The Language Acquisition Model As Applied To Colorado Secondary Foreign Language Classrooms

The following is a synopsis of a proposal to revamp foreign language instruction in Colorado secondary schools. The original text was written by the Coordinator of World Languages in Denver Public Schools, Diana Noonan.
It is now expected that students in secondary programs throughout Colorado align with the specific levels of proficiency ranging from novice low to intermediate mid that now form the basis of the new Colorado World Languages State Standards adopted in December, 2009. The proficiency levels align with the current national standards set by the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL). 
Currently, most Colorado classrooms follow a language learning model that is inadequate to meet the requirements of the new standards. In the current model, students concentrate on repeating, memorizing and studying grammar rules and verb conjugations. This model requires very early output or production in the forms of writing and speaking, and is not an effective way to meet the new standards. Indeed, if the output skills of writing and speaking are to be realized, it is generally accepted now that the input skills of reading and listening must precede those skills in vast quantities, especially at the lower levels of study. Input precedes output, as with computers. Only then can students truly acquire the language.
Currently in Colorado second language classrooms all but the most gifted students achieve only the novice low level of proficiency. Countless studies have shown that it is the early output/production activities associated with what has been called the Language Learning model that lead to short-term language retention and, as stated, very low levels of language proficiency in the vast majority of students.
Conversely, in the Language Acquisition model, teachers use a myriad of input-based activities before students are required to speak or write. The approach is strikingly different –  students are exposed to planned, sequential and repetitive language structures by listening to and reading (intput) memorable, entertaining texts. Students do not consciously learn or memorize language, nor do they learn via the manipulation of rules applied to worksheets (output).
The problem to be addressed in secondary foreign language education, then, is that no level, or a very low level, of proficiency is reached after 2-3 years of world language instruction using the Language Learning model. According to ACTFL, two years of seat time in a secondary classroom result in, at best, a proficiency level of novice-mid. (See ACTFL Performance Guidelines).
It is possible to create a strong program in Colorado world languages where students, using early input based instruction – the Language Acquisition model – will vastly surpass the current expected levels of proficiency based on seat time. This will increase retention rates while at the same time addressing the Achievement Gap.
Due to the fact that the Language Learning model relies on output and the Language Acquisition model uses input based methods, it is difficult for both models to exist side by side in a department. When students are trained in the Language Acquisition model, they find it difficult and confusing, not to mention frustrating, to transition into classrooms in which the target language is not used.
Classrooms in which the teacher teaches ABOUT the language and the focus is on doing worksheets and practicing exercises with fellow students who don’t speak the language create anxiety due to the fact that students are required to produce language before they have acquired it. This approach contrasts sharply with the low affective filter or low anxiety found in Language Acquisition classrooms, where messages are understood and acquisition occurs via whole brain strategies that largely eliminate stress and are multi-sensory (vs. analytical, concrete sequential, left brained).
Based on current knowledge and past experience when the Language Acquisition model is used, it is reasonable to expect that:
– students will stay enrolled in world language classes for 3-4 years, in stark contrast to statistics that show that up to 90% of students currently enrolled in language study in Colorado high schools drop out after two years.
– the level of proficiency for students who complete 2 years of the same world language will be at a minimum of novice high as described in the Colorado World Language standards.
– after 3 years of instruction in the acquisition, input based model, students will reach much higher levels of proficiency than those in traditional method classrooms.
Data supporting the above assumed outcomes will be available in the form of a pilot project in the Denver Public Schools from Fall 2010 to Spring 2013. In this project, teachers in the program will use effective teaching practices through comprehension-based/input methods of instruction. French, Spanish, Chinese students who begin a second language in grades 6 through 10 in the fall of 2010 and continue with the same language for 3 consecutive years of instruction with teachers using these methods will advance in the levels of proficiency described in the Colorado World Languages State Standards adopted in December, 2009. Proficiency levels will be assessed at the beginning, middle and end of each school year.
All project teachers within a department at a middle or high school will use comprehension-based methods/input methods. They will form a Professional Learning Community in which teachers will meet as a group on early release days. Peer coaching will be an essential part of the structure of these meetings. Teacher leaders (those with 3 years or more of experience in input based methods) will be called upon to instruct.
Assessment: DPS District Proficiency assessments, available in fall of 2010, will be used in fall and mid-year to assess gains in terms of the new standards. In addition, the STAMP Assessment will be administered for definitive results of proficiency levels at the end of 1, 2 and 3 years. STAMP (Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency) is a web-based assessment tool built to benchmarks characterizing proficiency levels that are related the ACTFL Performance Guidelines. STAMP reports scores according to benchmarks related to the ACTFL Performance Guidelines at the novice and intermediate levels.
It is possible and expected that students enrolled in secondary world languages program for 3 consecutive years reach a level of proficiency in the second language which meets or exceeds the novice high performance level as described in the ACTFL Performance Guidelines and the Colorado World Languages State Standards. According to Dr. Stephen Krashen (see his Comprehension Hypothesis) students in world language classes that contain more “comprehensible input” produce superior results when compared to traditional classes: comprehensible input students do far better on tests of communication and at least as well on grammar tests.
The basic premise of the Language Acquisition model is that we acquire language when we understand what people tell us and when we understand what we read. There is no need for deliberate memorization or manipulation of grammatical structures for these things to happen, as has been the common belief. Rather, firm knowledge of grammatical rules is best described as a feel for correctness of the sound of the language, and large vocabularies gradually emerge when language acquirers get more comprehensible input (aural or written language that is understood).
The Language Acquisition model is a highly interactive student centered style of teaching that focuses on the language skills of listening and reading while also addressing writing, speaking and cultural understanding.
The new model grew out of the research and work of Dr. James Asher, Dr. Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell, and has evolved since the early 90’s through the experience of teachers actually using the method. Collaborators from around the globe have honed a highly effective methodology and transformed it into a tremendously successful method that promotes unrivaled fluency, listening and reading comprehension skills, and writing fluency.


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