Lesson plans: Genre-based approaches and the interpersonal mode

Photo by  Caroline Veronez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) describes three modes of communication: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational, and lists Can-Do statements in each of these modes.  The presentational mode is for sharing information, opinions, etc, and usually consists of one person communicating with a larger audience, either in writing, speech, or multi-modal forms.  The interpretive mode is what we usually think of as comprehension, understanding a written, oral, or multi-modal text.  The interpersonal mode is when one or more people are interacting with each other, and again this could be in speech, writing, or multi-modal forms.  In focusing on language functions and finding example texts, we try to find examples that are in both the presentational and interpersonal modes (and these all become the interpretive mode for our students at home, to recreate in their presentational or interpersonal forms in class).  However, we have found that it is much easier to find texts in the presentational mode (either oral or written) than in the interpersonal mode.  On the one hand, this makes sense (who records their conversations?), but this can also mean that it is challenging to find examples in this mode.  Ones we do find, are often somewhat presentational as well, such as an interview where there are two people interacting, but there is an expectation for a larger audience as well that would not be there if those two people were talking in a more informal situation.  The same thing would apply to something like a Twitter conversation.   

However, short of surreptitiously recording people, there is nothing really to be done about this! In this post, I thought I’d describe a successful lesson I did using an interpersonal text found by my colleague to show how we incorporate the text, linguistic elements (including pragmatics), and guide students through the stages of understanding what the text means, understanding how it means, and recreating their own versions.  

For this lesson, the Can-Do Statement was “I can express my opinions about marriage” and the text was this video , which shows someone asking a variety of people in a mall which they think is more successful, an arranged marriage or a love marriage. At home, students did the example text and google drive homework described at the end of this post .  

In class, we first focused on the meaning of the text, by having students in small groups review their example text homework (what they understood and didn’t understand) and ask questions.  To focus further on the meaning, I made screenshots of the people interviewed in the video and passed them out (one picture per group).  Students had to listen to the video again, and write down that particular person’s answer.  

To focus on how the text means, I had students identify words useful for giving one’s opinion, like بالنسة لي (according to me), which could be used to give any sort of opinion.  To draw their attention to pragmatic features, I also had them focus on how certain they thought the person was of their opinion.  Did they start their reply with أكيد! (Certainly!)? Or did they hedge, saying something like والله يعني طبعا يعني (Well, like, of course, like) . . .? Once the students thought about this, I had them place the picture on a line I drew on the board from uncertain to certain.  As the students finished placing one person, I would give them another one, and when all of the pictures were up on the board, each group presented the opinion and degree of certainty for the people they had listened to.  In this way, students were able to focus on not only what the opinion was, but also how to express an opinion, and how to be certain or uncertain in it.  

This took us to the creation phase, where students had to express their own opinions.  First, I had them write polarizing questions, following the format of the question asked in the video ايهما أنجح الزواج التقليدي أم الزواج عن حب؟ (Which is more successful, arranged marriage or love marriage)  by presenting it with blanks for them to fill in:

 ايهما أــــــــــ   ـــــــــــــ أم ــــــــــــــــ؟

Which is more _________,  _________ or ___________?

The students wrote a bunch of questions, such as which is better, dogs or cats? or which is better, peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and honey? I then had them ask each other the questions in a speed-dating format, where they switched partners every 4 minutes.  As they answered, they needed to not only express their answer, but also how certain they were of this opinion, by using the pragmatic features explored earlier in the class.  

Overall this was a successful lesson, leading students to understand not only what the text meant, but also how to use words related to opinions and degrees of certainty, and then to apply it in contexts more meaningful to them (probably not arranged marriage v. love marriage).  

Do you have techniques for finding interpersonal texts and helping your students recreate them? Let me know in the comments!

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!).

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


Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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


Image by tama66 on

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!

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? 

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.  

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 11.39.36 AM.png

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.  

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 8.50.45 AM.png

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:

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 11.40.04 AM.png

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.

Screenshot 2018-09-20 17.07.34.png

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.  

Screenshot 2018-09-20 17.07.41.png

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.

