Version 1.0 – 2019
An addendum to the Teach@CUNY Handbook
The Graduate Center Teaching & Learning Center, CUNY
Joanna Birnbaum, José Chavarry, Luis Henao-Uribe, Michael E. Rolland, Inés Vañó García.
New York has a rich linguistic landscape, one that presents both great opportunities and specific challenges for language instruction at CUNY. This guide illuminates some of the circumstances that new instructors experience in language courses, and provides guidance for how to navigate teaching languages at CUNY. The linguistic learning landscape at CUNY is vast, and it is beyond the scope of this guide to cover the specifics of each language in depth; although the authors’ experience is in the instruction of Romance languages, these practices and strategies should be applicable to other contexts as well. We aspire to contribute to the robust reflection and conversation around language pedagogies taking place throughout CUNY.
This guide is a disciplinary addendum to the Teach@CUNY Handbook, and will reference concepts covered in more detail there.
Section I: Getting Started
Whether you are a first time teacher or an experienced educator, it is always a challenge to balance your time as a graduate student instructor. You may feel over-prepared at times, while in other moments you will be forced to improvise and adapt. In both situations, it is essential to be reflective, to adjust the content and methods used to your students’ needs, and to keep in mind the affordances and constraints of the environment in which you are teaching. The more we know about the course that we are going to teach, and about the students enrolled, the more effectively we can prepare.
Understanding your class
Language courses are a requirement for most college students. In many cases, these two or three semesters are the only opportunity they have to learn a new language, or about languages. Classes will meet for approximately 3 hours a week. Language courses typically meet two or three times a week, although some classes are offered only once a week to facilitate attendance by students with busy schedules, and a few sections at some colleges meet every weekday.
CUNY tends to distinguish and separate language courses from content courses. According to this scheme, language courses focus on the acquisition of the core linguistics skills (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) with a multiplicity of approaches that cover grammar, vocabulary, and culture. In contrast, content courses might explore literature, linguistics, or film, among many other topics offered by a language department. We are skeptical of this distinction since, in our view, language courses are also implicitly content courses, in which students are able to explore, discover, and learn many political, socio-historical, and cultural aspects related to the target language while developing their linguistic skills. It is artificial and counter-productive to think about language without taking into account the social and cultural contexts in which it is produced.
Within CUNY, course requirements and sequencing vary depending on the campus. You should familiarize yourself with the specific structure of the department where you will be teaching. For languages with sizable numbers of first- and second-generation speakers in the US, such as Spanish, Chinese, and Korean (but also including less-commonly-taught languages like Haitian Creole and Bengali), courses are sometimes divided into two tracks: one for second-language (L2) learners, and one for heritage learners. Students in both tracks often take a placement test that determines the course/level in which they must register. Although the placement test is not the most reliable tool, it helps to assign students to different levels. Language learners enrolled in the same course may have uneven levels of proficiency. This disparity increases with HLL (Heritage Language Learners) classes: while some students were schooled outside of the U.S., in their home country, and have been exposed to the heritage language in an academic setting, others have been in contact with their heritage language in more informal settings, with family and friends.
Understanding your students
Your students will have different levels of expertise, different needs, and different expectations for your class. Most will be taking the language course as a requirement outside of their major and minor, and the language course may not be their top priority. It is a good idea to progressively get to know your students; this could be a chance to get them interested in the language. Identifying their personal and professional interests can help you decide what culturally relevant content to incorporate in class. Do not forget that your students are great resources; the knowledge that they bring to the classroom is unique and valuable.
Your class should be as accessible as possible for everyone in it. Once again, consider your students’ needs. Some of them may have registered with the Accessibility Office of your campus; you may be notified of their specific needs and required accommodations at the beginning of the semester. However, students with invisible dis/abilities may not be registered with this office. Acknowledge this situation and make sure that your content, as well as the teaching and learning environments, address the diversity of students’ needs in and outside your classroom.
To learn more about your students, see the Teach@CUNY Handbook.
