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How blended learning can help teach world languages

Two schools share their keys to success with teaching world languages in a blended learning environment

What matters most is that “the student has time to self-pace his or her own learning.”

Blended learning allows students to learn at their own pace, but there are a number of challenges to making it work. During a recent webinar sponsored by Middlebury Interactive Languages, participants learned how two exemplary schools have overcome these challenges and have made blended learning a success in teaching world languages.

Aline Germain-Rutherford, chief learning officer for Middlebury Interactive Languages, began the webinar by citing a 2010 study from Blackboard K-12 and Education Week, suggesting that 86 percent of school district leaders believe students need more learning time outside of school—and 95 percent believe students need more personalized pacing.

Blended learning can help with both of these needs, she said, and there are a number of ways to implement blended learning in schools.

Germain-Rutherford described four blended learning models in particular, including the rotation model, in which students rotate as a group from teacher-led instruction to online instruction and back again; and the flex model, in which students rotate on a customized schedule between online instruction and small group discussions or one-on-one tutoring.

Any of these models can be successful, she said; what matters most is that “the student has time to self-pace his or her own learning—and also that we recognize that learning doesn’t happen only in a classroom.”

(Next page: Two schools’ keys to success teaching world languages in a blended environment)

At the Coventry Village School in Vermont, learning French in a blended environment has “created more energy in my classroom,” said Melissa Souliere, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at this small public school.

Souliere’s students learn French by working with online curriculum from Middlebury Interactive Languages for 45 minutes a day, four days a week, using laptops from a mobile cart. Souliere serves as an on-site facilitator and also reinforces this instruction by having her students play games such as Hangman using French vocabulary, and by leading other whole-class and small-group activities in French.

Souliere has some background in the language, but “by no means would I call myself a language teacher,” she said. “However, that has not given any barriers to implementing this program in our classroom.”

She focuses on making the learning fun for her students, by getting them out of their chairs and moving around the classroom.

“If it’s not fun and they’re not engaged, then they’re not learning,” she said. And when students are walking around and talking with their peers in French, “they don’t even realize it,” she added, “but they’re self-assessing and peer-assessing.”

One trick she has learned is to complete the first few weeks of online lessons as a group, before having students work on their own. This group modeling “eases their anxiety about speaking aloud,” she said—and it also helps them become familiar with the online format for learning world languages.

Souliere is often asked: How does she assess and extend students’ learning when everyone is working at his or her own pace?

“It’s not as tricky as it sounds,” she said.

One method she uses involves “exit tickets,” a strategy for checking students’ understanding at the end of class. Souliere has her students say something they learned that day in French before they walk out the door, and “they leave feeling good about what they’ve just learned,” she said.

Encouraging self-directed learning

At the Jessamine Career and Technical Center in Jessamine, Ky., students in grades 9-12 are learning Spanish by using the Middlebury Interactive Languages curriculum in a blended model.

Beth Gaunce, director of instructional policy and teacher personnel for the company, said a district study found gains in students’ Spanish skills, as measured on the national Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency (STAMP) test.

She said the keys to Jessamine’s success include a supportive administration, access to technology for every student while they’re in school, and robust on-site technical support.

When asked what they liked most about the class, students cited the opportunities for differentiated learning and the sense of freedom that comes from setting their own pace. Their interest in Spanish language and culture also increased.

“They really loved the authentic videos” embedded in the online curriculum, Gaunce said.

Another benefit to the blended approach was that Jessamine students became “better self-directed learners,” she said. That’s something first-time online learners often struggle with, but Gaunce had some advice for how to foster this skill among students.

“To the student who says, ‘I did the activity and I got three out of six correct; can I move on,’ the teacher can say, ‘Well, I don’t know—do you feel like you were able to understand what was being said there? No? Then maybe you should try it again.’ It’s a matter of training students to ask themselves those questions, so they aren’t looking to simply complete the assignments, but to learn the content.”

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