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.  

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):

Screenshot 2018-05-30 17.43.23.png

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:

Screenshot 2018-05-30 17.44.46.png

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:

Screenshot 2018-05-30 17.48.20.png

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):

Screenshot 2018-05-31 07.06.33.png

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!


Curriculum Development: The Background


Image from Comfreak on  

Last week, I discussed ways to make time and space for reflection as a language teacher, a practice I think is generally overlooked in teaching.  For me, an outcome of reflection is a plan for the future, and this is how we work to make our courses and curriculum better over time.  Now that I have this blog, I thought it would be interesting to document this process, especially as this upcoming Fall is the first one where we will be ditching our textbook entirely for the second year class. 

The more I teach, the more I become interested in the process, and the complex interplays between theories of language, theories of pedagogy, context and practice.  When I first started teaching, I would become frustrated when I couldn’t match what I envisioned as the “ideal” theory or practice to the classroom.  Yet as I gain more experience, I find these interactions between theory, practice, and context to be the most fascinating, and I think my teaching is the better for it.  But, before I get into our current plans, I thought it would be useful to provide some background on the phases our Arabic curriculum has gone through since I’ve been involved with it.

1) Textbook as curriculum: This is probably my least favorite curriculum model, but it is easy, especially when you are starting a new job, or developing multiple courses at once.  Essentially, in this phase, we just followed the activities in our textbook, which was based in communicative language teaching using a folklinguistic theory of language.  So, students would learn some vocabulary, then practice it in various interactive activities, then listen to a textbook story using it, then learn some grammar, practice that, listen/read another textbook text, and so on.  Homework and classwork was mostly based on activities in the book.  The issue with this, of course, is that I prefer functional theories of language to folk linguistic ones.

2) Integrating Can-Do Statements: To move from a curriculum informed by folk linguistic theories to functional ones, our first step was to integrate Can-Do Statements, using those developed by NCSSFL-ACTFL.  However, we also weren’t ready to ditch the textbook, so we matched those Can-Do Statements to the chapters in our textbook, and those became the goals of our lessons.  So, for example, a chapter where the textbook character describes her family would include the statement “I can describe my family.”  With these as our lesson goals, we moved away from using the textbook activities in class, but still assigning related ones as homework.  This allowed us to align our curriculum to things people do with language, rather than the activities in the textbook.  The challenge was that there was not always much of a relationship between the activities students would do at home, and what we would do in class.  

3) Integrating texts to use Genre-Based Approaches: To integrate our homework and classwork activities, we also started drawing more from genre-based approaches, which I talk about more on this page of my site.  The first step was starting with texts, where texts are oral, written, or multimodal, but essentially provide examples of people doing our target Can-Do statements.  We used texts from the textbook, scoured the internet, and also recorded or wrote some of our own.  As you might guess, this was extremely time-consuming, but did seem effective.  

The challenge, after implementing steps 2 and 3 (in addition to the time spent finding and making materials) was that we were still following the sequence of the textbook, so our sequence of Can-Dos was rather random.  One day might be “I can describe my family” and the next “I can make a purchase”.  In addition, we found that some of the Can-Dos developed by NCSSFL-ACTFL were very broad, such as “I can understand a YouTube video” while some were oddly specific “I can understand a voice mail from an exchange student about why she is late”.  For this reason, while our individual lessons seemed successful, the overall sequence of the curriculum seemed off. 

4) Sequencing according to Can-Do, rather than textbook:  To improve the overall sequence of our curriculum, we stopped grouping Can-Dos (and their example texts) according to their place in the textbook, and tried to group them based on their relation to each other.  This meant spending a week or so on a particular Can-Do with several example texts, rather than jumping from Can-Do to Can-Do because that was how the texts were sequenced in the book.  At this point, the textbook became simply a source for texts, rather than something we followed in sequential order or used  activities from (although we did keep to the overall unit structure, for the most part). 

5) Can-Dos as the curriculum: Our final step (thus far) and the one I’ll be talking about on this blog is our decision to get rid of the textbook entirely and have our entire curriculum be formed around Can-Do statements.  Stay tuned for more details as we implement this in our second year class in the upcoming academic year! 