Conceptualizing your course
Once you have learned about the context of your class, you'll need to plan how you are going to organize the topics and skills that you’ll cover. If you are teaching for the first time you may receive a course that was designed by other faculty in the department, with content, sequencing, and assessments already determined. Depending on your department, you may or may not have the latitude to modify your course or start from scratch.
Receiving a Course
Most of the time, graduate students (and especially first-time instructors), are assigned introductory level language courses. These courses have already been designed by the department, and fulfill a set of requirements and skills determined by the Chair and faculty. This helps the department pursue a standard across different sections and faculty. The learning goals, syllabus, assignments, exams, and even the day-to-day schedule are often already set, and as an instructor you may be expected to follow this path. The textbook and syllabus are often assigned to new instructors even in upper-level courses.
Receiving a course can be helpful in the sense that it is less time-consuming once you know what topics you should be covering throughout the semester. Furthermore, this might allow you to share materials or classroom ideas with other faculty members teaching a different section of the same course. On the other hand, you might find receiving a pre-built/designed course limiting, as it may not be possible to deviate much from the set structure. Often, this might mean that you need to maintain the pace of the syllabus and move ahead even if you feel your students could use more time on a particular topic. With a final exam shared across sections, you need to make sure you are adequately addressing all topics listed on the syllabus, and have less ability to adapt assessments to your course.
However, even within this approach, you will still have some agency to make the course yours: for example, you may want to make some modifications to assignments or textbooks activities, or even change some altogether. And, while you may not be able to switch out whole topics or readings, you may be able to complement them with OER, videos or other real-life artifacts (see Teaching Materials below). Uploading these materials to online platforms as additional practice (or even extra-credit) might add another layer to your course and allow you to tailor your class to your students. As long as you are meeting departmental policies and learning goals, you should be able to find some leeway when preparing specific lessons. Therefore, be sure to read the course objectives on the syllabus and be mindful of the overall design and schedule of the class.
Adapting or Creating a Course
At some point in your teaching career at CUNY, you may be asked to adapt or create a course from scratch. This is a fantastic opportunity to include topics or materials related to your own scholarship, and allows you to be more creative and set your own goals and/or assessments. Depending on the amount of freedom you have with the course, you might consider making the class more writing-oriented (if it is an upper-level or major seminar), or design task-based and place-based assignments to maximize your students’ creativity and agency within the class. This should be an opportunity to design purposeful, scaffolded assignments, mixing low- and high-stakes activities that build upon the skills needed to accomplish the class goals. (For more on scaffolding see the “Conceptualizing your Course” section at the Teach@CUNY Handbook.)
With a self-designed class, you also have the liberty of altering the course as you go, exchanging assignments or readings during the course of the semester for others you may think will benefit your students more. This takes some planning in advance. You should keep in mind whether and how your students will obtain the materials and assigned readings: are they readily available online? Do you need to upload them to an online platform? Will they need to purchase a particular text? This may be the case with films/movies/videos: can students watch them on their own at home, or will you have to show them in class? You should take all of these aspects into consideration when preparing the syllabus and course calendar. At the same time, you should also consider your own schedule and availability to prepare materials and grade assignments.
Remember that, when adapting or creating a course, you still need to be aware of your departmental policies and general learning objectives, and make sure that you are orienting your class in that direction. Consider sharing your ideas and course plans with your Chair or other full-time faculty members to get their opinions before the semester starts. While designing your own course takes more time and preparation, it is undoubtedly a great opportunity to develop your own pedagogical strategies and share content that you are excited about. And it looks great on your CV, too!
In most cases, learning goals or outcomes are established by the department with the goal of consistency across different course sections and sequences and they act as a guiding principle in both course design and implementation. Learning goals in language courses are usually articulated in terms of four core skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Language objectives are introduced via vocabulary, grammar, and culture. Even if you have to follow a pre-designed syllabus, you can have specific complementary learning goals. These could go beyond the language classroom, i.e., skills that can be applied in other contexts; for example, you can emphasize developing digital literacy or learning more about New York’s Spanish speaking communities. Make sure to clearly state them from the beginning of the semester, and be conscious of their feasibility.
