According to Richard Donato, Ph.D., associate professor of foreign language education at the University of Pittsburgh, that is too often where foreign language students end up after undergraduate study in a language.
How, then, can instructors help improve overall language skills in upper-level students taking a foreign language literature class?
On March 25, Donato, chair of the Department of Instruction and Learning at Pitt’s School of Education, shared his research on what works most successfully, at a lecture and workshop co-sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE).
In a qualitative study of a capstone Spanish literature course consisting of senior Spanish majors, Donato analyzed the amounts of advanced and superior speaking that occurred during discussion.
Typically, he said, literary discussion includes the advanced function of narrating in time, or the superior functions of hypothesizing and discussing in abstract.
However, in the study Donato observed the frequent use of the I – R – E (interrogation, response, evaluation) pattern during discussion: the teacher asked a question with a one-word answer, and followed up by ‘evaluating’ the student’s answer with a praise (“Muy Bien,” “Perfecto”). At the end of a 13-class evaluation, the teacher had spoken approximately 80 percent of the time, while the eight-student class spoke only 20 percent of the time, Donato said.
“In this case, the instructor didn’t support the learner’s development of language because the questions asked were the wrong type,” he said. “In a real exchange, there is much more negotiation.”
Donato offered a workshop to brief faculty members on effective communication in the foreign language literature class. He suggested that they tape themselves teaching and then go back and analyze their interactions.
“Literary discussion is a rich vehicle for getting students to participate at much higher (foreign language) levels,” he said, “if it is properly managed.”
The event featuring Donato was the first of a series of pedagogy workshops CTE hopes to sponsor for the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures as well as other Fordham departments that express interest, said Erick Keleman, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of English and assistant director of CTE.
“We’d like to get the word out that CTE is here to provide support and connections and to lay groundwork for faculty members to run their own pedagogy development programs,” he said. “If a department has an idea, CTE will help find a way to make it happen.”
The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.