Strengthening Oral Proficiency with RICH

    Ligia Martinez offers a strategy for Heritage Speakers of the Language

    “Good writing is good conversation, only more so.”—Ernest Hemingway. If this quote is true, as many instructors of all languages would agree, then the solution to improving not only writing but reading is good conversations. Ensuring high-quality dialogues among students is a challenge in language classrooms, particularly in Spanish language courses for heritage speakers. At the high school level especially, many teachers lament that with the exception of a few students who speak only Spanish, it is a demanding task to keep native learners on the target language.

    Yet, since Spanish courses for Hispanic learners are now commonplace, it is imperative to underscore certain emotionally charged factors which hinder Spanish language development among learners, along with some pedagogically related considerations. More importantly, a strategy is presented which is explicitly designed to strengthen oral language proficiency in native Spanish speakers. The ultimate objective of the classroom tool is to facilitate oral language learning, leading to improved reading and advanced writing.

    Why is it so taxing to keep heritage speakers first on the target language and second engaged in conversations rich in high academic vocabulary? One reason is that many speakers feel that they already know the language, thus why should they use it? These students have heard Spanish since birth. In many cases, it is the only language spoken at home, to the detriment of mastering the English language at a superior level. Many adolescent learners listen to Spanish on the television, on the radio, at soccer games, and at other social occasions; oral production is not a priority because students understand the spoken language. Another reason is that sometimes learners are embarrassed to speak Spanish because, as expressed in their own words, they “sound funny.” English is stressed in all of their core classes; consequently, for many students, it is their comfort zone.

    Spanish is the language associated with a sense of uneasiness in the case of many learners. Some young adults avoid their first language because, even though most of what is spoken is comprehensible, at least when it comes to daily conversations, they lack the confidence to express themselves well as it relates to topics such as history, literature, culture, science, or the environment. Using academic language to express perspectives related to core subjects in high school is intimidating for students who only use Spanish to communicate particulars about daily routines.

    The aforementioned emotionally related factors exemplify the affective filter hypothesis presented in numerous publications, including Lingüística Aplicada by Dale A. Koike and Carol A. Klee. Popularized by linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen, the theory supports the notion that there are a series of variables including motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety which affect second-language acquisition. After twelve years of teaching Spanish courses for native-speaker students, it has been my experience that the described emotions associated with heritage learners negatively impact their oral language progression.

    In terms of instruction, some language courses place too much emphasis on the grammatical aspects of the language instead of the interpersonal communication goals. Many instructors dwell on structural topics such as tenses and pronouns instead of practicing how to function in the language. Hence, learners become disenchanted and resort to employing Spanish only on a limited basis. Though redundant and unappealing, unfortunately this style of teaching persists, ultimately hindering student progress.
    Another pedagogical challenge encountered by heritage speakers relates to the communicative activities presented in many of the Spanish texts.

    These objectives often spotlight conversations related to daily routines such as counting, chatting about the weather, expressing likes and dislikes, buying groceries at a local market, and explaining future plans. Discussions about these themes are examples of lesson objectives which learners have either already mastered or heard repeatedly throughout their lives. Topics about day-to-day life are frequently uninteresting and unrelated to subjects in the core curriculum which address science, history, social science, or other areas of focus that intrigue and inspire thoughtful conversations.

    Despite the obstacles presented, oral proficiency is a vital component of language development, across the learning continuum, which must be addressed. Moreover, since listening and speaking are the precursors to reading and writing, it stands to reason that if properly supported, reading comprehension improves in tandem with oral proficiency. Similarly, extended opportunities to refine oral skills lead to written discourse at a high level. If language comprehension and great writing can result from strengthening oral language competency, what strategy can ensure rich conversations which incorporate a high level of academic vocabulary?

    I propose the use of the RICH strategy, Reformatting Information into Communication at a High level. After multiple years of encouraging heritage speakers to enhance their vocabulary skills, my experience with the RICH strategy has transformed my teaching. Let me summarize by citing one of my freshman students in a Native Spanish I classwho, after studying a unit on Guatemala, commented, “I feel like it opened our brains to new words, but it made me feel like I was still talking” (Brianna Herrera, fall 2015).