You can read more about learning goals at the “Conceptualizing your Course” section at the Teach@CUNY Handbook.
Section II: Teaching Materials
While the textbook remains one of the central components of your class, you can, and should, use other sources. While we talk about “textbooks,” modern college language books sometimes look more like an online course platform, with the optional accompaniment of a traditional paper textbook. These “textbooks” produced by major publishers often cost (as of 2019) as much as $240 for materials that will be used for one to three semesters. See Proprietary Online Platforms below for more details on these platforms’ benefits/advantages and drawbacks. A number of colleges are moving towards zero-textbook-cost curricular models and Open Educational Resources (OER), but commercially produced textbooks are still the norm.
You will find a variety of textbooks required for language courses at the CUNY colleges. Most language departments require that instructors who teach introductory sequences/courses use the same textbook. For example, it is common for the same book to be used for levels I and II of the same language (101/102, 1001/1002, 1010/1020, etc.; course numbering systems vary). Textbooks provide ready-to-use content, and when instructors use the same book it offers some guarantee of curricular uniformity and coherence across sections and levels in the same program. The content is elucidated through vocabulary lists, English translations of key words, images, etc. It also often means students don’t have to purchase or acquire new materials every semester.
Textbooks can be problematic in a language class. While providing content and ensuring some uniformity, most textbooks encourage pedagogical practices that run counter to basic principles of second-language acquisition (SLA) (see, among others, the work of Cubillos, and Leeman and Martínez in our References section). This is because they are implicitly organized around a progression of topics derived from traditional grammar, such as articles, gender, number, verb tenses, etc. The exams designed around the textbooks are also often grammar focused. To offer a class aligned to the principles of SLA, try to avoid organizing the course exclusively around grammar-based activities. Instead, present students with a variety of activities that focus on communication in the classroom. A useful framework for designing communicative classroom activities is Task-Based Language Teaching; see the section on this framework below.
In many textbooks, culture is often presented in a decontextualized manner. Cultural elements are rarely integrated into the lessons’ activities. When they are, the clear connection to the unit’s communicative goal(s) is often missing. The fact that many textbooks present a “culture section” is telling in and of itself. These cultural sections are usually found at the end of the chapter, and are either written in English (which reinforces the flawed notion that language and culture are separate entities), or in a more complex form of the target language than the rest of the Unit (which renders them incomprehensible). It is virtually impossible for textbooks to keep up with present-day affairs, films, etc. The resulting cultural representations are flat or inaccurate, which not only misses the opportunity to build genuine connections between language learners and the cultures they’re exploring, but may also impede that connection.
Proprietary Online Platforms
A major component of the textbooks currently produced by the big publishing companies (Vista, Houghton Mifflin, Wiley, McGraw Hill, etc.) is the online platform that accompanies—and sometimes replaces—the paper text. These online “Supersites” mirror the textbook in content and organization, often providing all the material already included in the paper version plus many other activities and exercises. The advantages of having these platforms are many: they may be used to assign homework (and automate a large part of the labor-intensive task of grading), provide additional listening exercises that may be otherwise too time-consuming to produce, and introduce short video stories, documentaries, comics, or other kinds of audiovisual materials that complement the contents of the book chapters. These platforms also often provide students with the opportunity to ask the instructor questions about activities they did not understand, and allow faculty to check on how each individual student is doing in real time, at any time. When taken full advantage of, these sites can be a useful component to the class. However, they are costly, often listed at well over $100 (for a full year). Students are forced to bear this expense and faculty are locked into the pedagogy embedded in these tools.
