Volume IV - 1997

National Standards and the Role of Imagination in Foreign Language Learning
by Rebecca M. Valette

        Dr. Rebecca M. Valette is Professor of Romance Languages at Boston College. An internationally known expert on language pedagogy and testing, she is the coauthor, with her husband, of several widely-used language programs, including Discovering French and Spanish for Mastery. Rebecca has recently concluded a three-year term as President of the American Association of Teachers of French, and is now serving as Co-Chair of that organization's (AATF) Student Standards Task Force which is writing the French version of the national student standards document.
         It should come as no surprise to discover that the overwhelming majority of articles to have appeared in The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning were written by teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language). The effectiveness of any ESL program in the United States is judged by how well the students can function in our country linguistically and culturally, both at work and at school. The variety of approaches to imaginative teaching find fertile ground for development in the ESL classrooms, for, by stimulating the learning process, they hasten the students' integration into American society.

        The situation of foreign language teaching in this country is quite different. Only a minuscule proportion of those studying a second language ever have the occasion to use it as their primary means of communication, or even as a working language. Success in foreign language classes is measured not in ability to function in the "real" world, but rather in ability to score well on tests, in the ability to meet the standards established by the educational system. Indeed, teachers are evaluated not by how many of their students use the foreign language after graduation, but by how well their students do on national examinations while still in school.

         In the United States, when we think of standards we think of assessment; and when we think of assessment, we think of tests; and when we think of tests we think of standardized instruments like the College Board Achievement batteries. In foreign languages, these achievement tests consist of carefully-crafted multiple-choice items which evaluate the student's breadth of vocabulary, control of grammar and syntax, and ability to understand written (and sometimes recorded) passages. For each item, there is one (and only one) right answer as determined by the test authors and verified by extensive field testing. By their very format, standardized tests in foreign languages promote analytical thinking and are characterized by a marked vocabulary bias, that is, they favor students who possess a large vocabulary. Consequently teachers desirous of having students do well on such tests, and perhaps feeling that their own effectiveness might be judged by the scores their students obtain, tend to focus their classroom teaching on expansion of vocabulary and presentation of grammar accompanied by extensive drill and practice. Reading and listening passages are seen primarily as vehicles for language study, and typically students either answer factual questions about the text or provide English-language equivalents of difficult phrases.

        Over the past fifteen years, language teachers have placed increased emphasis on building language proficiency, and on enabling students to use the foreign language in real-life situations. The Proficiency Guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) were developed to provide performance standards against which to evaluate the students' ability in the areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. So far, only the speaking skill is being evaluated, and this by means of the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) and, to a lesser extent, by some simulated OPI variants. The OPI allows the students to demonstrate their control of spoken language in an interview situation, but the flow of the conversation is highly controlled by the tester whose task it is to elicit a valid sampling of enough types of speech to enable a trained evaluator to assess the candidate's speaking ability in terms of a common metric.

Similarities between Current Evaluation Instruments

        The standardized multiple-choice College Board Achievement Test and the Oral Proficiency Interview are similar in that the performance of the candidate is evaluated objectively against pre-established guidelines. These two evaluation instruments differ in that the scores of the former are norm- referenced (that is, compared to the performance of others taking the test, using a scale from 200 to 800), whereas the results of the latter case are criterion-referenced (that is, reported in terms of a proficiency scale that extends from Novice to Superior).

        In preparing students for either of the above types of tests, teachers tend to focus on presenting the elements of the new language: key conversational phrases, relevant vocabulary, basic structures, pronunciation and spelling. According to the emphasis of the program, there are speaking, listening, reading and writing activities, but most of these are teacher guided (or text guided), and students spend much of their class time producing appropriate responses. As for videos, movies, songs, music, dramatizations, skits, cultural presentations, slides, museum visits, field trips_all these are still seen by many as add-ons, perhaps not as "fluff", but certainly not as key elements of the curriculum. At best, they are viewed as "rewards" to be parsimoniously distributed on special occasions and at times when students are not in the mood for "serious" work, such as Friday afternoon or the day preceding a holiday.

