AROUND THE STATE, Still Front and Center: Ohio’s Learning Standards for K-12 World Languages

Ryan Wertz, Kathy Shelton and Paula Sondej, World Language Consultants, Ohio Department of Education

In seemingly the blink of an eye, three years have already gone by since Ohio adopted revised World Language learning standards. With a clear focus on Communication and Cultures and the richness and depth afforded by embedding the former Connections, Comparisons and Communities standards as well as the 21st Century Skills, our Ohio documents succinctly tell what students should know and be able to do with their new language. They also provide a clearly defined pathway to proficiency when used in conjunction with performance-based best practices in instruction and assessment. Here at the Ohio Department of Education we are hoping that the use of the state standards has become the focal point for both your daily and long-term planning efforts.

As former classroom language teachers and fellow language geeks, we know firsthand that the temptations of the textbook and grammar- and vocabulary-based planning and sequencing is enticing. It’s how most of us began learning the languages we teach, and it’s “how we’ve done it” for decades. However, we need to remember two things: First, most of us are the exception rather than the norm when it comes to the level of proficiency we demonstrate in our own target languages. In all likelihood, we benefitted from an immersive and very communicative learning experience somewhere along the way that gave our proficiency the necessary bump up to the level that is required of a language teacher. Secondly, we need to keep in mind that generations of Ohio language learners who have not benefitted from these types of experiences have been largely short-changed. Here at ODE, if we had a dime for every time someone told us “Yeah, I took [#] years of [language], and I really don’t remember anything,” we easily would have the money to singlehandedly solve Ohio’s educational funding conundrum. Seriously!

Ohio’s Communication Standard directs learners to “Communicate in languages other than English, both in person and via technology.” This standard features four interpretive communication competencies, three interpersonal communication competencies and three presentational competencies. In turn, these competencies are supported by a series of process and content statements which, when attended to in a somewhat chronological order and revisited with purposeful re-spiraling, allow learners to attain the skills and functions described in the competencies over the course of the corresponding grade band. Feedback received up to this point indicates that users are quite satisfied with the organization, the succinctness and the rigor of the Communication Standard.

The Cultures Standard directs learners to “gain and use knowledge and understanding of other cultures.”  Two intercultural competencies form the foundation of this standard, and both are supported by a series of key process and content statements. This standard guides learners through purposeful interactions with the products and practices of the target culture. Through these interactions learners gain insights and come to understand the perspectives of that culture over time, which in turn allows their intercultural competency to develop. Ohio’s Cultures Standard in particular was developed largely in response to the fact that our world is becoming a much smaller place. As a result, people increasingly need to be able to interact with others across the globe using culturally acceptable language and behavior. Indeed, an increasing range of employers report that they seek workers who are able to interact in culturally appropriate ways with diverse audiences, both at home and abroad. Students who make progress in their cultural learning via this standard will be much better positioned to be competitive in the job market than those who have not engaged in the embedded cultural learning that is an integral part of learning to communicate in a second language.

Elements of the Connections, Comparisons and Communities goal areas, which continue to be an integral part of the ACTFL’s newly revised World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, are also foundational elements of the Ohio Communication and Cultures standards. These former stand-alone standards are now found embedded throughout the content and process statements of both standards. Making linguistic and cultural comparisons, connecting to other disciplines and engaging communities other than their own are all essential activities that continue to provide learners with interesting and motivating reasons to become proficient in a language other than English. When students discover that language learning extends well beyond just learning to comprehend, speak, read and write, the target language suddenly comes to life for them, and its relevance becomes much clearer than before.

After three years of providing extensive professional development offerings around the state on how to use Ohio’s New Language Standards for K-12 World Languages, we are still amazed – and more than a bit dismayed – by the number of teachers who still tell us things like “Your standards are too hard to use with a textbook!” and “I think you forgot to include grammar in these standards.”  Indeed, if you are facilitating proficiency-based learning by creating rich, real-life contexts for communication through the incorporation of authentic resources and immersive use of the target language, it really WOULD be difficult to reconcile the communicative nature of our Ohio standards with the grammar-centric, English-heavy and highly contrived material contained in every textbook on the market. Let’s be very clear: while grammatical accuracy is one necessary element in a learner’s quest for ever-higher levels of proficiency, it is definitely not the end-all and be-all element that we’ve made it out to be for the last several decades. This much is very clear after decades of research which tells us that grammar is not the optimal organizer for framing learning if communicatively and culturally competent speakers of the language are what we ultimately desire to produce.

If you are asking yourself at this point how to cut back your dependency on your locally-adopted textbook, we would encourage you to visit (or perhaps revisit) Ohio’s World Language Model Curriculum, which is replete with resources, including one section titled “How do I create my own communicative units in conjunction with my textbook?” The model curriculum is an extensive tool. If you haven’t visited it before, we recommend initiating your explorations by perusing the three following resources:

  1. Using Ohio’s Learning Standards for K-12 World Languages
  2. FAQs about World Language Standards and Proficiency
  3. How Do I? – World Languages

If you are wondering how best to treat the issue of grammar in your classroom, keep in mind that the grammatical knowledge of a language (e.g., tense, syntax, modality and other elements of usage) is not an explicit goal of Ohio’s Learning Standards for K-12 World Languages. Extensive research in second language acquisition has established that grammar learning should take place within a meaningful, communicative context. Furthermore, it shows that grammar is just one aspect of language among many that support the attainment of the standards’ proficiency targets; other aspects include knowledge of vocabulary, sociolinguistic knowledge, understanding of cultural appropriateness, and the ability to use communication strategies. In communicative classrooms, grammar should never be the primary focus of instruction. Instead, grammar should be incorporated into lessons judiciously, using an inductive method. One widely-used inductive model, called the PACE Model, guides language instructors to:

  1. Present meaningful language through a communicative context;
  2. Focus learner Attention on some grammatical aspect of the language;
  3. Co-construct grammatical explanations with the learners; and
  4. Extend the learning in a later lesson or task when the grammar concept is encountered again. (Donato and Adair-Hauck, 1994)

Those students who are provided with ample communicative opportunities to create meaning and use critical thinking skills in the target language will be much better prepared to achieve the higher levels of proficiency envisioned by Ohio’s learning standards. Conversely, students in programs that continue to place primary emphasis on a progression of grammar and vocabulary learning in isolation will be severely disadvantaged as they attempt to meet the proficiency levels targeted by the standards.

Keep in mind that your friendly ODE consultants are always available to answer any questions that you might have about Ohio’s Learning Standards for K-12 World Languages or using the myriad resources contained in Ohio’s World Language Model Curriculum. We are set up to work with individual teachers, language departments and curriculum leaders. Visit the World Languages page on the Ohio Department of Education website as your Ohio world language portal. It is also here that you will find our contact information.

This entry was posted in Around the State, Vol. 54, No. 2 - Winter 2016. Bookmark the permalink.

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