If you are required to use a textbook with an online platform, the best way to make it worth the cost for your students is to maximize its potential. Often, this can be done during lab hours: depending on your institution and department, your students may have to fulfill a minimum number of required lab hours, when they work either individually or with staff on materials you or the lab prepares. Lab hours are important because they provide additional practice, often through intensive speaking or writing drills. When not required, labs are great places to direct students who are having difficulties: often, they have trained staff in a variety of languages, and you as an instructor can work with them to pinpoint a student’s needs and try to come up with different activities that may help them get back on track. Here, for example, you may have a student work on their online homework, or complete additional activities on the Supersite. A close collaboration with the staff at the labs can be a great resource. Don’t forget to list the lab requirements and hours on your syllabus, and to constantly remind your students that they have access to this free resource.
One way to complement the textbook is to search for real-life artifacts from which you can construct lessons. These artifacts may include videos (e.g., video clips on YouTube, songs, movie excerpts, excerpts of shows or interviews, cartoons, etc.), audio (e.g., songs, oral dialogues, talk radio segments, etc.), art (e.g., paintings, photographs, pictures, comic strips, etc.), or texts and articles (e.g., literary texts, poems, newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, etc.). To find authentic material online, you can search for open educational resources (OER) and websites designed for language learners, but also sources intended for general native-speaking audiences such as YouTube, streaming services, Google images, newspaper websites, etc. The possibilities are endless, which could make this a time-consuming task.
Real-life artifacts are advantageous in that language and culture are commonly intertwined, and therefore much more engaging for both instructors and students. A receptive instructor is more likely to captivate students’ attention than an instructor who repeatedly draws on the same material.
It is easier to find relevant artifacts if you search for them with a theme rather than a grammatical goal in mind. This approach will help you to narrow your search. In order to design a successful lesson, the artifact that you select should meet the following conditions:
Be level-appropriate: Keep in mind that what matters most is the way you design your lesson/activities. The same artifact can be explored in different ways. For instance, Picasso’s Guernica or the murals of Spanish Harlem can be introduced with both beginner and advanced students. The way in which the topic is introduced, and the lesson plan, will differ greatly, however.
Length (video, song, text): Select a short excerpt (maximum 5-6 minutes for video or audio, and a short text), or break up a longer video/passage into several parts that will be analyzed at different times, during different phases of the lesson/unit.
Content: Cultural elements are part of the story. Students should be acquiring new knowledge about the target culture in the target language.
Make sure sensibilities are respected (e.g., sex and violence); be aware of the stereotypes that are being depicted.
Be sure it has a purpose. Even a short excerpt of a real-life artifact can tell a story.
Ensure it’s relevant to your students’ lives: Making connections with the target culture is not always easy. When associations are possible, student interest and participation will surely increase.
Once you have found your artifact, you can take the following steps:
Choose the excerpt(s) and simplify them (for yourself and for your students).
For audio/video material: Write down the timestamps for the segments you plan to use (e.g., minute 1:17 to 3:12).
For written material (literary texts, articles, poems, song lyrics, etc.): Number the lines, which facilitates referencing them in class.
For art: Depending on the level, draw arrows between elements in the painting/photo and vocabulary words that you will have added in the target language, etc.
Work backwards. Turn the artifact’s main idea into your lesson’s communicative goal. Then, look for cultural, lexical and grammatical elements within the artifact that connect to your communicative goal. These will constitute your lesson goals.
Create your final task. Your final task should include all of the above goals. You could design a rubric at the same time, and/or do this with your students (For more information about rubrics, see the “Grading and Assessment” chapter at the Teach@CUNY Handbook.)
Design your lesson’s activities. Integrate as many of the four goals (communicative, grammatical, lexical, and cultural) into each activity as possible. Ensure that your activities build on each other (in a logical sequence), and lead to the students’ successful completion of the final task.