    The premise is simple. First, authentic texts on a variety of subjects are found in the sections for extended reading in state-of-the-art Spanish textbooks. Aside from texts, amazing examples of authentic readings abound on the internet. Given an excerpt from a text, the instructor reformats the material and creates a guide for a conversation to be spoken by students in pairs. The information from the reading is placed alternatively in two columns, one for student A and one for student B. Directives are added, along with sentence frames, interjections, connecting phrases, and specific vocabulary, in order to ensure a free-flowing, logical conversation. Thus, instead of limiting the use of words to reading purposes, students use the guide and corresponding information to converse. In essence, learners utilize the writings to produce oral discourse.

    Once the guide has been prepared and students have had an opportunity to read it, the instructor models. With student engagement, the teacher practices the activity while emphasizing the importance of attentive listening. Students then role play with the guide in hand and exchange roles once finished. Learners practice expressing both parts of the conversation while listening to key vocabulary. This activity is incorporated in seven- to ten-minute segments in the class and repeated two or three times a week, depending on the length of the guide. The first few times the conversation is practiced, students need to read their lines. With review, eventually learners are able to simply glance at their roles while expressing themselves. It is also imperative to point out that students are not required to say their parts word for word; it is not a script. They may adapt the dialogue as long as they include the critical information.

    After about three practice runs, my experience has been that students learn the key vocabulary and use the terms without coaxing. Following active participation with this tool, students have suggested the opportunity to write their own guides for future interactions, instead of depending on the instructor. The guide is flexible and has the potential to meet a variety of language goals. Apart from the new expressions introduced, the RICH strategy may be used to simultaneously present grammar structures, for example. Thus, syntax objectives are introduced in context. The RICH strategy strengthens oral language proficiency by providing opportunities to converse about a variety of topics while using advanced-level expressions.

    The RICH tool has other benefits. First, since it poses demands for the peers involved in role playing, it is a great opportunity to explicitly teach attentive listening skills. As explained by Kate Kinsella in the article “Attentive Listening: An Overlooked Component of Academic Interaction” (Language Magazine, March 2016), among educators there is often an unspoken assumption that listening processes and behaviors will naturally improve with exposure to the target language (28). Although she is referring to students who are learning English as a second language, the same principle applies to learning any language. Attentive listening is important. Kinsella explains further that

    “within the second-language research community, listening has come to be recognized as a dynamic and complex skill set rather than a passive endeavor.” A central part of ensuring success with the RICH strategy is clearly explaining and modeling how students demonstrate attentive listening through body language, eye contact, and physical posture. The ultimate goal is for learners to speak and listen to each other in a position described as “knee to knee and eye to eye.” Modeled and rehearsed effectively, the RICH strategy facilitates oral language expression of higher-level vocabulary in Spanish; simultaneously, the tool challenges learners to build listening skills.

    ACTFL’s 21st-century World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages require students to compare and value cultural aspects and perspectives between countries with the same language, like those in the Hispanic world. The RICH strategy poses many opportunities for learners to discuss demographics, geography, history, celebrities, customs, and traditions; these topics are all integral aspects of culture. Instead of limiting the acquisition of this knowledge to reading, the approach ensures that students explain and discuss the texts. Since the information in the chosen readings is simply formatted into a conversation, learners access only two to three sentences at a time. The result is a student-friendly and straightforward way of interpreting cultural information. My experience with choosing articles and short exposés is derived from using the Descubre series published by Vista Higher Learning and the ¡Aventura! series by EMC Publishing. Both contain excellent examples of culturally relevant Spanish topics. Nevertheless, the guide is flexible and adaptable to current event articles from the internet, reports, pamphlets, and other sources used to promote cultural awareness.

    Reading is a complex process which involves a social dimension in the classroom, according to the research and observation completed for Reading for Understanding by Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy (24). While implementing the RICH strategy, students read and process information a few sentences at a time, which facilitates reading comprehension. To read effectively, students confer with their partners, pose questions, and of course receive teacher feedback. The exercise of expressing points of confusion and confirming postulations is an opportunity to mediate meaning. These collaborative exchanges in a classroom can result in more active and strategic readers. While promoting good reading practices and teamwork, the RICH strategy results in vocabulary development and improved reading comprehension of high-level vocabulary in the target language.

