Teachers Reshape Language Acquisition in Schools

By: 
Kelley Pierce
COACH MEMBER Mary Catherine Pierce's classroom

An innovative and relatively new way of teaching is sweeping across Southern California and beyond – in language acquisition classes. An organization called the COACH Foreign Language Project (COACH), which was created in 1986, began as a state-funded project with the goal of educating language instructors on the most effective ways of teaching students. After losing state funding, the program continued its efforts as a non-profit organization, and is now under the leadership of director Cynthia Leathers and co-director Shari Kaulig.

The COACH team, which consists of over twenty teachers throughout Southern California, is “a community of professional language teacher leaders committed to improving foreign language teaching and learning.” Teachers must be nominated by a current member to be considered to join and after deliberation, their eligibility will be put to a vote.

The team, whose motto is “teachers COACHing teachers,” focuses on teaching languages using comprehensible input (CI) that engages students on a personal level by focusing on communication over grammar. This teaching style was developed in the 1970s by linguist Stephen Krashen. The style also uses teaching proficiency through reading and story-telling (TPRS) to help children acquire a foreign language through three steps.

Firstly, children are taught the necessary vocabulary structures in a story, through the use of gestures and repetitions. According to Mary Catherine Pierce, a new member of the COACH team and a Spanish teacher at St. Barnabas School in Long Beach, “You have to hear a word 127 times in context to have it transfer from your short term to your long term memory. My job in the classroom is to make sure my students get enough repetition of their vocabulary to make sure it transfers.”

Secondly, teachers must incorporate the newly-learned vocabulary words into a spoken story. To do so, proponents of TPRS ask their students questions in order to create stories as a class. Pierce explains that the goal is to keep the students talking. “What do kids like to talk about? Themselves.” The stories often feature the students as the main characters to keep them invested and participating.

Thirdly, the class will read a story that features the vocabulary the students have just acquired. During this step, the instructor will do short comprehension checks, as well as what is called “pop-up grammar,” during which the teacher will provide minimal grammar explanations.

This new style of teaching is not prevalent in most schools in California. Frequently students learn a language by studying grammar from a textbook. However, research has shown that grammar drills are not as effective in learning or retaining  a language as comprehensible input.

Pierce states, “I learned Spanish the old-fashioned way, and my level one students are producing sentence structures I didn’t learn until my third year of language learning. Using these teaching practices, they are able to pick it up so much faster.”

Integrating this new style of teaching is not without difficulty, however. Pierce concedes, “It is a skill that does have to be developed. Novelty is key, because when students stop paying attention, they stop acquiring the language. This style requires creativity on the part of the teacher, but it makes teaching so much more enjoyable.”

The COACH team strives to make the transition process easier for teachers by holding workshops that keep instructors up to date on the best practices when using CI and TPRS, and selling products that aid in the teaching process. The team is comprised of teacher volunteers who feel passionate about the importance of comprehensible input in language learning.

Pierce states, “Our goal is to spread awareness about the effectiveness of this style of teaching so that teachers and parents can see the results. The idea is that it becomes the norm for teaching language acquisition.”

kelley@beachcomber.news

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