Making time and space for reflection as a language teacher


Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

In my very first post, I noted the importance of reflection for intercultural learning during study abroad—that is, it’s not enough to simply have intercultural contact, but it’s also necessary to reflect upon this contact.  This is also true for teaching—it’s not enough to receive training, and design curricula, and implement lessons, we also need to reflect upon our practices in order to learn from them.  Yet oddly enough, it is this step that is rarely built into our jobs as language teachers—we attend conferences and professional development, we make curricula, we design lessons, we teach classes, we grade, and all of these have specific times and places assigned to them.  Sure, we can get behind on grading, but we’ll still finish it by the end of the term, and we’re unlikely to show up to class without some sort of plan (hopefully).  Yet despite the importance of reflecting upon what we do and how we teach, there’s rarely scheduled time or space for this, and even when we recognize its importance, it’s the first thing to go in the crunch of grading and prepping (at least in my experience).  So, in honor of the end of the semester, I thought I’d share some ways that I’ve built reflective practice into my own language teaching (and our Arabic section as a whole).  

These reflective practices can basically be divided into two times/spaces:

1) During the semester (quick notes after class)

2) The end of the semester  (a meeting during finals week)

During the semester: Here, the emphasis is on quickly capturing thoughts and ideas, because the rush of prepping, teaching and grading means there’s not really time to reflect upon what these thoughts and ideas mean.    

1) Lesson Plan Notes: Many people I meet (who teach in higher ed) are surprised that I write lesson plans for teach class that I save with the materials for this class session.  It’s true that this takes a little more prep time, but I have found it absolutely invaluable when returning to the same lessons after a year or more.  Maybe I’d remember exactly what I did with those materials anyway, but I remember a lot faster when it’s written out in front of me! Even more importantly, my lesson plan template is set up as a chart (I love graphic organizers) and the last column is called الملاحظات فيما بعد (notes afterwards).  After class, generally when I’m entering the attendance, I put a few notes in this column, such as whether an activity went well, or took more or less time than I expected, or was too easy, or too hard, and so on.  This only takes a minute or two, and saves me so much time when I next teach the lesson and don’t have to remember how it went (unlikely to happen anyway) and can just immediately address those concerns.  Since our Arabic team shares all lesson plans, this also comes in handy if we are teaching a lesson developed by another teacher, as we have their notes to improve our lesson!

2) Curriculum Chart: In an ideal world, all of our lesson plans are united by a curriculum, but I’ve found that this is not always a reality, especially under the (unfortunate) textbook as curriculum model or (in our case) as we move away from the textbook towards our own Can-Do Statement based curriculum.  We use Google Drive to list all of our lesson plans for a class in a chart, which gives us a good overview of how they fit together as a unit (or don’t, as the case may be).  Using the comment function, we can also comment on a particular lesson plan, either based on the lesson plan notes above, or on how it fit in with the other lessons that week/unit/semester, etc.  I usually enter this right after the lesson plan notes above, again when I’m entering the attendance grades for the class, and it usually takes less than a minute.  

3) General Notes: In addition to notes on specific lessons, we also share a google doc that lets us write general notes on how the class is going, like “we need to address pragmatics” or “link culture to Can-Do” etc.  We enter notes in this throughout the semester as we think of them, and it basically acts as a receptacle to hold all of these thoughts until our reflection meeting.  In my experience, if I don’t make notes of these as I think of them, I won’t remember them at all!

Reflection Meeting:  At the end of the semester, we (myself and the other two Arabic professors) schedule two meetings, each 3-4 hours long: one for grading exams, and one for reflection.  This reflection meeting allows us to give some time and space to reflection, and to go through the information we’ve collected during the semester and use it to plan for future semesters. At this meeting, we discuss each class following (more or less) the steps below:

1) Reflection Questions: For each class, we ask the following questions (which I record in, you guessed it, a chart in a google doc):

—What were our accomplishments? How can we magnify these accomplishments?

—What can we improve? How can we improve this?

