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Redesigning the First-Year Sequence
(101-102) in Foreign Languages

Paul F. Dvorak
Department of Foriegn Languages

Courses in lower-level language instruction are heavily enrolled, reflecting both the current high-interest in foreign languages in particular and the general education requirements of many degree programs. Traditionally delivered in small class/small group settings, foreign language instruction at VCU has been severely strained by the limits of instructional/personnel resources at a time of tight budgets. With the ever-expanding technological capabilities available at VCU, FL faculty have explored alternative methods of instructional delivery that are both efficient and effective. The objective of this project was to investigate further innovative ways to structure lower-level language courses that enhance the effectiveness of instruction, motivate students in ways traditional instruction might not, and provide pedagogical opportunities beneficial to students and faculty alike.

Within the overall structure of 4-credit elementary courses that meet for five 50-minute periods per week, we recognized the possibility of utilizing 1-2 periods per week for alternative activities. Scheduling computer/internet/technology sessions where more than the typical 30 students per class can be supervised by one instructor or where one instructor might teach a group of students from several classes in an interactive environment other than the normal classroom setting could potentially alleviate the need for multiple instructors to perform the same task for smaller groups, could free up a portion of faculty instructional time, and could stretch finite personnel resources further than normal.

In addition to my supervision of the overall project, several other FL faculty were involved in the project: Dr. Robert Godwin-Jones, Ms. Sandy Darmagnac, Dr. Chantal Marechal, and Dr. Kathryn Murphy-Judy. All of these faculty members play a significant role in the organization and development of curricula for foreign language instruction at VCU.

Dr. Godwin-Jones organized an internet-based session in lieu of the normal Friday meeting of a German 102 class during Spring 2003. Students had until the following Monday to complete the assignment but were encouraged to do the assignment on Friday at the regularly scheduled class meeting. Some assignments required use of the Language Lab and others required groups of students to be on-line at the same time. Students were assigned a variety of tasks for the Internet class, which was designed to reinforce their knowledge of the new materials covered that week and to provide extra practice with all the languages skills.

The tasks were a mix of the following:

  1. Blackboard based grammar exercises involved mostly short answer type questions, which were self-correcting. Students were allowed to do the exercises more than once. Most of the quizzes drew items randomly from a large question bank.
  2. Discussion forums used both Blackboard written forums as well as voice-based Wimba boards for which students recorded audio messages. Both applications worked best in small group settings.
  3. Questions based on visiting German Web sites and gathering specific information (i.e. how to take the train from one city to another, gathering information from family Web sites, getting recipes, etc.) were devised.
  4. Audio files for listening comprehension that included short passages accompanied by comprehension questions were created.

A survey of the class was conducted at the end of the semester to determine if the program should be continued and/or modified. 65% of the students said the Internet class were "very helpful in learning," 29% said they were "somewhat helpful". 82% said they liked the Internet class "a lot," 18% said they liked them "a little," 0% "disliked" them. 100% of the students responded true to the statement, "If I took this class again, I would prefer to keep the once-a-week Internet classes."

Ms. Sandy Darmagnac, Director of the Foreign Language Learning Center, evaluated and tested the applicability of various new software programs in the field of FL instruction. As part of her contribution to the project she attended the CALICO conference in Ottawa in May. This conference is the major venue for the interfacing of technology and FL pedagogy. Attending the CALICO conference in Ottawa in May 2003 proved extremely useful, as she was able to interact with counterparts working for the American military, the Canadian government, and professors from various universities and countries involved in the teaching of languages and technology. Sharing ideas, comparing resources and facilities, and discussing ways to improve lab facilities and the use of technology in the classroom resulted in the discovery of new products, including the Auralog Tell Me More software. Thanks to the thorough presentation by the Auralog representatives, information necessary to make the decision to adopt the product for our VCU language students was made. VCU's Lab recently acquired all levels (beginner-intermediate-advanced-business) for Spanish, French and German. By comparison with many state and private universities, big and small, VCU's Language Learning Center is incredibly efficient and possesses the most up-to-date high-tech equipment and numerous multimedia resources presently available.

Dr. Chantal Marechal, professor of French and coordinator of lower-level French, continued the development of Internet-based materials for first-year French. These resources coordinate materials that are used by the 10 faculty members teaching these courses in any given semester. Furthermore, Dr. Marechal in consultation with me began construction of a grammar competency test that will be required of all students enrolled in elementary language courses. The test is designed to ensure that students possess the minimally acceptable level of knowledge of grammatical structure and familiarity with grammatical terminology to guarantee success in a language course. Historically the lack of theses skills bogs down the typical elementary language course and inhibits the progress of the class as a whole. Removing this element from the context of the normal class structure by providing "grammar sessions" for larger groups of students will hopefully make language instruction per se more efficient. The test itself will be structured very much like the present computerized language placement tests and the university's computer literacy test.

To continue work on these projects and to remain current with FL methodologies, the grant supported the visit of Dr. Dieter Jedan, Chair of Foreign Languages from Southeast Missouri State University in April. Dr. Jedan is a highly regarded expert in the field of FL instruction and conducted several workshops for faculty during his visit. While much of his information dealt with assessment at various levels, his comments on our present programs and planning efforts lent support to the direction we are embarked upon.

Finally, the grant facilitated the attendance at two important conferences that have relevance for the project. As mentioned, Ms. Darmagnac attended CALICO; additionally travel support was provided for Dr. Godwin-Jones and for Dr. Kathryn Murphy-Judy, who is also heavily involved in the area of FL technology. She has been involved with the development of modular instructional units that pertain to elementary and intermediate-level language courses. The grant also provided support for my attendance of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Washington in April. This conference is one of the two most important nationally that brings together FL teachers from K-16. I was able to gather valuable information for our future development of the initiatives described above and establish a number of valuable contacts.

As the FL program is integrated into the new School of World Studies, curricular developments similar to those outlined above will continue and expand.

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