Teaching Spanish the DVFriends Way

Do you remember foreign language classes when you went to school? The endless verb conjugations, getting all the tenses confused, lists and lists of vocabulary to memorize, and in the end, never really having enough of a usable grasp of the language to have a meaningful conversation?
 
Now imagine how that experience would have been different if starting on day one, the entire class spoke in the language 100% of the time, but that the interactions were engaging and everyone understood every word. The words used in the stories and conversations were limited to the words that the students already knew and throughout the year this vocabulary grew and developed as the students acquired the language naturally rather than memorizing words and grammar.
 
This approach to language instruction is called TCI – Teaching with Comprehensible Input – and it is revolutionary. It’s also how DVFriends Spanish teachers Allison Gill and Katya Hottenstein teach every one of their classes – from lower school introductory Spanish to the more advanced high school classes.
 
This methodology is fairly new and being developed at a grassroots level by classroom teachers and shared through blogs. Allison and Katya believe it is perfect for DVFriends students because it is based in solid neuroscience and allows for naturally differentiated teaching that accommodates for the way people actually learn.
 
Teacher working with students in a room with chairs and beanbag chairsResearch supports vocabulary acquisition as the key to learning a foreign language and the TCI approach increases the auditory processing speed of aural comprehension. Before a student can produce vocabulary – which means actually using it appropriately in context – the student needs to hear those words in context 175 times. That means they have to hear the language a lot more than traditional grammar-based approaches allow before they can be expected to produce using that vocabulary in any meaningful way beyond memorizing and repeating a specific question and answer sequence.
 
According to Allison and Katya, the fundamental difference between the traditional methods and TCI is the difference between learning and acquiring the language. Memorizing vocabulary and studying grammar rules the traditional way dissects the language in order to learn it. The approach is rigid – focusing on details of the structure of the language – and answers are right or wrong based on the specific concept being studied.
 
Acquiring language places the focus on engaging with vocabulary and grammatical structures in context so that students can produce and adapt them to communicate meaningfully. With this approach, mistakes are expected and accepted as a natural way of learning to use the language. The keys are engagement and fun.
 
“Most people equate rigor and challenge with being boring and painful, but students learn and retain much more when they are engaged and having fun – and fun, engaging lessons can certainly be very challenging,” says Allison Gill, Spanish teacher and Upper School Assistant Director.
 
Teacher at whiteboardKatya Hottenstein, Chair of the Spanish Department at DVFriends, adds that this approach is also more flexible and allows her to engage students who may be at different levels within the same class and lesson. “When I used to teach more traditionally with a textbook and grammar curriculum, I wasn’t teaching mostly in Spanish, and the students were not producing primarily in Spanish. They could have very specific comments about very specific content, but could not be flexible. Now, I can introduce an image, pause a video, or begin a discussion about nearly any topic, and a conversation emerges using words they are comfortable with already. I can engage the student who has a few words AND the student who has a large vocabulary and range of sentence structures to draw on in the same discussion – and they can engage each other. When a student doesn’t know how to say something, we encourage them to use circumlocution – talk around it, act it out, use whatever words you do know to get your point across. That leads to a lot of engagement – and often a lot of laughter as well. Those are great teaching moments!”
 
In addition to being experienced foreign language teachers, Allison and Katya have also developed expertise in teaching students who have a variety of learning differences. Often students with learning differences have had difficulty with – or even been steered away from – foreign language courses. Allison and Katya have developed the Spanish program at DVFriends to be accessible and open to everyone who wants to participate, and have made very specific multisensory adaptations to accommodate the students’ different learning challenges and styles. Some of these include:
  • Using two different colors for English and Spanish words when they write them on the whiteboard
  • The curriculum emphasizes 16 most commonly used verbs – which for students with dyslexia almost become like sight words
  • They assign gestures to many vocabulary structures – this kinesthetic and visual connection helps with retrieval
  • The focus on spoken language is much more practical and more accessible for students who already have challenges with spelling and word order in English
  • Tweaking the graphic organizers that come with the curriculum when they are too detailed or contain too much information on a page
  • Managing student anxiety through a method and classroom atmosphere that encourages them to feel comfortable taking risks, speaking up, and participating in the target language.
  • Naturally differentiated lessons that engage students where they are with the language and allow for adjustments, modeling, and scaffolding as needed
 
“All successful education programs are engaging and multisensory,” adds Allison.
 
“We’re trying to teach the students to become lifelong learners, to take risks, but be okay with failure, and to support the peers around. This is consistent with the overall approach and ethos of DV.”
 
Allison and Katya are still wrestling with getting their students to read more in Spanish. Research shows that vocabulary acquisition is twice as fast when students read in the language, but it can be challenging to get students reading in a second language when they often struggle to read in their first language. It’s an aspect of the program they’re still working on.
 
Students and parents herald the Spanish program at DVFriends as a game-changing approach to foreign language education particularly for students with learning differences.
 
Una O’Doherty shares how different DV Spanish was for her son, Liam ‘19. “Liam had two years of Spanish in middle school and could not put a sentence together. After two years in DVFS and Liam could manage to get around in Ecuador. Moreover, he had very limited knowledge of verb conjugation in middle school when they purposefully studied conjugation, but now he uses every tense. Kind of amazing!”
 
Allison and Katya are encouraged and invigorated by the program’s success and look forward to their continued collaboration in further developing and adapting the TCI method for DV.
 
“I feel like the kids are excited by the language, and that makes me excited,” Katya shares. “When I walk into my room and the students are already speaking to me in Spanish, that makes me so happy.”
 
Allison adds, “It’s fun. I don’t think I could ever go back to teaching from a textbook.”