In answering these questions, we draw from our memories, but also from the notes we’ve made in the shared google doc.  

2) Curriculum Analysis: In this step, we look through our curriculum chart (step two above) as a whole, noting anything that seems particularly problematic or out of place.  We are currently moving from sequencing our Can-Do Goals according to the textbook, to using the textbook as a resource for texts related to the Can-Dos, to ditching the textbook entirely and using our own materials, so this step is useful in letting us see how streamlined our curriculum is, or if all of our lessons are leading to our overall Can-Do Statement targets.  When we identify ones that don’t fit, we can decide how to fix them, or if they should be dropped entirely.  

3) Plan for next semester: After asking the reflection questions and analyzing the curriculum chart, we have a pretty good idea of what changes to target for the upcoming semester, and which classes to focus on the most.  This lets us make gradual changes (because, again, time is pretty limited during the semester), but also make sure that these changes are the most important ones to us.  

Sometimes, when I describe this system to people (especially other language teachers in higher ed) they are surprised at the amount of time and space we dedicate to reflection, especially the detailed lesson and curriculum notes, and the reflection meeting itself.  It’s true that it is easy to skip reflection, especially when there is not time and space dedicated to it.  Yet this is also why I find it so important to make time and space for it, so we don’t lose out on our own learning opportunities.  

What do you think? If you’re a (language) teacher, how do you make time and space for reflection?

Ideologies of Language and the Beginning Language Class: Part 1


Photo by Celia Ortega on Unsplash

Last week, I talked about how the language of social relationships is often overlooked in beginning language classes, and I think this is one reason students use English.   As language teachers, I think we tend to view beginning language classes as the start of a language learning journey, or a step to more advanced classes or study abroad (despite the fact that it’s actually also the end for many students, especially with the way language requirements and offerings are being eliminated these days in the U.S.).  Yet choices about what is taught in beginning language classes are also excellent insights into ideologies of language, that again we rarely think about as teachers.  Here are some examples:

1) Vocabulary sets: colors, numbers, days of the week, etc.  In my experience, this is more popular in elementary and secondary setting than in higher ed, but you never know.  This fits in well with folklinguistic theories where vocabulary is seen as a discrete building block for learning further language.  The issue with this approach, for me, is that we rarely use things in sets.  It’s true that I could tell you what I do every day of the week (although this requires more than just the days of the week), but normally I’d talk about meeting on a particular day, or the cost or color of a particular object, that probably doesn’t require all the numbers or colors to describe.  Yet if you expand to describing multiple things, then you need more vocabulary beyond these sets, so they become insufficient.  

2) A grammar sequence: noun-adjective agreement, present tense, past tense, etc.  This approach basically sequences the curriculum according to grammatical elements, usually with the sense of starting with basic ones and increasing the complexity.  This also matches folklinguistic theories, where learned vocabulary is slotted into the grammar focus, and students are expected to be able to use the grammar in spontaneous activities, such as speaking, after understanding it conceptually.  The issue with this approach is that this expectation is based on an ideology of language that isn’t supported by any actual research on language learning—being able to describe grammar is the field of linguistics, not using language.  Certainly people can do both, but this is not a sequential process.  

3) Transactions abroad: this approach includes things like the dialogue in the airport, at the hotel, at the store, at the museum, etc., basically imagining students as tourists in a country where the target language is spoken.  If the focus is on the function, this corresponds well to functional theories of linguistics, although I do find that many times these dialogues are just broken down into vocabulary and grammar in a way that corresponds more to formal or folklinguistic theories of linguistics.  What bothers me about this approach is that it completely ignores the realities of Global English and tourism—a touristic space that doesn’t cater to English speakers is probably not going to last that long! Sure, it might be nice to order coffee in Arabic, but it’s rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that I don’t think knowing the local language is useful when you’re traveling (it is!) but I think it is useful for establishing closer relationships, not for basic tourist transactions, so why focus on this? A second issue is that it assumes students will only use the language abroad, which ignores all the potential opportunities for interacting with speakers of that language within the borders of the United States.  It also assumes that students have the financial means and life flexibility to travel abroad, which may also not be the case.  