Development of New National Standards

        It might well be that students who have been fortunate enough to participate in a curriculum where imagination and discovery were the governing factors, and where the above "fluff" was central to the curriculum, would do better on College Board Achievement Tests and OPI Interviews than would students who have been taught in a more traditional curriculum. That is, one in which the emphasis was on learning structure and vocabulary in a primarily cognitive manner, and where practice in listening, speaking, reading and writing was focussed on grasping and expressing the meanings determined by the instructor. However, to my knowledge, this type of comparative research has not yet been carried out, at least not on any kind of broad scale. And the variables are probably too numerous to control, for a "traditional" teacher may stimulate creativity and incorporate many authentic materials into daily lesson plans in an imaginative manner, and the "imagination-guided" teacher may fail to provide enough authentic linguistic models and be satisfied with "creative" responses that are expressed in a semi-comprehensible interlanguage. Actually, the development of an effective second-language program is not an "either-or" question, but rather one of balance, of developing the students' ability to express themselves accurately, while firing their imagination, broadening their awareness of other cultures and other peoples, and encouraging them to think more critically about their own identity and role in society. It is within this context that one must view the new national standards in foreign languages.

        The spring of 1996 saw the publication of Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the 21st Century, which was the result of a four-year collaborative project carried out under the joint sponsorship of the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), the American Association of Teachers of German (AATG), the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP), and ACTFL. These voluntary national standards are visionary in nature and focus on content (and not performance). They follow the model of the national standards in other core subject areas such as English and Math, and are farsighted in that they describe what students should be able to do at Grades 4, 8 and 12, if they were enrolled in schools that offered a well-articulated K-12 curriculum. The various professional language groups recognize that there are differences in relative difficulty between the foreign languages taught in our schools (Japanese, for instance, being harder for English speakers to learn than French or Spanish), and that some students may begin their study of a specific language in middle school or even high school, and sometimes only continue for two or three years. Accordingly, these groups are setting up task forces to develop parallel standards for each specific language. (Publication is not expected before 1998.) The language-specific standards will expand upon the K-12 focus of the generic standards and will include Sample Progress Indicators for "post-secondary" students, that is, for young adults who are beginning and/or continuing their language instruction at the college level.

Imagination and the Expansion of Vision

        Although it will take several years before the Standards in Foreign Languages gain wide acceptance and become the basis for evaluation as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), they are already beginning to be promoted in "familiarization workshops" across the country. What is exciting about this new development is that the standards themselves will heighten public awareness of the importance of the imagination in language instruction, and will therefore encourage teachers to expand their vision and broaden their curricula.

        The Student Standards Task Force has recognized that language instruction cannot be limited to grammar and vocabulary, or even to the development of language skills, but must encourage creative language use and incorporate the culture of the peoples who speak the language under study. Indeed, effective language instruction must extend to other subject matter areas, and even reach out into the world at large, while at the same time developing a greater appreciation of the student's native language and culture. The Standards report does not prescribe a specific methodology or a single instructional approach, nor does it contain a level-by-level listing of course content (be it by linguistic functions or lexicon or grammatical structures). Rather, the report recognizes that over the past fifteen years there has been a growing movement in this country toward communicative goals with an accent on building linguistic proficiency and cultural awareness, together with a growing mandate to include all students in our language classes. Since the standards are expressed in broad terms, it is hoped that they will serve to validate successful programs and to encourage teachers to broaden their vision by reaching out to other disciplines and encouraging their students to develop a more global perspective.

The Five Goals of the New Standards

The genius of the new Standards for Foreign Language Learning lies in their simplicity. The report focuses on the following five goals:

Goal One: Communication: Communicate in Languages Other than English

Goal Two: Cultures Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures

Goal Three: Connections Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information

Goal Four: Comparisons Develop Insight into the Nature of Language and Culture

Goal Five: Communities Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home and Around the World

        Each Goal has two related standards (three, in the case of Goal One). Then, for each of the eleven standards, the Task Force has suggested several Sample Progress Indicators, appropriate at grades 4, 8 and 12. By examining these five goals and their related standards and sample progress indicators, we can see how Standards in Foreign Language Learning not only invite but actually require the participation of imagination-driven activities in the classroom of the future.