OER (Open Educational Resources) are no-cost teaching materials that can be found online. Produced independently by individuals or institutions (often without affiliation to the big publishing companies), OER may be used by instructors to complement or replace the assigned textbook, to both reduce the cost for students and to use materials that may be more culturally relevant and interactive, or that introduce topics that a traditional textbook may not. There are many kinds of OER available online: for example, materials that closely resemble a traditional textbook, with grammar sections followed by exercises, readings and writing activities. Others take advantage of the online platform, by embedding videos, images and charts that make grammar learning more interactive, or that provide audiovisual complements to the readings. Because they are free to use, as an instructor you may pick and choose which activities you think may work well for your students, always keeping in mind what is culturally relevant for them. That is, don’t be afraid to tailor these materials as well, depending on what you think would work (and what wouldn’t) for your class.
It is important to note that your department or institution might not allow you to entirely replace the assigned textbook with OER. One reason for this may be that it is simply easier to use a textbook, since preparing a class based on OER requires time and some previous knowledge of the sites that provide these materials. When this is the case, OER can still be fantastic complementary materials, which can be drawn on to diversify the classroom experience and allow you to introduce topics that your students may be interested in learning about. Finally, it is important to be cognizant of your department’s requirements and be mindful of your students’ interests and strengths, as well as your own time, when choosing (if and how) to use OER. If OER use and creation is exciting to you, or is part of your own research, don’t forget to be on the lookout for scholarships and other resources available at your institution that can provide funding opportunities. OER are a growing field within the digital humanities.
For OER resources, check here. Also, see "Spanish Teaching Open Education Resources (OER): Opportunities and Challenges" at Building Open Infrastructure at CUNY.
Section III: In the Classroom
Lectures constitute one of the more traditional methods of transmitting information. A language class, nevertheless, requires constant practice of the language, something that excessive lecturing doesn’t facilitate. Be mindful of how much time you allot for lecturing and how much for active usage of the language. Instead of using a big portion of your class to introduce a concept, try to break your lectures into different segments where you can review and comment on your students’ progress. When introducing complex grammar concepts, planning to reiterate them at different times could reduce your students' anxiety and/or frustration.
Since most departments insist that language classes be conducted in the target language, your capacity for conveying information will be limited by the knowledge that your students possess. Be aware of the vocabulary that you are using and make sure that it’s adequate for your students’ level. Offer essential information through alternative paths, such as printed handouts or by making your slides available via a course website. This will also allow students with different skill sets or learning styles (other than “listening”) to access the material on their own terms.
Student participation is one of the foundations of language learning. Your classroom is the space where they are more likely to be using the target language. Since there is usually a “Participation” grade to be determined by the instructor, be clear about your expectations: should your students be prepared to speak every class? Does group work count as participation?
While conducting the class, you can present open questions, directed at the group in general, or targeted questions, addressed to a particular student. Each has a different impact. With open-ended questions, the instructor risks rewarding students who are more confident about their language skills, or who already know something about the topic. Some students are more eager to participate, and could dominate the conversation, thereby alienating more introverted students. Open-ended questions are a great way to gauge interest and assess how much students have understood. When formulating questions, avoid those with one “right answer” if you want to encourage participation from a greater number of students; consider open-ended questions, connected to how students feel about a topic, or to their experiences. For example, ask them about things that tourists do in New York City, their impressions about a given work of art, or their thoughts and opinions about current U.S. language policies. Directed questions can help you distribute participation through the class. It creates a habit of participation; students will know that they have to be ready because they will be asked to speak at any moment.
You can also design low-stakes assignments, such as inviting multiple students to write on the board at the same time (synchronic participation) or create online discussions (for asynchronous participation). These collective activities can reduce an individual student’s pressure to participate.
Be mindful of how you give feedback to students' participation. The challenges of learning a language, paired with the pressure for academic success, may lead students to feel insecure and unwilling to participate. Some students may feel discouraged when corrected. Be clear that mistakes will be made, and that corrections are not a reflection of bad academic performance or poor participation; emphasize that learning a language is a process and encourage their progress.
Group work provides your students with the opportunity to practice the language in smaller, less intimidating settings. Designing in-class activities where students talk to each other, actively communicating, is something that you should do often.
