On a recent visit to Italy, I was able to put my basic Italian language skills to the test. The ability I had to communicate with local folks confirmed a theory known to every language teacher—learning a language gives students the opportunity to connect with others in a deeply intrinsic way, which makes language acquisition an invaluable undertaking.
For students to get the most out of this experience, however, world language courses must be well designed. The courses must engage students in meaningful activities that cover a variety of pedagogical components of language learning, including cultural and historical aspects to help students reflect on the fabric that constitutes the overall foundation of any world language. In addition, courses must be challenging enough for students to achieve the cultural and language literacy skills they’ll need for success, but not so challenging that students will struggle and become frustrated with the course content.
Here are eight key recommendations for designing highly effective language courses that position students for success based on the experience of nearly three decades of designing and delivering highly effective online courses:
1. Build world language courses around a comprehensive set of standards
Ensuring high-quality outcomes begins with designing courses around a proven set of standards for what students should know and be able to do upon completing the course.
In developing our world language courses, we use the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages1 from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) as the framework. This framework includes learning objectives organized within five areas of competency: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.
What’s more, our AP® world language courses use the Course and Exam Descriptions (CEDs) from the College Board2—which outline the learning expectations for AP® courses and describe how students will be assessed on the AP® exam—as an additional learning framework.
2. Use a “backward design” process
In backward design, course developers begin with the desired learning goals and work backwards from there to create appropriate assessments and learning experiences that will enable students to demonstrate those skills. This ensures that all lessons, performance tasks, and projects that students complete are aligned with the outcomes expected of them.
3. Make the courses accessible
To provide more equitable learning opportunities for everyone, world language courses should be designed in a way that empowers all students to succeed by building on individual student’s strengths.
At VHS Learning, we do this by incorporating the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines3 into our courses. UDL is an accessibility framework from CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, that guides the development of flexible and inclusive learning environments that can accommodate individual differences.
The UDL Guidelines call for giving students multiple ways to learn content, engage with course materials, and demonstrate their understanding. This enables all students to leverage their unique strengths and skills when completing a course.
4. Design course content around multiple modes of communication
ACTFL’s instructional framework calls for students to demonstrate competency in all three modes of communication: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational.
Interpersonal communication is two-way communication in which students are having a discussion or exchanging information with others. Examples might include talking, texting, or signing. Interpretive communication is one-way communication in which students are receiving and interpreting information, such as listening to a podcast, reading an article, or watching a video. Presentational communication is one-way communication in which students are presenting information to others, such as writing an essay or giving a live presentation.
Effective world language courses give students multiple ways of learning and demonstrating competency in each of these three communication modes.
5. Choose authentic tasks and projects
Effective language courses have students learn and apply new language skills by performing authentic tasks and projects that have real-world relevance, such as leaving a voice mail message for someone, replying to an email, ordering a meal in a restaurant, having a conversation about a timely or relevant topic, or writing a letter to a friend.
From a motivational standpoint, students are more likely to see the value in what they’re learning with authentic performance tasks, as opposed to learning phrases for their own sake or answering questions from a textbook.
6. Scaffold the content by gradually building toward more complex tasks
In language courses, where skills build on each other in a cumulative fashion, scaffolding is particularly important for success. Students need to learn basic skills first, with plenty of built-in supports. As their skills progress, the content can gradually become more complex.
Course designers can scaffold the content by “chunking” complex skills or assignments into smaller, easily digestible parts and planning an appropriate scope and sequence that ensures students aren’t being given too much, too soon.
7. Incorporate a consistent student experience
In our world language courses, we make sure there is consistency in students’ workflows from one week to the next. Every lesson follows the same structure and format so that students know what to expect. This makes it easier for them to complete assignments, manage their time, and organize their thoughts—all while fostering a positive environment for their social-emotional development.
8. Use course feedback to improve
We use multiple methods to determine how well a course is working, including ongoing teacher feedback, end-of-course student surveys—and in the case of AP® courses—we evaluate the results from AP® exams. By analyzing AP® test results, we can compare our students’ performance on the exam against the global population of test takers, which is critical for understanding where we might improve our curriculum.
By following these eight recommendations, curriculum designers can ensure that world language courses are preparing students with the skills they’ll need for success in communicating effectively and engaging as global citizens.
Simone Aguilera is the World Languages Curriculum coordinator for VHS Learning, a nonprofit organization that has provided teacher-led supplemental online high school courses in a wide variety of disciplines for nearly 30 years.