Goal One: Communicate in Languages other than English

        Goal One recognizes that it will be critical in the 21st century for American students to be able to communicate in at least one language other than English. Simply studying grammar and vocabulary is not enough. The best way to build linguistic proficiency is by presenting all activities in meaningful contexts and by encouraging students to express their personal ideas in the foreign language.

Standard 1.1. Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions.

        This Standard focuses on the INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION in which two or more people communicate directly with one another, negotiating meaning, and requesting clarification if and when necessary. These exchanges may involve listening and speaking (e.g., conversations and telephone calls), or may focus on reading and writing (e.g., exchanging notes, letters and e-mail). Interpersonal communication activities allow teachers and students a wide variety of ways of building language skills while encouraging imagination. Role- play activities offer opportunities for students to assume different personalities. There is no limit to the types of topics that can be used to animate small-group discussions: information gathering, personal exchanges, debates, etc. Students can be encouraged to phone one another in the foreign language, or to exchange notes or "letters" with each other or with members of another class. At a more advanced level, teachers may enter into interpersonal exchanges with their students via a regular journal-writing activity. By inviting guests to the classroom who are native speakers of the second language, teachers allow the students to practice their interpersonal communication skills in an authentic context.

Standard 1.2. Students understand and interpret written and spoken language on a variety of-topics.

        This Standard focuses on the INTERPRETATIVE COMMUNICATION, that is, on understanding "one-way" messages, such as radio and television broadcasts, films, songs, lectures, and even other people's conversations (listening), as well as printed realia, newspaper articles, magazine features, stories, and books (reading). The key word in this standard is "interpret": once students move from simply trying to understand a reading or a movie and begin thinking about the message that is being conveyed, they bring their imaginations into play. At the linguistic level, the interpretation of any text, such as a song or a magazine article, requires multiple re-listenings or re-readings, especially if students are asked to support their interpretations with specific examples. This repeated contact with authentic (and accurate) language provides the sort of "comprehensible input" which enables learners to begin to develop a "feel" for the second language, and subconsciously to acquire a sense for its features and idiosyncrasies. In order to teach to this Standard, teachers need to provide students with frequent foreign language contacts: videos of candid interviews with second-language speakers in authentic cultural contexts; songs and MTV clips; films and documentaries; short stories and poetry, magazine articles, and informational reading; all sorts of print materials, from comic books and travel brochures to literary works by recognized authors.

Standard 1.3. Students present information, concepts and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics.

        This Standard focuses on the PRESENTATIONAL COMMUNICATION, that is, on the production of "one-way" messages where the listener or reader is at a distance (or perhaps even unknown to the student). In the second-language classroom, communication activities of this type might include oral presentations, skits, as well as student videos (speaking), and may range from brief compositions and creative works to formal written reports and longer papers (writing). Teachers have traditionally had their students give oral reports and write compositions, but the key phrase in this standard is that there be "an audience of listeners or readers," in the plural. For this standard to be met, students must not only "perform" for the teacher/judge/evaluator, but must effectively convey their message to others, that is, to their classmates. By insisting on effective presentation, teachers encourage students to find imaginative ways of getting their message across to their audiences. For oral presentations, students may incorporate gestures, costumes, posters, and perhaps even musical background. For written presentations, students will explore illustrations, graphic layout, use of color, and so forth.

Goal Two: Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures

        Goal Two focuses on CULTURAL COMPETENCE, that is, the ability to understand foreign cultures on their own terms, and, by extension, the ability to get along in a foreign country as well as the ability to interact, both at home and abroad, in a culturally appropriate manner with native speakers of the foreign language. This goal also includes humanistic aims, that is, a deeper understanding of the human condition, as it has been expressed in the foreign literature, art, music, and philosophy. The Standards under this goal make reference to three cultural components: perspectives (that is, cultural values and attitudes), practices (that is, patterns of social interaction), and products (that is, language plus all the tangible and intangible creations of that culture: housing, food, social structures, inventions, works of art, etc.). As they engage in activities supporting the cultural goals, students find that they are not just "learning a new language," but are discovering the richness and variety of a new culture, and frequently of several cultures.

