporating this in a meaningful way.  

We also thought about ways in which these topics are multilingual.  For example, while students could negotiate renting an apartment in Arabic, if they read an ad for it, it is likely to be in English, because it will be an apartment targeting rental by foreigners, not locals.  In previous years, we’ve used rental ads for villas in Arabic, which were interesting and fun, but also contribute to a monolingual ideology that is unlikely to match the reality of abroad (although if you are a foreigner who has rented an apartment in the Arab world using a housing ad in Arabic, please let me know!).  In terms of our end of the year party, we thought it would be fun to have our students (who all speak languages besides English and Arabic) design invitations in these languages as well and we could invite all the languages students to the actual event.  

Next Steps: Our next steps (to be continued after we finish with our summer program) will be to look for reading and listening texts that can be considered examples of the Can-Dos we want our students to do, or of subtasks leading up to them.  This (in our experience) is by far the most difficult part of our curriculum development, as hours of scouring the internet for texts accessible at the intermediate level and related to our Can-Dos can still leave us short  (So if you know of any Arabic texts related to housing or party organizing, send them to me!).  We’ll also analyze these texts for the grammar, vocabulary, pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and cultural information students need to complete the task, and then incorporate all of this into our lesson plans. 

So, stay tuned (later this Summer) for our next steps in curriculum development! If you have questions or comments, let me know!