Four Ideas for Building Student Voice and Choice in Language Learning

Recent articles in publications like The Atlantic and The Hill highlight what many describe as a dismal state of language learning in the United States. Both pieces speak to the largely ineffective outcomes of language study, since so few language learners achieve a meaningful level of proficiency, even after years of study. Contributing to the state of language discussion, a recent ACTFL study shows that fewer students are pursuing language study. What seems like a lack of serious commitment to improve outcomes in the U.S. also reflects a long-standing cultural attitude that language learning isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.

We can change this attitude and grow the number of students invested in language learning by changing perceptions about the value of global education in general. After all, proficiency in another language is a component of global competence. Just as important, we can change the outcome for learners of a second language. This is where student voice and choice become important, because these strategies engage students while helping them discover and create relevance in their language learning experiences.

These four ideas can help teacher start building student voice and choice into language learning.

1. Use an inquiry approach to language instruction. Inquiry is student-centered, fostering a sense of ownership. This approach demands that teachers ask meaningful questions with interdisciplinary connections. In the context of student choice in the language classroom, these myriad connections offer opportunities for students with diverse interests and backgrounds to find relevance. In a lesson about hobbies, for example, students might compare and contrast popular hobbies among young people in their own country and countries where the target language is spoken. Are preferences for certain hobbies determined by culture? Students can choose which popular hobbies in the target culture interest them.

2. Employ personalization strategies that allow students to see themselves in what they learn. Personalization can be as simple as allowing students to create a menu featuring foods that appeal to them from the country where the target language is spoken. In a lesson in which students explore regional variations of Spanish, they could create a dictionary of words or phrases used in a particular country or region that interests them.

3. Make the learning relevant to the students. To bring cultural experiences to students, teachers often ask students to envision situations that are unfathomable to them. Don’t ask students to imagine something they cannot actually see happening — rather, invite them to participate in meaningful endeavors, such as social entrepreneurship projects like this one through Kiva. This can be done in a region where the target language is spoken, and students can “follow their heartbreak,” as Angela Maiers says, to decide where to invest their money. This type of activity proves much more relevant for students.

“Mommy,” she said to me, “Now I really need to learn Spanish, and you need to teach me.”

4. Invite students to make local and personal connections with the language they study. Intrinsic motivation is a key characteristic of successful language learners, and having a personal connection to the language can easily motivate. For example, my 10-year old daughter’s best friend recently moved back to Colombia, and my daughter made me promise to let her visit her friend. “Mommy,” she said to me, “Now I really need to learn Spanish, and you need to teach me.” Demographic trends in our country make the opportunity for connection with the target language quite accessible.

All of these strategies have a similar theme: Keep it real. If you are invested in helping ignite a spark in your students that will make them lifelong language learners, they have to understand the short- and long-term benefits. By employing voice and choice strategies, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

This article originally appeared in P21’s Blogazine.

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