Standard 2.1. Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied.

        This Standard focuses on CULTURAL INTERACTION. Students are asked to interpret the behavioral patterns of the foreign culture in terms of its values and attitudes. Moreover, the students are invited to go beyond merely "knowing" about the culture, but to show that they can interact with speakers of that foreign language in a culturally appropriate manner. One way of bringing cultural practices into the classroom is through video and and multi-media programs where students meet their young counterparts from the foreign culture as they greet one another, go to school, and engage in a variety of daily-life activities. In this way, they learn how cultural values_such as friendship, family, and appreciation of education_are reflected in conversational registers (such as familiar and formal speech styles), gestures, social etiquette, and the various activities that are part of one's life at home, at school, at work, at play. Role-play dialogues encourage students to use the new language across a broad spectrum of cultural situations.

Standard 2.2. Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the products and perspectives of the culture studied.

        This Standard focuses on CULTURAL APPRECIATION. Students are asked to interpret the outward manifestations of the society they are studying, and to see its contributions to world civilization in the light of cultural values and attitudes. It is impossible to separate the cultural component from the language component. Cultural photo essays, films, slides, and even Internet pages can bring the contemporary second culture into the classroom. The students' perspectives should also be further expanded to encompass the music, art, and literature of the second culture, all presented in their historical context.

Goal Three: Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information

        Goal Three encourages students to use their communication skills (developed under Goal One) and their cultural understanding (developed under Goal Two) as a way of BROADENING KNOWLEDGE. This goal recognizes that "knowledge is power" and that people who can use a second language to acquire information will be better equipped to function in the world of the 21st century. The interdisciplinary activities subsumed under this goal help students identify and use information available in the foreign language. In addition to getting information from human resources, students learn to consult print resources (encyclopedias, books, magazines, newspapers), as well as other media (radio, television, film, CD-ROM, Internet).

        In the imaginative classroom, students are not only learning a language, they are learning about the world. As they strengthen their language skills, they discover increased opportunities to broaden their horizons. As they progress in proficiency, they can use their new language to increase their knowledge of world geography, to analyze contemporary social issues, and to explore a broad variety of subjects, such as history, geography, music, art, literature, and science.

Standard 3.1. Students reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines through the foreign language.

        This Standard focuses on INTERDISCIPLINARY LINKS. Students use the foreign language to learn more about other subject matter areas. This type of activity may take place in the foreign language class or in conjunction with other curriculum areas. The language classroom provides a springboard for the attainment of this standard by introducing students to a wide range of topics which can easily be expanded into cross-disciplinary projects, depending on teacher and student interests. These topics may include:

o Math; money, prices, calculating change
o Social studies, history and geography
o Art, music, film, television
o Biology, science; ecology
o Home economics, food preparation, clothing and fashion
o Health and hygiene; sports and physical education
o Career planning; job interviews

Standard 3.2. Students acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints that are available only through the foreign language and its cultures.

        This Standard focuses on ACQUIRING KNOWLEDGE. Students use their foreign language communication skills to access new information and new cultural perspectives. By doing so, they broaden their horizons: they possess a new window on the world. Imaginative teaching facilitates the attainment of this standard by introducing students to a broad spectrum of cultural topics (see also Standard 4.2, below), thereby laying the foundation for further exploration. In addition, students have the opportunity to access new information from contemporary second-language sources as they learn, for example, how to read a TV guide, to order from a menu, to understand rental ads, to use the hotel guide. They can also discover how to use the Internet to access current information from countries around the world where the second language is spoken.