You can determine the composition of the groups. Do you want to keep students at the same level together? This can allow advanced students to practice among themselves and beginners to start figuring out some concepts by themselves. Do you want to have groups with mixed experiences so that more advanced students support others (weaker students)? Cultivating peer-mentorship is a way of building a learning community. You have to learn about your students’ strengths and personalities in order to decide how to balance each class. This may take some trial and error while you figure out what works best for the class.
Usually at least one review session is scheduled before an exam. Since repetition is key to learning a language, don’t neglect this as a learning opportunity. Reviews are your chance to assess the general level of understanding of different concepts. Some topics require more time to grasp; take stock of students’ familiarity with them and design your review sessions based on that informal assessment.
Students worry about exams, which leads to nervousness and anxiety. Be explicit about your expectations and spend some time talking about the exam’s format. We can take for granted what an exam looks like, but exams vary from professor to professor. Familiarize your students with the type of questions and activities that they are going to face, and make sure that they understand what to do.
Section IV: Frameworks
Language pedagogies are informed by work carried out in a variety of fields, from linguistics to psychology. Learning about language acquisition theories and developments will help you to make purposeful decisions when designing your courses and facilitating your classes. This “Frameworks” section presents several research-supported approaches to language teaching that you can incorporate into your pedagogical toolkit.
As noted above, textbooks often encourage instructors and students to focus on grammar. A long tradition of research in second-language acquisition, however, has demonstrated that explicit instruction in traditional grammar does not lead to acquisition, at least not by itself. Acquisition is driven by communication, defined by Bill VanPatten as the purposeful “expression, interpretation, and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context.” (3). If communication is not happening, whether in a classroom or outside of it, acquisition isn’t, either. The most important element of communication is input, particularly comprehensible input, while communication also often includes interaction and output. An effective language instructor therefore understands that their main job is to motivate communicative events—offering comprehensive input and opportunities for interaction and output around meaningful topics.
When grammatical objectives become the focal point of a lesson, communicative and cultural goals (and even lexical goals) suffer. It is very difficult to teach language in an authentic manner when communicative goals (e.g., “students should be able to talk about their hobbies”) are set aside. Mechanical exercises are of little use for language acquisition. Even the ‘conversation’ activities most textbooks provide for students to do in pairs often fail one of both of the tests of communication. In order to communicate, learners have to express themselves, and perhaps also negotiate meaning, with a clear purpose (as they would in real life). When tasks have a communicative purpose, language fades into the background and becomes meaningful at the same time. When learners use language for a real purpose and focus on a topic other than language, acquisition is more likely to take place.
Further resources and references can be found here.
Implicit vs Explicit Knowledge
Explicit grammar instruction usually entails introducing grammar at the beginning of the lesson, in the form of paradigms (e.g., I talk, you talk, s/he talks, we talk, they talk), and rules (“The third-person present singular of regular English verbs is formed by adding an “s” to the stem”). Students are then given grammar-focused activities (such as activities with constrained constructed responses, like “fill in the blanks”). Grammatical explanations and metalinguistic feedback (talking about forms) are deemed indispensable for the acquisition of the target language.
Yet, the effectiveness of explicit grammar instruction has been challenged in the field of second-language acquisition. It has been argued that paradigms have no psycholinguistic validity (Bybee 1991), even if they can sometimes serve an affective function (Lee & Van Patten 2003). According to Lee & Van Patten (2003: 127), “paradigms are abstractions and generalizations. They are tools to organize information and present data, but they do not correspond to the way knowledge is structured in the brain.” Furthermore, the language produced on grammar-focused tests does not necessarily match that found in communicative speech (Lee & Van Patten 2003). Finally, the strongest argument against the explicit teaching of grammar stems from the fact that “no research […] has demonstrated that explanation or explicit information is necessary for acquisition” (Lee & Van Patten 2003:125).
