Language Instructors Collaborate to Improve Student Proficiency

03/02/2018

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Walk into Dr. Kevin Fuchs’ Elementary Spanish class (FRL 105) and you’ll be enthusiastically greeted with, “Hola, bienvenidos a clase.” Despite being an introductory course with no previous Spanish prerequisites, Fuchs teaches 90 percent of his class in Spanish.

“We don’t learn about a language and then use it,” Fuchs said. “You learn a language by using it.”

Fuchs, who has been teaching Spanish for more than 18 years and double majored in science and Japanese at the University of Notre Dame, teaches four different Spanish courses at Kalamazoo Valley, from Elementary Spanish to the more advanced Intermediate Spanish II. He uses the same 90/10 philosophy in all of his classes.

“We are building a program that focuses on proficiency,” Fuchs said. “Knowing a foreign language improves a student’s career opportunities. It’s critical to personal growth and cultural literacy. Learning more about the world teaches you more about yourself.”

Fuchs recently collaborated with Dr. Mercedes Tasende and Dr. Irma Lopez, the chair and former chair of Western Michigan University’s Department of Spanish and Dr. Molly Lynde-Recchia, chair of WMU’s Department of World Languages to host the American Council on Teaching Foreign Language (ACTFL) Workshop “Developing Language Performance & Supporting Use of Target Language.”

The day-long Saturday workshop brought 48 language professors, instructors and teaching assistants from area middle schools, high schools and post-secondary institutions together to network and participate in training that focused on innovative ideas for improving student proficiency in the language classroom. The foreign languages represented included Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, French, German and Russian. Funding was provided by the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Foundation and the Western Michigan University Office for Faculty Development.

Facilitator Laura Terrill, a professional learning consultant for ACTFL, stressed the importance of evaluating student progress in reading and listening, spontaneous use of language, and rehearsed speaking and writing. She highlighted the necessity of having students engage in language exercises that require working on meaningful tasks and moving away from grammar-centric approaches to language learning.

“Many of her recommended practices are designed to improve student retention by using topics of interest to them and pertinent to real life situations, unlike many textbooks that may present vocabulary not used in the real world,” Fuchs explained.

“She provided great ways to improve student interest, proficiency, retention, and consistency across sections and instructors in the language classroom.” Fuchs and his colleagues in the foreign language department are already thinking of how they can best renovate, renew and reinvigorate their curriculum based on what they learned at the workshop.

“Interest in learning a foreign language is growing,” Fuchs said. “We need to meet those needs and provide consistency across the board in our teaching.” Kalamazoo Valley’s current foreign language offerings include Spanish and French, with discussions about the possibility of expanding course offerings in these current languages as well as adding other languages.