Goal Four: Develop Insight into the Nature of Language and Culture

        Goal Four, like Goal Three, builds on the linguistic and cultural competence developed in Goals One and Two. However, whereas Goal Three focuses on the acquisition of information from foreign language sources, Goal Four invites REFLECTION ABOUT LANGUAGE AND CULTURE. As students learn more about how the foreign language works, and how other cultures function, they will, by comparison, gain insights into American English and American culture. One of the aims of this goal is that monolingual American students develop a more open mind, and cease to make naive ( or "Ugly American") assumptions about other languages and cultures based solely upon their knowledge of English. From a more positive perspective, it is hoped that these linguistic and cultural reflections will help students appreciate the differences and unique features of the many ethnic groups they may encounter both in the United States and around the world. By inviting students to reflect on language and culture, the imaginative teacher is fostering critical thinking skills and the art of reflection. Linguistic observations and cultural comparisons are most effective when based on authentic texts and realia, that is the magazines, newspapers, films, TV programs, commercials, songs and movies that were once relegated to the day before a vacation.

Standard 4.1. Students demonstrate understanding of the nature of language through comparisons of the language studied and their own.

        This Standard encourages students to engage in LANGUAGE COMPARISONS. It is, in fact, suggested that they explicitly explore areas such as grammar, syntax, cognates, borrowed words, and idiomatic expressions, as well as the sound and writing systems. Through pronunciation activities, students recognize differences between the sound systems of English and the language they are studying. By comparing English and the foreign language, students will develop a better understanding of how language itself works. Teachers can present English/foreign language equivalents so that students can engage in precisely the types of language comparisons which this Standard is designed to promote. In this way, depending on the language under study, students are introduced to gender and agreement, and to verbal concepts such as tense and mood. They learn that English and the foreign language use different constructions to perform similar communicative functions, such as making requests or asking for directions.

Standard 4.2. Students demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own.

        This Standard encourages students to engage in CULTURAL COMPARISONS. As students expand their study of a foreign language, they will, as part of Goal Two, discover perspectives, practices and products of the foreign cultures that are similar to and different from those of their own culture. Here, in this standard, they are asked to think about and analyze these features, so as to better understand the concept of culture in general. The misunderstandings that can arise because of cross-cultural differences can be humorously evoked through skits or stories. Here, imagination can help students generate a wide variety of comic sketches. Students can be invited to discover how the new culture and American culture compare by watching movies, documentaries and videos filmed in the second language. One very interesting activity is to have students compare a foreign language film with its American remake (such as Trois Hommes et un Couffin and Three Men and a Baby).

Goal Five: Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home and Around the World

        Goal Five looks beyond the classroom and focuses on the PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS of what has been learned in the second-language curriculum. In the past, language teachers have often claimed that language study prepares students to communicate with people of other cultures, be it through interpersonal exchanges or through the arts, such as literature, drama, music, and film. Goal Five challenges teachers to make this claim a reality within the K-12 framework. If elementary and secondary school students experience the joy and satisfaction of using a second language in authentic contexts, they will be more likely to continue exploring and making contacts beyond their native language and culture once they have left school.

        As stated in the Standards for Foreign Language Education, Goal Five reflects the fact that American citizens are becoming increasingly aware that competence in another language can expand their employment opportunities, enable them to engage in a variety of community service projects, and open the door to rewarding leisure activities including travel abroad and a greater appreciation of the artistic creation of other cultures. Through participation in the imagination-guided classroom activities, students can come to see that the foreign language gives them access to an expanded world, and to discover that this contact with multi-ethnic world cultures can enrich their lives.

Standard 5.1. Students use the language both within and beyond the school setting.

        Whereas Goal One focuses on the acquisition of communication skills, this Standard goes one step farther and asks students to use their foreign language proficiency for COMMUNICATION IN REAL-LIFE CONTEXTS: in the school, in the community, in the work place, and, indeed, in the world. It also builds on Goal Two, because effective communication between speakers of two languages requires not only linguistic but cultural competence. Types of classroom activities that will help students meet this Standard include career exploration, discussions with peers who speak the language, taking opinion polls, exchanging letters or e-mail with penpals in other countries, and using the language to entertain others, either in written form (e.g., writing stories or poems, creating a foreign language newsletter) or in spoken form (e.g., singing, acting in plays, performing original skits or monologs).

Standard 5.2. Students show evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment.