Implicit grammar instruction relates to the notion of procedural knowledge (Ellis & Schmidt 1998). Essentially, procedural knowledge stipulates that we learn by doing. This differs from declarative knowledge, which implicates knowing factual information considered of a static nature; declarative knowledge takes the form of a that, whereas procedural knowledge refers to a how to. In the context of language learning, declarative knowledge involves knowing a grammar rule before applying it. Conversely, when learning by doing, students are made to communicate about a topic by using the grammatical goal in question, without receiving any prior explanation. For instance, if the communicative goal of the lesson is that students be able to describe what they wear, and the grammatical goal is gender agreement, students will learn the grammatical form by talking about their clothing. Students will not receive any overt grammar instruction. Instead, they will be made to hear and use the grammatical forms through continuous input (e.g., listening to the instructor/videos/songs/dialogues, reading, etc.) and repeated output (e.g., speaking and writing). Proponents of implicit instruction argue that this method results in greater language proficiency and fluency. Meaning is emphasized, and language learning tends to reflect natural and authentic situations (Lightbown & Spada 2006).
If your students’ grammatical knowledge is tested explicitly because of the way college language courses are structured (e.g., departmental expectations or even a uniform final exam), you may feel that you have to teach grammar explicitly. This is fine, as some students feel more comfortable with this method; those who have studied languages in high school will probably be accustomed to it. Ultimately, you could elect to combine both types of grammar instruction. Grammar could be taught implicitly throughout the lesson, and students could be asked to discover the rules or to create the paradigms, explicitly, at the end of the lesson (after they have used them). The combination of explicit and implicit grammar instruction would alleviate student anxiety and satisfy their affective need for overt grammar discussions, on the one hand, while emphasizing authentic and meaningful communication, on the other. You should understand, however, that most research suggests that language acquisition is the result of implicit learning, while explicit learning serves other functions. Implicit learning should form the basis of your courses, with explicit learning an adjunct to it.
Further resources and references can be found here.
Task-Based Language Teaching
Traditionally, the textbooks that instructors are required to use do not provide many real communicative activities. They often follow a model of “present, practice, produce” (PPP). The instructor starts out by presenting a new concept or grammatical form; students then practice the new form in isolation through simple, often mechanical exercises; finally, they engage in more complex activities in which they are expected to produce the new form in spontaneous speech, usually by doing pair or group conversation work. Unfortunately, this process offers too few opportunities for acquisition. Unless an activity requires learners to express, interpret, and perhaps also negotiate meaning with a clear purpose, no communication, and therefore no acquisition, is likely to take place.
A proven alternative to PPP is task-based language teaching (TBLT), long the norm in European countries, where students successfully learn multiple foreign languages more frequently and to a much higher level than in the US. In TBLT, the term task refers to a specific kind of classroom event. In order to qualify as a task, an event must involve the expression and interpretation of meaning, with a purpose that goes beyond language learning. The purpose can be to build relationships or to obtain some concrete information. It must also have a structure that guides students and lets them know when they have finished. Tasks are structured into task cycles.
A task cycle consists of several stages:
This could consist of a brief reading or video about the content of the lesson, which might also incidentally include some grammatical features that constitute some of the lesson’s objectives. The input should be tailored to be at or just above the students’ level, i.e., comprehensible with some effort. Often several sources of input (two or three) are offered, in more than one format, if available. This gives the students the language that they need to complete the task, both necessary vocabulary and models of grammatical structures.
Students are asked to complete several short tasks related to the subject of the lesson. These can take a variety of forms and will usually increase progressively in complexity, but even the simplest ones will have a communicative purpose. Someone must say (or write) something, and someone else must pay attention to it in order to respond. Students have to exchange some real, meaningful information with a classmate about a non-language-related topic. This could be as simple as a yes-no question or as complex as requesting an opinion, taking a survey or having a debate. Depending on the level of the course, the instructor might provide topics and questions, or students might have to formulate those themselves. The instructor models each mini-task for the students before the students perform it themselves.
After the main communicative events are over, the instructor canvasses the class about what happened. Students know this will happen, so it requires them to pay attention to their classmates, retain the information they obtain from them (at least for a short time), and repeat this information to communicate it to someone else (the instructor). The communicative purpose is reinforced by the desire to learn something new about their classmates and the world, and the need to use that information for another purpose, in another context.
