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Brief Word

October 6, 2021

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As I have visited classrooms over the last few weeks, I’ve been struck by how instructional technology has revolutionized language learning.

When I was in Middle School (some 50 years ago!), world language teachers focused much of their time on fast-paced Socratic dialogues, basically a series of rapid-fire questions and answers, largely directed by the teacher. On rare occasions, we would trudge off to the language lab, where we would listen to dictations or dialogues recorded on reel-to-reel tape, pausing, periodically, to answer questions directed to us by the teacher from an enormous central console.

What a difference I observed when I dipped into the Middle School Spanish class earlier this week. In some ways, the lesson was familiar. The students were working on a group of new vocabulary words, all related to travel. They were also learning a new verb tense, focusing, it seemed, on how to describe events which happened in the past.

What struck me most, though, was the wide variety of classroom activities. On their iPads, some students were viewing video-recorded dialogue, listening as groups of native speakers conversed using gestures and visual cues associated with this vocabulary. They could watch the dialogue repeatedly, first with and then without subtitles. Other students worked in pairs to develop their own dialogues, using the word bank and practicing the new structures repeatedly until they recorded a final version to be reviewed by their teacher. To consolidate their vocabulary and grammatical skills, other students filled in an electronic template, choosing the appropriate verb tense or vocabulary word in a program which flagged and explained errors in real time.

All of these new technologies allow students to have many more repetitions, much more guided practice in the course of a single class. This has, it seemed to me, accelerated dramatically the pace of language acquisition by engaging students in multi-sensory activities designed to simulate an immersion experience.

It was very exciting to watch and, frankly, made me feel very old!

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