Lessons from Watching Online Language Instruction

My 10-year old was a student in a five-day online language program. Overall she loved it. She learned some German and she learned, more importantly, that learning language is interesting. As a language teacher and language learning enthusiast, I recommend an online language course to the parents of any motivated child.

Personally, I learned a lot from watching her take the course, sitting at her side to see the screen or listening and observing from across the room. Here are some takeaways. 

Remote learning is different from face to face learning. We know this, but it is hard for us to let go of established routines that have worked so well for us in face to face environments for so long. But let go we must. We need to observe how students are learning without the prejudice of historically good face to face learning clouding our vision. Some practices will need to be changed, some will need to be dropped entirely. This shift will take time, but those who are quicker to adapt will fare better. 

Students are still extraordinarily forgiving with the tech glitches that we all experience. Perhaps because we all experience them. However, the patience for glitchy performances will wear thin as more and more of their online experiences figure things out. Breathe a sigh of relief that students are patient, but don’t misinterpret their patience as license not to adapt better to the online environment. Their clocks are ticking.

Language teaching still has lots of room for improvement. It’s nearly thirty years since I began graduate school to learn how to teach languages. The debate back then was essentially how much to focus on communication and how much to focus on grammar. One persistent and long lived voice stretching back to my grad school days in the early nineties (and in fact back to an early publication of his position in 1977), is that of Steve Krashen. In a nutshell, you have to to be understanding language – and making meaning with language – in order to advance.

With that background, the two most interesting observations I made of my daughter’s language learning experience are:

  • While she heard a lot of language – a lot of comprehensible input – she did not have much opportunity to talk. Sometimes she missed opportunities by not speaking up, which is partly on her and partly the way the learning environment was structured. Mostly, though, there were simply few opportunities to talk. 

Anybody familiar with a traditional language learning environment has seen this over and over. A teacher asks a question, one student responds, and the teacher comments on the student response. Let’s say that those three events – two by the teacher and one by the student – are all the same length (spoiler – they aren’t. The teacher generally talks far longer than a student). But, to keep things easy, the teacher is speaking two-thirds of the time. The remaining one-third is divided by the number of students in the room. In a 60-minute classroom with 20 students, with a teacher-student pattern of two-thirds teacher and one-third individual student, there is one minute per student to speak. As mentioned though, the teacher talk is generally longer than the student talk – and some students respond more frequently than others. The result? Many students go through a whole class with just seconds to actually speak. Crazy.

There are of course remedies. First, drop the teacher-student-teacher pattern (called initiation, response-feedback, or IRF, if you want to read more). For example, a call-and-response pattern of teacher-all students results in a 50-50 split of speaking (and all students are getting 50%, not just an individual student). This isn’t perfect – the students are not making original meaning – but it’s a heck of a lot more active than what I described earlier. A great way to do this is by teaching songs, something my daughter’s program used very effectively. Getting beyond a 50-50 teacher-student ratio requires creating situations in which students speak to each other with the teacher in s support, behind the scenes type of role. Role plays, games, debates, and other activities can get you there.

  • When the program teachers got didactic, things went downhill. Interest sunk, learning sunk. This wasn’t because the teachers weren’t good. Their subject matter was just not appropriate. Breaking away from communication, even rigidly structured communication with a question-answer pattern, into explanations about verb conjugations was a mistake. 

Here you don’t have to take my word for it. When the students were asked at the end of their time together what they liked best, they mentioned the games that they played – those activities that had less of a specific language learning outcome and focused instead on fun, which required some communication in the language. Not coincidentally, that’s also when I observed the highest motivation, the most talking, the most comprehension. 

My takeaway is this – and it is as true for this online experience as it is in many classrooms – when her teachers shifted into teacher mode, feeling like they better teach something, like those verb conjugations, learning dropped. Although it’s a little counterintuitive, it’s not unsupported in the research. (Think back to Steve Krashen, fighting a similar battle since at least 1977.) Our curriculum and our manner of assessment, among other factors, may be hamstringing us a bit.

If you aren’t a language teacher, here’s the generalization I’m aiming for. We might all do well to focus more on the doing than the tools we need for the doing. When students are doing, they may have a better chance at motivation and involvement, at constructing their own understanding as they go. They’ll ask for the tools if they need them to continue the conversation. So give them something interesting to think and talk about and then let them go. Teach your subject a bit less. Get students doing your subject a bit more. 

That’s what I learned from my daughter’s online class. 
Check out comprehension-loaded language instruction from proponents I know best – Beth Skelton, Grant Boulanger, and Liam Printer.

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