Further resources and references can be found here.
Section V: Glossary
Heritage language learner (HLL)
A heritage language learner (HLL) is a “student of language who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken. The student may speak or merely understand the heritage language and be, to some degree, bilingual in English and the heritage language” (Valdés 412). There is a lively discussion about terminology and labeling among scholars within the fields of language acquisition and sociolinguistics. We employ the term heritage for practical reasons since it is the common denomination used in the labeling of courses within CUNY. For a critique of the concept of heritage, see García, O. (2005). Heritage Languages in the United States. The Modern Language Journal, 89, 4, 601-605.)
L2, or Second Language, is any language that a person uses that is not their native language. Due to the diverse composition of CUNY classrooms, you’ll find students who speak multiple native languages and students who have already acquired one or more second languages before enrolling in your course. The definition of L2 does not define previous familiarity with the language and current proficiency; these could vary among L2 learners.
Second-Language Acquisition (SLA)
Often defined as the process of learning a new, second language; SLA is also a field of knowledge approached by different disciplines, such as applied linguistics, psychology, and education.
In Second-Language Acquisition, the target language is the one that you’ll be teaching. Many departments have clear policies about the use of the target language in your classroom; it’s expected that you use it exclusively, or almost exclusively, to foster learning by immersion.
Real-life artifacts (Realia)
Objects that are produced and used outside the classroom for purposes other than language learning, but are introduced for pedagogical uses. It allows you to present cultural aspects to your students, and to find topics that are relevant to your students.
Culturally relevant content
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) is a pedagogical framework that recognizes the cultural background of your students as one of the foundations of your teaching practices. Your class goals are defined by understanding your students’ social and professional needs. This also serves as criteria for curating examples and designing activities, using real-life artifacts that respond to your student’s interests.
Section VI: Additional Resources
The Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning
Margarita Casas - Spanish for Heritage Speakers
The University of Kansas Collaborative Digital Spanish Project (Acceso)
Les Conversations Mises à Jour
Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context (ILETC)
Language Pedagogy @CUNY
Cook, Vivian. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. 4. ed, Routledge, 2013.
Cubillos, Jorge H. “Spanish Textbooks in the US: Enduring Traditions and Emerging Trends.” Journal of Spanish Language Teaching, vol. 1, no. 2, Mar. 2014, pp. 205–225.
García, Ofelia. “Heritage Languages in the United States.”The Modern Language Journal, vol. 89, no. 4, 2005, pp. 601-605.
-. “U.S. Spanish and Education: Global and Local Intersections.” Language Policy, Politics, and Diversity in Education: Review of Research in Education, vol. 31, no 1, 2014, pp. 58-80.
Lee, James F., and Bill VanPatten. Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Leeman, Jennifer, and Glenn Martínez. “From Identity To Commodity: Ideologies Of Spanish In Heritage Language Textbooks.” Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2007, pp. 35–65.
Valdés, Guadalupe. “Bilingualism, Heritage Language Learners, and SLA Research: Opportunities Lost or Seized?” The Modern Language Journal, vol. 89, no. 3, 2005, pp. 410–426.
VanPatten, Bill. While We’re on the Topic: BVP on Language, Acquisition, and Classroom Practice. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2017.
Language Departments at CUNY
(Current as of Fall 2019)
College of Staten Island
Lucas Marchante-Aragon, Chair
Department of Romance Languages
Michael Taormina, Chair
Alicia Ramos, Language Coordinator
Ali Nematollahy, Department Chair
John Jay Criminal Justice
Bettina Carbonell, Chair
Vanessa Perez Rosario, Chair
Thomas W. Ihde, Chair
Francisco Antonio Montaño, Language Coordinator
Medgar Evers College
Department of World Language and Cultures
Maria L. Ruiz, Chair
Juan Caamaño, Chair
City College of New York
Carlos Riobó, Chair