        This Standard focuses on using one's knowledge of a second language and culture for LEISURE TIME ENRICHMENT. The study of a foreign language will have been beneficial in the K-12 curriculum to the extent that students continue their interest in the subject beyond the classroom.

        The imagination-guided classroom contributes to the attainment of this Standard by making the learning of language an enjoyable experience. For example, teachers make an effort to select reading materials which are of interest to the students and, more importantly, which are linguistically accessible. Students especially enjoy reading short stories where there is an emphasis on humor, an unexpected ending, or a curious twist. Most importantly, they like readings that are presented "for fun," with no lengthy "apparatus". When students enjoy what they are reading, they may be tempted to continue their foreign language experience outside of the classroom. To meet this Standard more fully, teachers must take their students beyond the classroom and introduce them to movies, television, theater, art, and music, both classical and contemporary music. They can encourage their students to travel to foreign countries (either through exchanges or with their families), to engage in traditional sports (such as petanque or karate), and to use the Internet to explore foreign language resources as well as chat groups and up-to- date news and weather bulletins.

Learning Scenarios

        A final feature of the Standards for Foreign Language Learning document is the inclusion of over thirty Learning Scenarios which show how teachers in schools across the country have incorporated these standards into their foreign language classes. The creative interweaving of language study, cultural awareness, communication strategies, and cross-disciplinary activities points the way toward the foreign language curriculum of the future in which imagination and critical thinking will play important roles.

Sample Learning Scenario: Literature-Based Project

Targeted Standards

1.1 Interpersonal Communication
1.2 Interpretive Communication
1.3 Presentation Communication
2.2 Products of Culture
3.1 Making Connections
3.2 Acquiring Information
4.1 Language Comparisons
5.2 Lifelong Learning

        The students in a third-year French class at Boston College are reading Joseph Kessel's World War II story L'Evasion, in which a young prisoner helps a Resistance fighter escape from a concentration camp near Limoges, France. In conjunction with the reading, they learn about the Nazi invasion of France, studying photographs of the Maginot Line, tracing military movements on a map of France, and viewing the exodus scenes from the film Les Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games). To become more familiar with the Vichy Government, the German occupation and the French Resistance, they view relevant scenes from the 1947 James Cagney movie 13 rue Madeleine. They also listen to recordings of DeGaulle speaking by radio from London in 1940, and hear Paul Eluard reading his Resistance poem Liberté. Having earlier completed a short unit on French cinema, the students, in small groups, determine how they would film the opening scenes of the story: casting, camera angles, sound effects, lighting script. As they continue reading L'Evasion, the students are encouraged to enter into the personalities of the protagonists, Legrain and Gerbier, and write journal entries narrating the events described in one or several of the short "chapters" of the story. (Note: In preparation for these compositions, students reread selected portions of the story, focussing on Kessel's usage of tenses. Grammar review is derived from the text, and practice in past narration is incorporated into the writing of the journal entries.) At the end of the story, students reflect on the question of heroism: Is young Legrain a hero, and, if so, why? Then, as a final project, the entire class meets at the French House to view and discuss Louis Malle's World War II film Au revoir, les Enfants.

Reflection (on Targeted Standards)

1.1 Students work in groups to brainstorm their film ideas.
1.2 Students read a short story, view films, and listen to audio recordings.
1.3 Students write original compositions.
2.2 Students read literary works and view films produced by the culture under study.
3.1 Students further their knowledge of France and the World War II period.
3.2 Students develop a new understanding of DeGaulle and his impact on the French people by listening to his radio broadcasts.
4.1 Students compare how French and English use verb tenses in past narration.
5.2 Students learn to enjoy French literature and French films.

        This scenario illustrates how a literary work can provide a bridge to other curriculum areas, especially history and geography. Students were also introduced to films, and were encouraged to think in cinematographic terms. Through their writing activities, students began to understand how an author's point of view influences the way a story is told. In the linguistic areas, students expanded their vocabulary and strengthened their command of the French language by working with authentic materials. Because this multi-faceted approach speaks to varied interests of students enrolled in a third-year course, this learning scenario can help foster a deeper appreciation of francophone culture and the French language.

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