Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What Would Bill VanPatten Think about Spanish Community Service Learning?

Bill VanPatten taught me how to teach Spanish.

When I was a new graduate student at the University of Illinois, I took his proseminar for foreign language teaching. I loved the way that he really practiced what he preached: he taught the seminar with exactly the same techniques that he told us to use in our own classes. I was enthusiastic but very green at the time. Seventeen years later, I think I have been able to practice many of the concepts he has researched and articulated as best practices in foreign language teaching.

In the January 2009 issue of The Language Educator, VanPatten outlines four fundamentals of language teaching (p. 5):
  1. The exchange of real information among participants is at the core of learning.
  2. There ought to be no focus on grammar or other formal properities of language unless meaning is simultaneously in focus.
  3. Language is bigger and more abstract than what we could ever teach, so all we are doing is providing a means for learners to bootstrap themselves into acquisition; the rest is up to them.
  4. Learners need lots and lots of input, and lots of interaction with speakers of the language.
Spanish CSL definitely fulfills these requirements in ways that no classroom-based course could ever do.

However, how do we use our time in the classroom? Do we send our students out to the community to have real communicative exchanges and then revert to grammar drills in the classroom? Do we empower them to be in charge of their own learning in the community and then over-determine their learning in the classroom? Do we allow them to immerse themselves in Spanish in the community and then slip into English in the classroom if the topic is "too difficult?"

I have always had the most difficulty with #2. It seems that students ought to learn grammar the more we explain it to them. But of course that isn't how it works.

My goal: design a few grammar activities for my Spanish CSL courses that keep meaning in focus.

After reviewing Bill VanPatten's four cornerstones of effective language teaching, what's your goal?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. With a website on learning Real World Spanish and Spanish slang I think both #1 and #2 are often ignored by teachers. I believe Spanish learners should start by practicing the language, hearing it and speaking it, instead of sitting down to do grammar lessons. Not only is it not the best way to learn a language, it is boring and turns people off to learning languages.