    As students participate in classroom activities in groups, language serves as a tool for cognitive growth. Numerous investigations support the fact that vocabulary learning, in particular, takes place during collaborative activities when learners are mediating meaning, as opposed to during individual work. A number of these studies are thoroughly described by C. Cecilia Tocaimaza-Hatch in “Mediated Vocabulary in Native Speaker-Learner Interactions during an Oral Portfolio Activity,” Foreign Language Annals, 2016. In one of these studies, students learning Korean are divided into two groups.

    One group completes vocabulary learning with a partner, while other students work individually. In post-test assessments, students who work collaboratively outperform those who complete the task alone in knowledge of target-word meaning and function (Kim, 2008). In a similar manner, the RICH approach provides students with opportunities to discuss lexical knowledge in pairs before using the vocabulary in context. During the second phase, when students role play while using the new terminologies, they actually state the terms in a conversation. The result is a collaborative activity for vocabulary acquisition.

    The RICH strategy supports the Common Core English Language Arts Standard for Speaking and Listening, which states that students are expected to “initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” Depending on the conversation guide design, students are able to participate in discussions and express their own ideas in a convincing manner as they delve into the informational text.

    First, students read the directives and information in pairs. While reading, they must discuss the meaning of unfamiliar words in English and Spanish with peers. Second, since directives can include opportunities to convince and to interject opinions and reactions, learners have the opportunity to participate in a wide range of in-depth discussions. Clearly, conversation instructions which promote chances for learners to make cultural comparisonsand to discuss current affairs, historical events, or other topics of interest support the Common Core Standard for Speaking and Listening.

    Specifically designed to strengthen oral language proficiency in native Spanish speakers, the RICH strategy embraces one of the most enjoyable activities for high school students: talking with their peers during instructional time. The RICH tool engages learners in conversations rich in academic vocabulary. Students listen to each other and produce exchanges which enhance their knowledge of high-level vocabulary. While initially the creation of the RICH conversation guides requires preparation, if practiced effectively, my experience has been that students volunteer to create their own directives, because ultimately they look forward to interacting with their classmates. When students are actively participating in conversations, the responsibility for learning is transferred from the teacher to the students. The instructor becomes a facilitator who monitors a student-friendly approach to learning high-level vocabulary. Ultimately, the implication of advancing oral language development is that it will result in improved reading comprehension in tandem with writing skills.

    References
    www.actfl.org/publications/all/national-standards-foreign-language-education (visited September 2016)
    http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/ (visited August 2016)
    https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/chunking (visited August 2016)
    ¡Aventura! Español 2 Annotated Teacher’s Edition. St. Paul, MN: EMC Publishing, LLC, 2013. Print.
    Descubre 1 Lengua y Cultura del Mundo Hispano, Teacher’s Annotated Edition. Boston, MA: Vista Higher Learning, 2014. Print.
    Kinsella, Kate. “Attentive Listening: An overlooked component of academic interaction.” Language Magazine (March 2016), pp. 28–35.
    Koike, Dale A. and Carol A. Klee. Lingüística Aplicada. Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Son, Inc. 2003.
    Schoenbach, Ruth, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy. Reading for Understanding: A guide to improving reading in middle and high school classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
    Tocaimaza-Hatch, Cecilia, C. “Mediated Vocabulary in Native Speaker-Learner Interactions during an Oral Portfolio Activity.” Foreign Language Annals 49, no. 2 (2016):336–354.

    Ligia Estrella Martinez is a teacher with both a multiple subject teaching credential and a single subject teaching credential in Spanish. Her academic background includes a master of science degree in urban planning and most recently a master of arts degree in Spanish from Sacramento State University. She has more than 20 years of teaching and translating experience in Maturín, Venezuela, where she established a local English language learning company, Executive Language Center. Ms. Martinez has eleven years of experience teaching AP Spanish and Spanish to heritage speakers at Dixon High School in California.

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