4) Communicative activities: this is classic communicative teaching, where students complete tasks that require them to share information and negotiate meaning, such as planning what they will need on a deserted island, or figuring out what items to take to a birthday party, or telling a story, or any other such activity.  This fits well with formal theories of language, in the sense that acquisition is seen as something that happens after processing a lot of language in context.  Oftentimes, linguistic elements are broken out to lead up to this task as well, such as learning particular vocabulary items or grammatical elements.  This could also fit with functional theories, depending on the task.  The issue I have with this approach is that while these activities are usually fun and engaging, the classroom is still the primary context—where will students plan for a deserted island trip outside of the classroom? They might plan a birthday party or tell a story, but there will need to be some sort of context leading up to this task, like making friends to throw a birthday party for, or getting into a situation where they want to tell a story to other people.  So while these tasks are certainly more contextualized than something like filling in the blanks on a verb conjugation worksheet, there is still a larger context missing, unless the classroom itself is seen as a complete context.  

5) Can-Do Statements: Can-Do statements are popular in the U.S. these days, and you can find examples from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages here (this approach has also existed in Europe for years).  Can-do statements tend to focus on a particular social function, which connects them to functional theories of language.  Focusing on a particular social function also tends to give a broader context than some of the communicative activities referenced above.  At the same time, these connections may not necessarily be clear—a Can-Do statement like “I can describe my family” assumes that you are in some sort of situation where you need to describe your family, and when is this, exactly? Can-Do statements can also run the risk of limiting themselves to transactions abroad, if only ones like “I can order food in a restaurant” are chosen for the curriculum.  In terms of the ones supplied by ACTFL, which I draw on for my own language classes, I again feel as though there is a focus on transactions and learning or sharing information, but little on developing the social relationships in which you would engage in these activities.  I suppose it’s partly true that you develop the relationships through the activities, but I feel that a lot of the social language tied up in pragmatics and sociolinguistics isn’t captured in this particular set of Can-Do Statements.  To a large degree, this may be because of the strong influence of formal linguistics on the fields of second language acquisition and language teaching in the United States, which as I mentioned in my post on this topic, ignores this type of language in its focus on acquisition.  This influence is seen in Can-Do statements that such as “I can deliver presentations on some concrete academic, social and professional topics of interest, using paragraphs across major time frames”, a sort of thinly veiled reference to different verb tenses.  

Now that I’ve critiqued several common ways of setting up beginning language classes, you might wonder what I do that is so much better . . . The short answer is that I’m currently using the Can-Do Statements approach, but looking to improve it, or at least address my own critiques, especially concerning social relationships.  Look out for what I think would be ideal (at least at this moment in time . . . ) next week!

Translanguaging Pedagogy in the Language Classroom: A New Mindset?

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

As is most likely clear from previous posts on nation-state ideologies of language and the multilingual turn, I find the latter a more appealing ideology for my language classroom, especially when combined with functional approaches to linguistics, that emphasize what learners do with language in actual contexts.  Yet, as usual, the challenge for combining theory and practice is in the implementation—the theory sounds good, but what does it look like?

In this post, I’m going to focus on language use in the classroom that I think in fact looks the same from the outside, but where the mindset shift from the inside makes all of the difference.  I think when U.S. language teachers in particular first hear about translanguaging pedagogy there is a sense of resistance, because we think didn’t we just convince everyone that we should use the target language in the classroom? And now you’re talking about using English as a resource too? How will my students learn the target language if I don’t use it, especially given the power of English as a global language? 

This is a completely legitimate concern, and I think part of the confusion stems from the diverse contexts in which translanguaging pedagogies are used.  For example, a lot of the pioneering work with this has been with the learning of academic content in multilingual education settings.  In these settings, researchers such as Ofelia García have argued that if we want to accurately measure a child’s math ability for example, they need to be able to deploy all of their linguistic resources to demonstrate their ability, rather than being limited to those that correspond to a particular language such as English.  Yet in the language classroom, the goal is learning a particular language*, so how is it helpful to allow other ones? Isn’t this a return to the unsuccessful grammar-translation method?

My argument is no, an intentional translanguaging pedagogy** in the language classroom would deliberately employ all of the linguistic resources available to engage in learning that language.  In fact, I think this often already happens, we just don’t realize it! Here are some examples:

1) Teacher talk in the target language: Research on teacher talk in the language classroom shows that teachers do stay predominantly in the target language.  In my view, this fits with translanguaging pedagogy because the teachers have the linguistic resources to stay in the target language.  Therefore, using translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom is not a reason for teachers to stop using the target language.  

2) Teacher use of cognates or mixed language: However, teachers are also able to use their linguistic resources in English, or other shared languages, to support the learning of the target language.  For example, if a teacher says “ashrab laban” this means nothing unless you know Arabic (or possibly a related language).  Yet if the teacher says “ashrab coca-cola”, you can probably guess that “ashrab” has to do with drinking.  Drawing upon cognates to create comprehensible input is a strategy used by many teachers already.  Yet rather than framing this as “falling back on English”, or “failing to use only Arabic” translanguaging pedagogy would look at this example as a strategic deployment of the available linguistic resources in the goal of learning Arabic.*

3) Student switches to English: As in the teacher example above, if a student is unable to come up with a particular word in Arabic, they might insert a word in English, and this would also be framed as a failure, or a deficit in their vocabulary.  Yet given that the classroom is at least a bilingual setting where everyone also speaks English, if they accomplish their communicative goal, is this a failure? Or is it a deployment of all linguistic resources to accomplish the communicative goal in a bilingual setting? Taking it even further, using that one English word may have allowed the student to continue with even more Arabic words, supporting their language learning goal, rather than breaking off communication to chide themselves for forgetting or asking the teacher how to say it.  Again, students switching to English is a common occurrence in the language classroom, but translanguaging pedagogy looks at this as an opportunity to employ all linguistic resources to learn the target language, rather than a failure or deficit of the student.  At least for me, this means I get to see my students doing cool things with language when they communicate, rather than failing to be monolingual Arabic speakers.  

4) Processing in English to produce in the target language: A second common example of when students use English in the language classroom is when they are working on preparing a monolingual project, such as a writing assignment or presentation.  As they put it together, it’s common to hear them using both English and the target language. If the expectation is that the classroom should be monolingual, this is again a failure.  Yet from the perspective of translanguaging pedagogy, it makes sense to use all linguistic resources to produce the best monolingual product possible, so this is not a failure, but a way to learn.   

These are just four examples that come to mind of things that already happen in the language classroom with a pedagogy of monolingual immersion that would still happen with translanguaging pedagogy.  If the practices are the same, a reasonable question to ask is why does it matter if the mindset is different? From my perspective, I would argue that it is important because it allows me to see my students as successful with the linguistic resources they have, and my role as the teacher being one of helping them invest these resources to gain more, rather than focusing on all of the things they can’t do yet (know all the vocabulary, do all the grammar, etc.).  This is a more pleasant classroom for me to participate in than one that is always failing to be monolingual.  But perhaps more importantly, focusing on how students are using their linguistic resources, rather than what language they are using allows us to deploy these resources more wisely in learning the target language.  For example, intentionally using a cognate, or a few words in English to allow students to understand or produce a longer text in the target language in fact leads to more use of this language.  Speaking English because it’s easier will not necessarily have the same effect.  Again, it is clear that students and teachers already translanguage in the classroom, but are we thinking about the ways in which this best supports language learning? If you’re a teacher or student, what do you think? How can you use all of your linguistic resources to learn more languages?


*It’s worth noting here that García also distinguishes between collections of linguistic elements in an individual’s repertoire and the “named languages” they correspond to, with the “named languages” being a social, rather than a linguistic construct.  This is an important distinction, but I’m not going to discuss it here.  

**There are probably differences between what I am calling translanguaging pedagogy and what previous researchers such as García or Li Wei consider it.  This is a result of me trying to figure out what it means in my context, and is not intended to be a critique or misrepresentation of what they advocate.